Saturday, June 20, 2009

The "I" and Self in Psychosynthesis

This is just one section from a longer article on the seven core concepts of psychosynthesis (by John Firman and Ann Gila) . A very good article for those who might be interested in a spiritual psychology (the first transpersonal psychology as far as I know).


The “self,” that is to say, the point of pure self-awareness, is often confused with the conscious personality just described, but in reality it is quite different from it. This can be ascertained by the use of careful introspection. The changing contents of our consciousness (the sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc.) are one thing, while the “I,” the self, the center of our consciousness is another. (Assagioli 1965, 18)

Assagioli’s insight into the nature of personal identity, personal self, or “I,” is perhaps one of the most central and profound within psychosynthesis. Unlike many (most?) psychological thinkers, Assagioli did not confuse personal identity with organizations of psychological content, as do conceptions such as “ego,” “ego complex,” “self image,” or “self representation.” Rather, he saw “I” as distinct but not separate from any contents of experience, from any and all processes or structures of the personality.

While this view of “I” underpins all psychosynthesis thought and practice, Assagioli’s most direct approach to revealing the nature of “I”—of “you”—is via the experience of introspection (see quote above), the act of simply observing the contents of experience as they arise in consciousness. This chapter will outline how the experience of introspection, an act of self-empathy, allows insight into the nature of “I.” (Note: we use “I” rather than “personal self” and reserve the term “self” for “Transpersonal Self” or simply “Self.” We have found this to lessen confusion in discussing these already illusive concepts.)


It seems that introspection—the free, open witnessing of arising experience—demands a particular type of environment. Many environments draw us away from listening to our private inner experience. Whether the demanding rush of modern life, the hypnotic bombardment from mass media, or a materialistic culture unappreciative of the depths of personal experience, there are active forces drawing us onto the surface of our lives (not to mention the limitations on introspection from survival unifying centers such as Ellen’s in Chapter 1). Such environments—survival unifying centers—neither see nor support the exploration of our unique experience. Assagioli acknowledged the power of these environments when he wrote, “the self, the I-consciousness, devoid of any content...does not arise spontaneously but is the result of a definite inner experimentation (Assagioli 1965, 112).

In fact the “inner experiment” of introspection asks for an environment of empathy and love, an authentic unifying center. We need to be seen and understood as not identical to, nor separate from, our physical, emotional, or mental experience; to be loved and respected as distinct, but not separate, from our appearance, behavior, or roles. Such empathic love supports an inner space in which we are able to look unwaveringly at whatever experience arises, knowing we are safe to do so. This love allows self-empathy or self-love, as we are able to include all of our experience and ultimately to form it into a creative expression of ourselves in the world (see the previous chapter).

Such an empathic environment may take many forms, from friends and family, to intimate community, to a spiritual retreat, to psychotherapy, to psychological or spiritual systems. Psychosynthesis is one such environment, positing that the essence of human being cannot be equated with or separated from physical, emotional, or intellectual experience. Assagioli’s very invitation to introspection as a way to self-discovery is an expression of empathic love, an invitation to explore for ourselves who we are. Having said all this about the environment that nurtures introspection, let us look at what introspection can reveal about the nature of “I”—of you.


Supported by the proper inner and outer authentic unifying center, you can achieve a sustained introspection that reveals a wide variety of passing experiences: sensations, feelings, images, impulses, thoughts. You can be aware of heat then cold; of sadness then joy; of thoughts then images. Clearly, you are someone who has consciousness, a consciousness that is distinct but not separate from the passing contents of consciousness. Your field of consciousness allows you to be aware of each succeeding content of experience much like a spotlight illuminates different objects in a dark room. It then makes sense to say that “I” has awareness or a field of consciousness.


As you continue this inner observation, you may notice you can choose to place your awareness on various contents of experience. You might choose to focus on an inner image, a train of thought, a particular feeling, or the sounds around you. Or you may choose to allow all contents to pass through awareness without focusing on any particular one. That is, you not only have awareness, but you have the power to direct that awareness as well. This ability to direct your awareness can be called will. Thus the concept of “I” may include will: “I” has consciousness and will.


Introspecting over time, you may find that at times your consciousness and will are taken over by strong inner contents, causing you to lose contact with other arising contents. Lost in a vivid daydream, you may be unaware your foot has fallen asleep. Or feeling anxious, you may be unable to access your ability to think logically. In other words, you find yourself identified with the experience of daydreaming or anxiety and thus dissociated from the experience of your foot or logical thought.

But as time passes you may find your consciousness and will becoming free to reach beyond the thrall of that intense experience; you may begin to feel your tingling foot while experiencing the daydream, or think clearly while feeling anxious. You have here disidentified from a particular experience, becoming open to other experiences as well. To put it another way, you have discovered that you are transcendent of—distinct from, not identical with—the specific experience; and in the same moment have discovered that you can be immanent within—embodied in, engaged with—a broader spectrum of experience. Therefore you, with your consciousness and will, can be considered transcendent-immanent within experience (Firman and Gila 1997, 2002). You are distinct but not separate from, transcendent-immanent within, any and all contents of experience.

It follows also that you are “I” no matter the experience, whether identified or disidentified, comatose or alert, young or old, lost or enlightened. In fact, you are not any experience at all; you are the one who experiences. (See Chapter 1.)


As you proceed over time with this type of inner observation—made possible by ongoing contact with supportive inner and outer authentic unifying centers—you can find that since you are not any particular experience, you can embrace any and all experiences as they arise. These experiences can include moments of ecstasy, creative inspiration, and spiritual insight (higher unconscious); feelings of anxiety, despair, and rage (lower unconscious); as well as ongoing engagement with various patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that you have formed over the course of living (middle unconscious). By virtue of your transcendence-immanence, it would seem there is no experience you cannot embrace. In the words of one early psychosynthesis writer:
There are no elements of the personality which are of a quality incompatible with the “I.” For the “I” is not of the personality, rather it transcends the personality. (Carter-Haar 1975, 81)
You discover, in other words, that you are fundamentally loving towards all aspects of your personality. You can love, accept, and include a vast range of experience, take responsibility for the healing and growth of this range, and even over time form these experiences into a rich, cohesive expression in the world. You have the ability to have “selfless love” or “agape” towards all of your personality aspects—not taking sides with any, understanding and respecting all, embracing all. The tremendous healing and growth from this emergence of empathic love—from the emergence of “I”—towards one’s personality is a commonplace occurrence in psychosynthesis practice; indeed, this is at the heart of psychosynthesis therapy. As Assagioli affirms, “I am a living, loving, willing self” (Assagioli 1973, 176).


So the loving, empathic presence of an authentic unifying center allows you to discover yourself as loving, empathic, transcendent-immanent “I.” You realize more “you,” as if your essence has become more intense or more potent—you are more disidentified and more embodied at the same time. But one of Assagioli’s strongest contentions was that the source of “I,” from which would come such increased intensity and potency, is Self. He wrote that “I” is a “projection” or “reflection” of Self (Assagioli 1965, 19, 20, 37), that is, our being ultimately flows from the Ground of Being, Self.

If this is the case, your authentic unifying center could be seen here as an intermediary between you and Self, facilitating this connection between you and the source of your being, thereby energizing and empowering you, “I.” The authentic unifying center is in other words a channel for Self, allowing you to experience your own connection to your Source and thereby allowing you to emerge. This is precisely what Assagioli considered an external unifying center: “An indirect but true link, a point of connection between the personal man and his higher Self, which is reflected and symbolized in that object” (Assagioli 1965, 25). The empathic, loving power of the other to facilitate loving, empathic “I” ultimately flows from Self (see Figure 3).

Here we see the altruistic love or agape of Self flowing through the authentic unifying center, giving existence to loving, empathic “I”; the famous line that Assagioli always drew connecting “I” and Self runs through internal and external unifying centers. Such unifying centers allow the realization of the abiding connection to the Ground of Being from which we draw our individual being (the primal wound is an experienced break in this connection, not an actual break, which is impossible, see next).


Finally, from this direct connection between “I” and Self it can also be seen how completely “I” is in union with Self. This is an unbreakable, unchanging union because it is distinct but not separate from any content or context, any psychological mass, energy, space, or time, i.e., it is transcendent-immanent. So complete is this union—a union between the source and its reflected image—that Assagioli wrote there were not in fact “two selves” but only one: “The Self is one” (Assagioli 1965, 20).

But he added that it was also crucial to remember the distinction between “the Self and the ‘I’…[or else]…the inflowing spiritual energies may have the unfortunate effect of feeding and inflating the personal ego” (p. 44). He describes the blurring of the distinction between “I” and Self as a confusion of levels: “In philosophical terms, it is a case of confusion between an absolute and a relative truth, between the metaphysical and the empirical levels of reality; in religious terms, between God and the ‘soul’.”

In short, while “I” is in union with Self, “I” is not Self. This seeming paradox makes sense if we think of the union between an object and its reflected image in a mirror, the analogy that Assagioli is using here: there is a complete union between an object and its reflected image such that any changes in the object are reflected in the image (but not vice versa); yet the image has its own relative independent existence at its own level on the mirror. Self is like the object reflected and “I”—with consciousness and will—is the “reflection of the spiritual Self, its projection, in the field of the personality” (p. 34).

Given this profound union of “I” and Self, it makes sense that as this self-awareness, freedom, and love of “I” emerge, these can allow an increasingly conscious relationship to a deeper sense of values, meaning, and life direction—Self, the ultimate source of this self-awareness, freedom, and empathic love, the ultimate source of “I.” (See the stages of psychosynthesis in Chapter 4.)

Book TV: Andrew Newberg "How God Changes Your Brain"

I caught the end of this a little while on CSPAN-2 - very cool episode with some nice science of the brain changes that come with meditation and prayer of various types.
Andrew Newberg examined brain scans of memory patients and web-based surveys of people's religious and spiritual experiences. The correlations he found led him to conclude that an active spiritual life physically changes the brain.
This is only a snippet of a longer episode, but here is a taste (no embed allowed).

B. Alan Wallace - Balancing the Heart and Mind: Practice of the Four Immeasurables and Shamatha Meditation

Bloody awesome!
The Jefferson Tibetan Society of Charlottesville, VA was pleased to host author, scholar and accomplished Buddhist practitioner Dr. Alan Wallace for a 2-day meditation retreat, Balancing the Heart and Mind: Practice of the Four Immeasurables and Shamatha Meditation.

B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D. is an internationally known meditation teacher, dynamic lecturer and scholar, one of the leading American translators, and on the forefront of Buddhism and Science research. He has been involved in the serious practice, study and translation of Buddhism for 35 years. He is one of the two primary translators to H.H. Dalai Lama for the Mind and Science conferences and research projects. His extensive books on Buddhism are helpful to people of the Vipassana and Zen traditions in addition to those of all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Alan has engaged in extensive retreats throughout his life, including numerous solitary retreats and was a co-teacher of a 1 year Shamatha retreat. He will be leading two 3-month Shamatha retreats in 2007 as part of the pioneering Shamatha Research project, a scientific study of the long-term effects of meditation on cognitive, attentional and affective functioning. He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst college, where he studied physics and the philosophy of science and has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Stanford University. He was a Buddhist monk for 14 years and has edited, translated and authored or contributed to more than 30 books on Buddhism, medicine, language, science and culture.

We need to work with both the heart and mind, and their integrated cultivation is crucial to balanced spiritual practice. In this 2 day retreat on Balancing the Heart and Mind, Dr. Alan Wallace will focus on the cultivation of shamatha (meditative quiescence) and the Four Immeasurables (loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity). His unique combination of traditional Buddhist knowledge and modern psychology allows him to present these topics in a way that is both vivid and at the same time analytic and profound. The retreat will include extensive instruction, silent meditation and guided meditations, interspersed with periods for group discussions, focused on the practical applications of these practices in daily life.

The Jefferson Tibetan Society's primary function is to provide teaching and meditation practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as exemplified by His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teachings. See for more information.

This audio is part of the collection: Open Source Audio

Snow Lion's Dharma Quote of the Week - On Meditation

Nice dharma quote from Snow Lion Publications.

by Anam Thubten,
edited by Sharon Roe

Dharma Quote of the Week

So what is meditation all about? Actually meditation begins with a true aspiration to just let go of everything. Remember that the definition of Dharma, the purpose of following the spiritual path, is nonattachment. There is a line in Buddhist literature:

There WAS no attachment.
There IS no attachment.
There WILL BE no attachment.

Seen from this view, meditation is very profound and yet very simple.

Have you ever ridden a bicycle? The bicycle does not run on its own. The bicycle only runs when somebody is pedaling it. The moment we stop pedaling the bicycle, it falls over. Unenlightened consciousness works in the same way. It doesn't perpetuate itself. The moment we stop perpetuating it, it dies. Like everything else, it dies on its own. Meditation is not so much like doing something or going somewhere or acquiring this and that. Meditation is actually a way to stop feeding this unenlightened consciousness.

When we sit in silence, being in the present moment, what happens? Nothing happens. But sometimes there is a moment so liberating, so illuminating, that everything is gone. The self is gone. All of the story lines are gone and universal oneness is dancing in front of us.

--from No Self, No Problem by Anam Thubten, edited by Sharon Roe, published by Snow Lion Publications

* * *

No Self, No Problem was chosen as the first selection for the Tricycle Book Club.

SciAm Mind - Evolutionary Origins of Your Right and Left Brain

Very cool article on bi-lateral brains.

Evolutionary Origins of Your Right and Left Brain

The division of labor by the two cerebral hemispheres—once thought to be uniquely human—predates us by half a billion years. Speech, right-handedness, facial recognition and the processing of spatial relations can be traced to brain asymmetries in early vertebrates

By Peter F. MacNeilage, Lesley J. Rogers and Giorgio Vallortigara

In the human brain the left hemisphere controls language, the dexterity of the right hand, the ability to classify, and routine behavior in general. The right hemisphere specializes in reacting to emergencies, organizing items spatially, recognizing faces and processing emotions.

Key Concepts

  • The authors have proposed that the specialization of the brain’s two hemispheres was already in place when vertebrates arose 500 million years ago.
  • The left hemisphere originally seems to have focused in general on controlling well-established patterns of behavior; the right specialized in detecting and responding to unexpected stimuli.
  • Both speech and right-handedness may have evolved from a specialization for the control of routine behavior.
  • Face recognition and the processing of spatial relations may trace their heritage to a need to sense predators quickly.
The left hemisphere of the human brain controls language, arguably our greatest mental attribute. It also controls the remarkable dexterity of the human right hand. The right hemisphere is dominant in the control of, among other things, our sense of how objects interrelate in space. Forty years ago the broad scientific consensus held that, in addition to language, right-handedness and the specialization of just one side of the brain for processing spatial relations occur in humans alone. Other animals, it was thought, have no hemispheric specializations of any kind.

Those beliefs fit well with the view that people have a special evolutionary status. Biologists and behavioral scientists generally agreed that right-handedness evolved in our hominid ancestors as they learned to build and use tools, about 2.5 million years ago. Right-handedness was also thought to underlie speech. Perhaps, as the story went, the left hemisphere simply added sign language to its repertoire of skilled manual actions and then converted it to speech. Or perhaps the left brain’s capacity for controlling manual action extended to controlling the vocal apparatus for speech. In either case, speech and language evolved from a relatively recent manual talent for toolmaking. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, was thought to have evolved by default into a center for processing spatial relations, after the left hemisphere became specialized for handedness.

In the past few decades, however, studies of many other animals have shown that their two brain hemispheres also have distinctive roles. Despite those findings, prevailing wisdom continues to hold that people are different. Many investigators still think the recently discovered specializations of the two brain hemispheres in nonhumans are unrelated to the human ones; the hemispheric specializations of humans began with humans.

Here we present evidence for a radically different hypothesis that is gaining support, particularly among biologists. The specialization of each hemisphere in the human brain, we argue, was already present in its basic form when vertebrates emerged about 500 million years ago. We suggest that the more recent specializations of the brain hemispheres, including those of humans, evolved from the original ones by the Darwinian process of descent with modification. (In that process, capabilities relevant to ancient traits are changed or co-opted in the service of other developing traits.) Our hypothesis holds that the left hemisphere of the vertebrate brain was originally specialized for the control of well-established patterns of behavior under ordinary and familiar circumstances. In contrast, the right hemisphere, the primary seat of emotional arousal, was at first specialized for detecting and responding to unexpected stimuli in the environment.

In early vertebrates such a division of labor probably got its start when one or the other hemisphere developed a tendency to take control in particular circumstances. From that simple beginning, we propose, the right hemisphere took primary control in potentially dangerous circumstances that called for a rapid reaction from the animal—detecting a predator nearby, for instance. Otherwise, control passed to the left hemisphere. In other words, the left hemisphere became the seat of self-motivated behavior, sometimes called top-down control. (We stress that self-motivated behavior need not be innate; in fact, it is often learned.) The right hemisphere became the seat of environmentally motivated behavior, or bottom-up control. The processing that directs more specialized behaviors—language, toolmaking, spatial interrelations, facial recognition, and the like—evolved from those two basic controls.

The Left Hemisphere
Most of the evidence that supports our hypothesis does not come from direct observation of the brain but rather from observations of behavior that favors one or the other side of the body. In the vertebrate nervous system the connections cross between body and brain—to a large degree, nerves to and from one side of the body are linked to the opposite-side hemisphere of the brain.

Evidence for the first part of our hypothesis—that the vertebrate left hemisphere specializes in controlling routine, internally directed behaviors—has been building for some time. One routine behavior with a rightward bias across many vertebrates is feeding. Fishes, reptiles and toads, for instance, tend to strike at prey on their right side under the guidance of their right eye and left hemisphere. In a variety of bird species—chickens, pigeons, quails and stilts—the right eye is the primary guide for various kinds of food pecking and prey capture. In one instance, such a lateralized feeding preference has apparently led to a lateralized bias in the animal’s external anatomy. The beak of the New Zealand wry-billed plover slopes to the right; that way, the plover’s right eye can guide the beak as the bird seeks food under small river stones.

As for mammals, the feeding behavior of humpback whales is a spectacular example of a lateral feeding preference. Phillip J. Clapham, now at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and his colleagues discovered that 60 out of 75 whales had abrasions only on the right jaw; the other 15 whales had abrasions only on the left jaw. The findings were clear evidence that whales favor one side of the jaw for food gathering and that “right-jawedness” is by far the norm.

In short, in all vertebrate classes—fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals—animals tend to retain what was probably an ancestral bias toward the use of the right side in the routine activity of feeding.

Origins of Right-Handedness
What do these findings say about the alleged uniqueness of human right-handedness? Evidence for a right-side bias in birds and whales is intriguing, but it hardly makes a convincing argument against the old belief that right-handedness in humans had no evolutionary precursors. Yet more than a dozen recent studies have now demonstrated a right-handed bias among other primates, our closest evolutionary relatives—clearly suggesting that human right-handedness descended from that of earlier primates. The right-hand preference shows itself in monkeys (baboons, Cebus monkeys and rhesus macaques) as well as in apes, particularly in chimpanzees.

Many of the studies of apes have been done by William D. Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and his colleagues. Hopkins’s group observed right-hand preferences particularly in tasks that involved either coordinating both hands or reaching for food too high to grab without standing upright. For example, experimenters placed honey (a favorite food) inside a short length of plastic pipe and gave the pipe to one of the apes. To get the honey, the ape had to pick up the pipe in one hand and scrape out the honey with one finger of the opposite hand. By a ratio of 2 to 1, the apes preferred to scrape honey out with a finger of the right hand. Similarly, in the reaching experiments, the apes usually grabbed the food they wanted with the right hand.

The Yerkes findings also suggest to us that as early primates evolved to undertake harder and more elaborate tasks for finding food, their handedness preferences became stronger, too. The reason, we suspect, is that performing ever more complex tasks made it increasingly necessary for the control signals from the brain to pass as directly as possible to the more skilled hand. Since the most direct route from the left hemisphere—the hemisphere specialized for routine tasks—to the body follows the body-crossing pathways of the peripheral nerves, the right hand increasingly became the preferred hand among nonhuman primates for performing elaborate, albeit routine, tasks.

Communication and the Left Brain
The evolutionary descent of human right-handed dexterity via the modification of ancient feeding behavior in ancestral higher primates now seems very likely. But could feeding behavior also have given rise to the left-brain specialization for language? Actually we do not mean to suggest that this development was direct. Rather we argue that the “language brain” emerged from an intermediate and somewhat less primitive specialization of the left hemisphere—namely, its specialization for routine communication, both vocal and nonvocal. But contrary to long-held beliefs among students of human prehistory, neither of those communicative capabilities first arose with humans; they, too, are descended from hemispheric specializations that first appeared in animals that lived long before our species emerged.

Read the rest of the article.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Psychology Today - The self is typically a community of selves, not a single monolith

Not new information (the psychosynthesis folks have known this for 100 years or so), but a useful article that may help some people understand themselves a little better. I have been a big fan of parts work in personal growth (see the sidebar for subpersonality stuff).

The self is typically a community of selves, not a single monolith

Having many selves common, often healthy

We often hear someone claim that a friend, lover, parent, or co-worker seems to have multiple personalities. For example, we may find ourselves asking why is Sarah assertive at work but so subservient to her boyfriend? Or we may think, how can Mike be meek around his family but so brazen with his college buddies? What should we make of people like these and what are the implications?

People with many and diverse self identities are typically not "schizo" (the often inappropriately applied term for dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Instead, people with many different selves, known in the scientific literature as self-aspects, are common, and these people can often benefit from their diversity of selves.

When people have many self identities featuring distinct behaviors and traits, these individuals are called highly self-complex people. People greater in self-complexity report having many self-aspects (e.g., a spousal self, a professional self, an athletic self) with different attributes in each self-aspect (e.g., cooperative as a spouse but competitive as an athlete). On the other hand, people lower in self-complexity report fewer self-aspects that are more similar in their attributes (e.g., creative as a worker and as a spouse).

Why does this distinction matter?

Research suggests that when facing stress, those greater in self-complexity often fare better. Consider the challenging economic climate we all face, where one might experience being laid-off or downsized at any moment. For someone with many different and diverse self-aspects, a negative event such as being laid off will certainly hurt one's "professional self" but a highly self-complex person will have many other selves to draw upon that don't share the same core values and traits as one's professional self. On the other hand, low self-complex people will experience being laid off more harshly because they have fewer alternative self-aspects to draw upon and the qualities associated with one's professional self will be important for other multiple selves as well. Thus, if losing one's job makes one feel less creative, and creativity is critical in other self-aspects, then losing one's job will have broader implications. In other words, the bad news will spill over onto other self-aspects, resulting in greater impact such as lower self-esteem, greater depression, and more stress-related illnesses.

Does this mean that highly self-complex people are simply happier?

Not necessarily. Indeed, being low in self-complexity is a double-edged sword. In bad times, the emotional spillover will be more damning as illustrated in the lay-off example above. But in good times, the positivity spills over onto other self-aspects for those lower in self-complexity, making them happier people. Thus, getting a promotion (instead of a pink slip) at work will make the person lower in self-complexity not only feel better as a professional but in their other self domains as well.

The upshot is that "the self" is not usually a single self-concept. In research conducted in our laboratory, we find that most people list 4 to 5 important self-aspects and only about 5% say they only have one self identity. This is especially striking when one considers our cultural context. That is, in the United States, the prevailing perspective on the nature of the self is that people have a "true self" comprised of traits that transcend time and context. We like to think that people are "honest" or "sincere" or "competitive" across the board, but in actuality, people can show variability in how similar they are across different roles and context. The research literature shows that such variability is common, and that the extent to which people's self-concepts vary in their complexity has important implications for their happiness and health.

Interested in learning more? You can visit our lab's research website for details and citations.

Dissecting Conservative Propaganda on the Middle East (Iran and Israel)

Richard Baehr asks it as a question in the title of his American Thinker article, but the implications are clear. He criticizes Obama's speech in Cairo, his focus on getting Israeli settlements out of Palestinian areas, and now his refusal to take sides in the Iran election scam.

Here is the whole, poorly reasoned article. My thoughts below the article.

Explaining Obama: Our First Islamist President?

By Richard Baehr

One might think that Barack Obama's obsession with Jewish settlements in the West Bank would wane a bit, given the events in Iran. But to think this would be wrong.

The President has applauded the vigorous election debate in Iran (the one between protestors and those who arrest and shoot them?), and ridiculed the cause of the protestors by arguing that Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are really not too far apart in their views. If that is the case, the Administration is in a sense arguing that the protestors need not be on the street, since if the choice were tweedledee and tweedledum, who cares whom the ruling mullahs select as the winner?

While many European leaders have been using very tough language to criticize the Iranian regime for its handling of the election and its aftermath, and standing with the demonstrators, Barack Obama alone seems to be siding with the regime. Clearly, Obama does not see regime change in Iran as a positive development, and seems fearful of offending the mullahs and Ahmadinejad.

This go-soft-with-killers approach is causing unusual verbal gymnastics by Obama acolytes in the left wing press (e.g. the Nation, the Guardian) who are desperate to find a way to spin the story so that Obama's reticence in challenging the crackdown and the election theft is in fact seen as a calculated and nuanced approach to the Iranian situation.

Israel, on the other hand, seems to be a different story, and the Administration seems to think it important to go public with criticism of Israel virtually every day. Three separate news stories in the last two days should make clear to all but the willfully blind that Obama still has Israel in its sights.

George Mitchell, perhaps the most overrated diplomat of our time, uttered a stunningly stupid response when asked to define natural growth of settlements. Mitchell explained that he thought it meant -- population growth, or put another way, new babies. In fact, the harshest critics of Israeli settlements have defined it a bit more generously -- no new building in the settlements. For Mitchell, a family squeezing a new baby into an existing house is a problem, even if they do not add on a new room.

Can you think of any other place in the world, where American policy can now be described as "thou shalt not have any new babies"?

Barack Obama has gone even further than Mitchell in making demands on Israel. On two occasions now, he has made clear that the problem of the settlements is not growth, but their existence, calling for a "cessation of settlements". Obama said this first in Cairo, and then again at a press conference with Italian President Berlusconi.

How extreme is Obama's position? Even Jimmy Carter has argued that some Israeli settlements will almost certainly survive following a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Carter said as much to the residents of settlements in the Gush Etzion area the other day, just before he attacked Israel for treating Gazans like animals, not humans. For Carter, this would be considered one of his more balanced series of statements on the conflict in recent years.

And where is Obama on the Gaza issue? Well, surprise, surprise, Obama and Hillary Clinton are cracking their whips trashing Israel for not opening up their border crossings to Gaza, to allow more "goods" into the country, falsely accusing Israel of blockading the Gaza strip.

It turns out of course that hundreds of truckloads of food, medicine, and energy supplies are getting into Gaza every week, as they always have. But Israel is not facilitating the transfer of raw materials that could be diverted for use in the production of rockets or missiles (so the Gazans will have to continue to "struggle" to get them through tunnels under the porous border with Egypt, that the Egyptians could care less about policing).

So what have we learned about the Obama administration's views on Iran and Israel this week?

With Iran: speak softly and carry no stick. We dare not offend, or look like we are an actor in internal Iranian politics.

With Israel: demand that Israel give up its sovereignty as a nation, and accede to Obama demands to stop having babies in West Bank settlements, then to abandon the settlements, and open up Gaza to any and all things the Hamas leaders in Gaza might want to bring into the strip.

A few Democrats have asked the Administration to be more private with their disagreements with Israel, and to compromise a bit on natural growth of settlements. The message from the Obama team could not be clearer; it will continue to rebuke Israel at every opportunity and in as many ways as it sees fit, and there will be no compromise on the settlements issue.

At some point, it seems fair to ask why Obama is taking this approach. There is more and more evidence to suggest that, alone among the non-lunatic nations of the world (North Korea thereby excepted), Obama has problems with only one: Israel. Obama has for all practical purposes, become the salesman for the Saudi "peace plan", designed to drive Israel back to the pre 67 war borders.

As for the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel (and others), the Obama approach can best be described as "not a problem", or "maƱana".

The question that really needs to be asked is whether Obama's shilling for the Saudi peace plan, and the non-stop fawning attention to the Muslim world since his inauguration represents something deeper, as Daniel Pipes has suggested. Have Americans unknowingly elected a pro-Islamist President?
Obama is handing the Iranian situation with the tact and long-term vision the situation requires. There is no doubt we would like to see a more moderate regime, but that isn't going to happen right now. Iran's ruling cleric declared today there could have been no vote fixing in the election, and that Ahmadinejad's "re-election" was a historic moment for Iran.

When the Clerics agreed to do some recounts the other day, they also said it made no difference to the outcome - it would not be changed. The election meant nothing, really, just a little play acting at being a Republic.

To side with the protesters would make them a target for anti-Western sentiment in Iran - as it is they will be harshly punished I suspect. They need to stand on their own, as progressive Muslims who want a Democratic nation, and not be seen as puppets of the American government.

I have no idea why the conservatives can't see this. Perhaps when everything is black and white, all the shades of gray are not visible. If we side with the protesters in any public way, their reform movement will be vilified as something instigated by the West. There is no better way to make their voice meaningless than to have them associated with the US government.

Israel, however, is more complicated. They should be required to retreat with their settlements back within the pre-1967 war borders - although that will never happen. So in the absence of doing what is right, they should do what is feasible, which is to withdraw from Palestinian lands, open the borders to those who have been given clearance to work, and allow the fair entry of goods and humanitarian aid.

The US has been so politically correct with Israel over the years, really failing to call them on abuses and expansion, that they feel it is their right to do whatever they see fit. A friends returned recently from some time in Israel and frequently heard that Israelis were miffed that Obama hadn't cleared his Cairo speach with the Israeli government (as if ALL US presidents
have always cleared Mid-East speaches with them. I doubt that, but it would not surprise me.

Yes, Obama is being tough on Israel, and he needs to do so both to restrain their sense of entitlement, and to also demonstrate that US views on the Middle East are not purely pro-Israel and anti-Islam. That has been the perception in most Mid-East countries for at least the last eight years, maybe longer. That needs to change - it's not in our best interest and not in the best interest of Mid-East peace.

Smithsonian - Brain Cells for Socializing

The neuroscience of social behavior is a new and emerging field, and one that may change a lot of how we conceptualize our need for social connection

Brain Cells for Socializing

Does an obscure nerve cell help explain what gorillas, elephants, whales—and people—have in common?

  • By Ingfei Chen
  • Photographs by Aaron Huey
  • Smithsonian magazine, June 2009

There was little chance of missing the elephant in the room. About a dozen years after Simba died at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a half-inch slab of her yellowish, wrinkled, basketball-size brain was laid out before John Allman, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Preserved in formaldehyde, it looked like half a pancake, frozen solid on a misting bed of dry ice. Allman carefully sliced it using the laboratory equivalent of a deli meat cutter. Taking well over an hour, he carved off 136 paper-thin sections.

Allman was searching for a peculiar kind of brain cell that he suspects is a key to how the African elephant—like a human being—manages to stay attuned to the ever-shifting nuances of social interplay. These spindle-shaped brain cells, called von Economo neurons—named for the man who first described them—are found only in human beings, great apes and a handful of other notably gregarious creatures. Allman, 66, compares the brains of people and other animals to gain insight into the evolution of human behavior.

"Neuroscience seems really reluctant to approach the question of what it is about our brains that makes us human, and John is doing exactly that," says Todd Preuss, a neuroanatomist and anthropologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. "We know very, very little about how our brains differ from other animals', except that our brains are bigger."

The von Economo neurons are the most striking finding of recent years in comparative brain research, in which scientists tease out fine differences among species. Neuroanatomist Patrick Hof and his colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan first stumbled across the neurons in human brain specimens in 1995, in a region toward the front of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Most neurons have cone- or star-shaped bodies with several branching projections, called dendrites, that receive signals from neighboring cells. But von Economo neurons are thin and elongated, with just one dendrite at each end. They are four times bigger than most other brain cells, and even in species that have the cells, they are rare.

The Manhattan team, it turned out, had rediscovered an obscure cell type first identified in 1881. Hof named the cells after a Vienna-based anatomist, Constantin von Economo, who precisely described the neurons in human brains in 1926; afterward the cells slipped into obscurity. Hof began looking in the brains of deceased primates, including macaque monkeys and great apes—chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans—donated by zoos and sanctuaries. He contacted Allman, who had a collection of primate brains, and asked him to collaborate. In 1999, the scientists reported that all great ape species had von Economo cells, but lesser primates, such as macaques, lemurs and tarsiers, did not. That meant the neurons evolved in a common ancestor of all the great apes about 13 million years ago, after they diverged from other primates but well before the human and chimp lineages diverged about six million years ago.

Although Allman is renowned as a neuroanatomist, it's not surprising to find him delving into larger questions of what it means to be human. His doctorate, from the University of Chicago, was in anthropology, and he has long been fascinated with how the primate brain evolved. He conducted landmark studies with his colleague Jon Kaas, ident­ifying the parts of the owl monkey brain that analyze visual information and make sight possible. In 1974, Allman moved to Caltech, where he studied vision for 25 years. But he also itched to uncover how the basic workings of the human brain shape social behavior. The von Economo neurons immediately captured his interest.

Allman, who is divorced, lives in a 150-year-old brick house in San Marino that he shares with two Australian shepherd dogs, Luna and Lunita. Sepia-toned photographs of his suffragist grandmother hang on the living room wall. Being "notoriously nocturnal," as Allman puts it, he rarely gets to the lab before 1 p.m., leaves in the evening to continue working at home and usually stays up until 2 a.m. His Caltech office is dimly lit by a single window and a small desk lamp; it looks like a cave overrun with books and papers. Down the hall, glass slides of gorilla, bonobo and elephant brain tissue, stained blue and brown, lie drying on tables and counters.

From von Economo's work, Allman learned that the unusual cells seemed to reside only in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and one other niche of the human brain, the frontal insula (FI). Brain-scanning studies have established that the ACC and FI are particularly active when people experience emotion. Both areas also seem to be important for "self-monitoring," such as noticing bodily sensations of pain and hunger or recognizing that one has made a mistake. The ACC seems broadly involved in nearly every mental or physical effort.

By contrast, the frontal insula may play a more specific role in generating social emotions such as empathy, trust, guilt, embarrassment, love—even a sense of humor. According to experiments that measure the workings of various brain regions, the area becomes active when a mother hears a crying baby, for instance, or when someone scrutinizes a face to determine the other person's intentions. The FI is where the brain monitors and reacts to "gut feelings" from bodily sensations or interactions within a social network, Allman says. It's the link between self-monitoring and awareness of others that makes it possible for us to understand the feelings of other people. "The basic proposition that I'm advancing," he says, "is the notion that self-awareness and social awareness are part of the same functioning, and the von Economo cells are part of that."

Allman thinks that the neurons expedite communication from the ACC and FI to the rest of the brain. The cells are unusually large, and in the nervous system, size often correlates with speed. "They're big neurons, which I think do a very fast read of something and then relay that information elsewhere quickly," he says. He speculates that as our primate ancestors evolved bigger and bigger brains, they needed high-speed connections to send messages across greater distances. "Large brain size necessarily carries with it a slowing down of communication within the brain," he adds. "So one way of dealing with that is to have a few specialized populations of cells that are pretty fast."

Given that the neurons live in the brain's social hot spots, Allman theorizes that the von Economo cell system allows a rapid, intuitive read on emotionally charged, volatile situations. The neurons "would enable one to quickly adjust to changing social contexts," he speculates. In the ancient past, this neural wiring might have conferred a survival edge to our ancestors by enabling them to make accurate, split-second judgments, especially about whom they could trust or not.

Allman, Hof and their colleagues have looked for von Economo neurons in more than 100 animal species, from sloths to platypuses. Only a few of them, other than primates and elephants, are known to have the cells: humpback whales, sperm whales, fin whales, orcas and bottle-nosed dolphins. The cells presumably evolved in now extinct species that gave rise to those marine mammals some 35 million years ago.

As I watched him section the elephant brain at Caltech, Allman, with colleagues Atiya Hakeem and Virginie Goubert, finally reached the FI of Simba's left hemisphere. Three days later, microscope examination of the brain slices revealed it to be dotted with the distinctive spindle-shaped cells. That confirmed their previous sighting of similar neurons in the FI of Simba's right hemisphere. The elephant cells are larger than human and primate ones, about the size of whale neurons, but the size and shape are unmistakably von Economo neurons.

From counting the von Economo cells in 16 slides—an eye-glazing chore—Hakeem and Allman estimate that there are roughly 10,000 of them in the postage-stamp-size FI on the right side of the elephant brain, or about 0.8 percent of the FI's 1.3 million neurons. Von Economo neurons are more plentiful in the human FI, averaging about 193,000 cells and accounting for about 1.25 percent of all neurons there. In absolute numbers, the human brain has roughly half a million von Economo neurons, far more than the brains of elephants, whales or great apes. Allman and his colleagues have found none in the elephant's closest kin: the anteater, armadillo and rock hyrax. The cells' absence in these species supports Allman's theory that the neurons are a feature of big brains.

Allman speculates that such cells readily evolve from a small set of neurons in the insular cortex that are found in all mammals and regulate appetite. He thinks that while von Economo cells likely evolved to speed information around a big brain, they got co-opted by the demands of social interactions. If he's right, smart, social animals such as whales and elephants might have the same specialized wiring for empathy and social intelligence as human beings.

Read the rest of the article.

Darren Iammarino - The Emergence of God

This is a very interesting article from The Skeptic - The Emergence of God. It's ostensibly a review of Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action, by Philip Clayton (Fortress Press, 2008) - but it goes a little further than that.

In this week’s eSkeptic, Darren Iammarino reviews Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action, by Philip Clayton (Fortress Press, 2008)

Darren Iammarino is a Ph.D. candidate in his final semester of coursework at Claremont Graduate University. His areas of specialization are comparative religious studies and philosophy of religion. Iammarino is currently working on his own constructive theology known as Cosmosyntheism, as well as publishing a novel self-cultivation system in a forthcoming book: The Compass Path.

composite of details from Adventures in the Spirit cover

The Emergence of God

by Darren Iammarino

In his recent book, Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, and Divine Action, Philip Clayton presents a constructive theology that endeavors to reconcile insights from the sciences with the wisdom derived from two thousand years of Christian tradition. The task is daunting, but through a methodical and lucid point-by-point progression, Clayton succeeds in providing the reader with a truly novel way of understanding God and the God-world relationship for the 21st Century.

The book is separated into five sections: The Methods of Philosophy and Theology, Emergence, Panentheism, Divine Action, and the Theological Adventure Applied. Section one sets the stage by explaining the numerous challenges that theology faces today given the major advances in the fields of biology and physics. An informative discussion of the differences between religious truth and scientific truth, plus a succinct account of the contemporary religion-science debate comprises the remainder of the first section.

Section two shifts gears and moves into the field of evolutionary biology, in particular the current debate over emergent theories of evolution. Clayton explains that emergence, in contrast to scientific reductionism, is characterized by the fact that higher-order phenomena cannot be fully comprehended by merely applying the laws of lower-order disciplines. In other words, science isn’t or should not be, just about reducing life to the realm of physics and chemistry. Clayton further shows that emergence draws a healthy middle ground between reductionism on one end and dualist theories on the other end. Dualistic theories refuse to accept that certain phenomena, such as mind or spirit, can have any relation to a material substrate or lower type of order. The purpose of the lengthy discussion of emergence is to lead us to an understanding of mind and spirit which, according to emergence theories, require a new conceptual framework in order to be properly understood.

One possible conceptual framework for elucidating the nature and function of mind, spirit and God is put forth by Clayton in section three. The philosophical position known as panentheism or, all things within God, is employed to highlight the workings of mind and spirit. Clayton presents us with an extended and in-depth look at different versions of panentheism, ranging from German Idealists, to 20th century Process Theology thinkers. Clayton writes, “The strength of the panentheistic analogy is that it takes the highest level of emergence known to us and uses it as the model for the divine reality. The highest level we know is the level of human personhood” (131). The question for Clayton is did the universe require a transcendent Source or Ground for all that is, or is the universe merely in a natural, yet meaningless process of emergence from simplicity to complexity?

The concept of emergence seems to point in the direction of a “deising” universe evolving from extreme simplicity, but Clayton argues that the logic of emergence need not be taken in this nearly atheistic way. Clayton believes that the universe requires a transcendent agent to act as the Ground and initiator of the process of emergence. It is at this point that two traditional, yet confusing, doctrines of the Christian faith are invoked: Trinity and kenosis. First, the inner-trinitarian relations represent a divine community. This is important for Clayton, because the interactions within the immanent Trinity provide a crucial metaphor for comprehending the God-World relationship. Unlike classical trinitarian doctrine, trinitarian panentheism suggests that the created world is within God and is therefore, a key contributor and participant within the divine (173).

Kenosis or self-emptying is central to the author’s vision because it explains how the process of creation began, while simultaneously affirming the centrality of God as love. Frequent biblical references are made for support of kenosis, in the sense of overflowing goodness and self-giving, or self-emptying, such as Phil 2:5–9:

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.

It was this kenosis that allowed for the world to be created ex nihilo. However, immediately following the act of creation via God’s self-limitation of power, God’s experience from that moment onward evolves along with the world’s choices. At this point, Clayton is in agreement with Process Theology that God and the World interact via their dipolar natures. Nonetheless, God and the creatures of the world are quite different. “Human agents differ from the divine in their nature: finite, not infinite; existing contingently rather than existing in all possible worlds; sometimes placing their own limited interests above the divine rather than being by nature perfectly good” (180).

An explanation of divine action according to emergence follows and comprises the bulk of section four. Clayton suggests, in line with process thought, that God guides the process of evolution by providing possibilities and lures for further development, but does not coerce any creatures to make specific decisions. This creaturely freedom is due to God’s free self-limitation of power at the moment of creation. The book concludes with an appeal to Christians and scientists for the importance of “the many faces of integration” within a globalized world.

Summarizing the main points, we find that emergence implies theism, but not any form of classical Christianity. Both scientists and Christians must be willing to seek a new synthesis that does justice to the truths of both disciplines. One new way of conceiving God that overcomes problems in classical theology, such as the paradox of God being love, yet somehow wholly transcendent, immutable and separate, is to understand God panentheistically. Clayton suggests a biblical basis for panentheism, as in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As for the scientist, emergence theories have shown that new levels require new explanations. The realm of the mind and spirit have been dealt with by theologians for millennia, so perhaps these religious insights may help to explain persistent ambiguities within strictly scientific understandings of evolution and emergence.

The first eight chapters of Dr. Clayton’s book are a lucid explanation of the science of emergence and complexity. The following three chapters, transition to Dr. Clayton’s own constructive theology, which incorporates the concepts introduced throughout the first part of the book. However, Clayton’s “open kenotic panentheism” leaves one asking a few questions. The first problem hinges on what is known as the immanent Trinity, or the Trinity before the creation of the world. How can the Trinity, if it is already a much higher emergent level of reality, precede the quantum, chemical and biological levels? This seems to go against the whole argument for emergent complexity proposed in the previous chapters.

The other major points of confusion from chapter 9 revolve around the notions of genuine otherness in the world and the problems of evil and freedom. The doctrine of kenosis or self-emptying means that God is the ground of all that is and this leaves Clayton’s system open to the standard criticisms from neo-atheists. Ultimately, it is challenging to understand how Clayton’s conception of God can be exonerated from culpability for the many evils present in the world. One can also object that if God emptied him or herself of power in order to create other beings, then in theory, why can’t God decide to reverse this decision some day? This is a problem for genuine freedom and for the apparent reality that there are genuine others co-existing within this world. In other words, how are the “other subjects genuine others to Godself” if God is the Source of all (156)?

Chapter 10 presents the reader with two further paradoxes. If the Ground within God is not conscious (170), how can God make primordial selections? Also, one learns that, “God could have existed with no less perfection without us” (173). It is bizarre to imagine that God would have created a world, if God gained nothing from it. For process thought, which Clayton is attempting to incorporate, God lacks experiential knowledge, but gains this experience through a reciprocal interaction with the world. The final problem, which is revealed in chapter 11, is how to make sense of the functions of the members of a Trinity before creation. The roles of the Son and the Holy Spirit do not seem to make any sense if there is not already a world with which God interacts.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kindle DX - My Review

I always love new toys, and this is maybe the best one I have bought since my first laptop. Not only will I mostly be able to stop adding physical books to my vast collection (much to my girlfriend's relief), but I will actually save money in the long term. At my current rate of buying books, the Kindle should pay for itself within three years.

So, my first disappointment was discovering that the USB port is TINY, and none of my various adapters could connect my memory stick to the damn thing. Then I discovered (because God forbid I should read the instructions) that my Kindle has an email address so that I can email PDFs from my computer to my Kindle - problem solved.

So the next order of business was to buy a few books. The number of books available as Kindle editions is disturbingly small when one's interest is more academic, such as psychology, neuroscience, and other less mainstream material. Some obscure things are available, however, so my guess is that this has more to do with publishers than with Amazon. I would like to have been able to call up my Wish List, but I couldn't figure out how to do that - maybe I can't, or maybe I'll figure it out later.

Reading a book is easy, enjoyable, and has only one annoyance - a slow page turn rate, but I am adapting to that. Images are black and white only, with no hope of color anytime in the near future from what I hear. But the images are crisp and can be enlarged.

The little keyboard is surprisingly easy to use. Navigating the unit itself is easy once you get the hang of it. It was pretty easy to get the feel of entering titles in the search bar (I am NOT a texter, so my thumbs are fat and slow).

Overall, I am fairly pleased for now. This is a pretty cool piece of equipment for anyone who is SERIOUSLY into books - not sure a casual reader would appreciate it as much.

Why Do Conservatives Hate Their Bodies?

I saw this really dumbass quote at another site (sorry, can't remember which one) and had to go to the source. This comes from Reid Buckley at The American Conservative, from an article called Vile Bodies: Pumped Up Muscles, Empty Souls (seriously, that's the title).

The fitness craze is simply another escape from the consequences of metaphysical ignorance—an attempt to flee time and space and the inevitability of inexorable, unstoppable, uncamoflageable aging. One pities them: they are doomed to the disintegration of the mortal frame in which they take such pride and invest such complacent hope, doomed to the eventual rotting of their poor flesh—cold to the touch, loathsome to the sight, offensive to all the yet living: disgusting, putrid, worm-ridden, foul.

What a charnel house dialectic. Despite the certainty of their fate, fitness freaks devote hour after hour to strenuous exertion, torturing their bodies, sweat pouring rank from their armpits. Zombies walking, walking to nowhere. They never reach the top of the treadmill, not once.

This is self-inflicted, remember. They willfully pit themselves against the logical imperative—nothing can be forever if God cannot be—enslaving themselves to the absurd. The horizon never changes, the pounding of their feet never ceases, no glorious alpine vista is ever attained, from which rolls out an irenic Swiss valley, dotted with placidly cud-chewing milch cows. Their sole reward seems to be scrutinizing themselves in the mirror, admiring the sleekness of their pelts, the washboard ripple of their abs ... but oh! screwing up their brows at the slightest slackness of a tricep, which they determine to flog that very morning in the gym.

How they have reduced the joys, opportunities, dreams, adventures, and poetry of life to the ridiculous yoke of their fitness, which is an existential delusion. They cannot avoid the grave. Stare into it long as they wish, curse the heavens, they cannot cheat the awful avidity of its hunger. They are subject to the astrophysical nothingness of entropy, but during their short hour of strutting and fretting, they devote their entire spirits to that which is most awfully mortal.

Should not decent, cool, intelligent, discriminating society shun these freaks as one would the plague? Or are we, being obedient to the demands of Christian charity, condemned to put up with bores? (In the dreadful simplicity of the postmodern weltanschauung, are bores no longer recognized? It’s quite possible that people in Hollywood enjoy each other’s company, after all.)

I propose that fitness fanatics, whose company in numbing doses engenders sociopathy in their victims, not be stoned in public, not be committed to the stocks (they’d simply continue berating passersby, sigh!), not be obliged to listen to one more economic nostrum from Charles Schumer, nor even be waterboarded in Guantanamo. All too dreadfully crude. They should simply (and humanely) be stripped of the franchise. Civilization must take a stand against primitivism in whatever guise—tight pecs, flat abs, or sexy buttocks.

OK, this guy must seriously hate his body, and the bodies of anyone healthier than him. His premise is that people who are trying to stay fit do so at the expense of all else - a straw man, since, like all stereotypes, it is a false generalization.

I work out 4-5 hours a week, eat healthy 90% of the time, and yet I meditate, read, and am knowledgeable on most subjects that come up in conversation. Oh yeah, and I NEVER force my lifestyle on anyone who doesn't believe that fitness leads to a well-rounded life.

The real point is that a healthy mind and a healthy soul requires a healthy body. The science proves this beyond ANY doubt.

You eat shit, then you'll look like shit, and your brain will function like shit. You don't exercise, then your body will be slow and fat, and your brain will also be slow and sluggish.

Bodhipaksa - Calling BS on the Mind’s Stories

Nice post from Bodhipaksa at WildMind Buddhist Meditation and disengaging from the stories we tell ourselves.

Calling BS on the mind’s stories

Bodhipaksa (June 17, 2009)

Bodhipaksa points out that you “don’t have to believe everything you think.”

I was talking to a friend the other day who’d found that recently he just wasn’t interested in his meditation practice. He’d found that he was watching the breath, but his mind was constantly telling him there were other, more interesting, things that he could be doing — that the breath was boring. The mind is always doing things like this: making up plausible stories that “make sense” of our experience. But the trouble is that these stories often are neither true, nor helpful.

An illustration of how arbitrary and untrue our mind’s stories are can be found in some fascinating brain studies. In treating some epileptic patients, it was once common for doctors to sever the corpus callosum, or band of tissue connecting the left and right brains. This means that the two sides of the brain, which have different functions, cannot communicate with each other, and each functions independently. It’s possible to present words or images to the left visual field, and only that side of the brain will respond: the right brain quite literally sees nothing, and vice versa.

In one intriguing experiment, split-brain subjects were presented with two cognitive tests simultaneously — one to each side of the brain. They were presented with a picture and asked to point to an object that went with that picture. Both sides of the brain performed perfectly: when the left hemisphere is shown a chicken foot, the right hand pointed to a chicken, and the right hemisphere, shown a snow scene, led to the left hand pointing to a shovel. The subject now has to explain — using his left hemisphere — why he made his choice. The response — “I saw a claw and I picked the chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel” — makes no sense at all and is in fact a fiction, because there was no causal connection at all between the actions of the left and right brains, which were acting in an uncoordinated way.

In other experiments the word “Laugh” was flashed to the left field of vision (the right hemisphere), and the subject laughed. When asked, “Why are you laughing?”, the subject said, “Oh…you guys are really something.” The right brain laughs because it’s seen the word “laugh”. The left brain hasn’t seen the word, but knows that the subject has in fact laughed. And the left brain comes up with a plausible-sounding reason for why the laughing occurred, not knowing the real reason.

This may sound a long way from our day-to-day experience, but it’s not.
Read the whole post.

The Dalai Lama - Science at the Crossroads

I've been enjoying reading the collection of His Holiness' speeches and papers at his home page - here is a lecture he gave at the opening meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on November 12, 2005 in Washington DC.

Science at the Crossroads

By Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama

This article is based on a talk given by the Dalai Lama at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on November 12, 2005 in Washington DC

The last few decades have witnessed tremendous advances in the scientific understanding of the human brain and the human body as a whole. Furthermore, with the advent of the new genetics, neuroscience's knowledge of the workings of biological organisms is now brought to the subtlest level of individual genes. This has resulted in unforeseen technological possibilities of even manipulating the very codes of life, thereby giving rise to the likelihood of creating entirely new realities for humanity as a whole. Today the question of science's interface with wider humanity is no longer a matter of academic interest alone; this question must assume a sense of urgency for all those who are concerned about the fate of human existence. I feel, therefore, that a dialogue between neuroscience and society could have profound benefits in that it may help deepen our basic understanding of what it means to be human and our responsibilities for the natural world we share with other sentient beings. I am glad to note that as part of this wider interface, there is a growing interest among some neuroscientists in engaging in deeper conversations with Buddhist contemplative disciplines.

Although my own interest in science began as the curiosity of a restless young boy growing up in Tibet, gradually the colossal importance of science and technology for understanding the modern world dawned on me. Not only have I sought to grasp specific scientific ideas but have also attempted to explore the wider implications of the new advances in human knowledge and technological power brought about through science. The specific areas of science I have explored most over the years are subatomic physics, cosmology, biology and psychology. For my limited understanding of these fields I am deeply indebted to the hours of generous time shared with me by Carl von Weizsacker and the late David Bohm both of whom I consider to be my teachers in quantum mechanics, and in the field of biology, especially neuroscience, by the late Robert Livingstone and Francisco Varela. I am also grateful to the numerous eminent scientists with whom I have had the privilege of engaging in conversations through the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute which initiated the Mind and Life conferences that began in 1987 at my residence in Dharamsala, India. These dialogues have continued over the years and in fact the latest Mind and Life dialogue concluded here in Washington just this week.

Some might wonder "What is a Buddhist monk doing taking such a deep interest in science? What relation could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science? What possible benefit could there be for a scientific discipline such as neuroscience in engaging in dialogue with Buddhist contemplative tradition?"

Although Buddhist contemplative tradition and modern science have evolved from different historical, intellectual and cultural roots, I believe that at heart they share significant commonalities, especially in their basic philosophical outlook and methodology. On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. For example, in the Buddhist investigative tradition, between the three recognized sources of knowledge - experience, reason and testimony - it is the evidence of the experience that takes precedence, with reason coming second and testimony last. This means that, in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be. Even in the case of knowledge derived through reason or inference, its validity must derive ultimately from some observed facts of experience. Because of this methodological standpoint, I have often remarked to my Buddhist colleagues that the empirically verified insights of modern cosmology and astronomy must compel us now to modify, or in some cases reject, many aspects of traditional cosmology as found in ancient Buddhist texts.

Since the primary motive underlying the Buddhist investigation of reality is the fundamental quest for overcoming suffering and perfecting the human condition, the primary orientation of the Buddhist investigative tradition has been toward understanding the human mind and its various functions. The assumption here is that by gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying propensities so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way of being can be found. It is in this context that the Buddhist tradition has devised a rich classification of mental states, as well as contemplative techniques for refining specific mental qualities. So a genuine exchange between the cumulative knowledge and experience of Buddhism and modern science on a wide-ranging issues pertaining to the human mind, from cognition and emotion to understanding the capacity for transformation inherent in the human brain can be deeply interesting and potentially beneficial as well. In my own experience, I have felt deeply enriched by engaging in conversations with neuroscientists and psychologists on such questions as the nature and role of positive and negative emotions, attention, imagery, as well the plasticity of the brain. The compelling evidence from neuroscience and medical science of the crucial role of simple physical touch for even the physical enlargement of an infant's brain during the first few weeks powerfully brings home the intimate connection between compassion and human happiness.

Buddhism has long argued for the tremendous potential for transformation that exists naturally in the human mind. To this end, the tradition has developed a wide range of contemplative techniques, or meditation practices, aimed specifically at two principal objectives - the cultivation of a compassionate heart and the cultivation of deep insights into the nature of reality, which are referred to as the union of compassion and wisdom. At the heart of these meditation practices lie two key techniques, the refinement of attention and its sustained application on the one hand, and the regulation and transformation of emotions on the other. In both of these cases, I feel, there might be great potential for collaborative research between the Buddhist contemplative tradition and neuroscience. For example, modern neuroscience has developed a rich understanding of the brain mechanisms that are associated with both attention and emotion. Buddhist contemplative tradition, given its long history of interest in the practice of mental training, offers on the other hand practical techniques for refining attention and regulating and transforming emotion. The meeting of modern neuroscience and Buddhist contemplative discipline, therefore, could lead to the possibility of studying the impact of intentional mental activity on the brain circuits that have been identified as critical for specific mental processes. In the least such an interdisciplinary encounter could help raise critical questions in many key areas. For example, do individuals have a fixed capacity to regulate their emotions and attention or, as Buddhist tradition argues, their capacity for regulating these processes are greatly amenable to change suggesting similar degree of amenability of the behavioral and brain systems associated with these functions? One area where Buddhist contemplative tradition may have important contribution to make is the practical techniques it has developed for training in compassion. With regard to mental training both in attention and emotional regulation it also becomes crucial to raise the question of whether any specific techniques have time-sensitivity in terms of their effectiveness, so that new methods can be tailored to suit the needs of age, health, and other variable factors.

A note of caution is called for, however. It is inevitable that when two radically different investigative traditions like Buddhism and neuroscience are brought together in an interdisciplinary dialogue, this will involve problems that are normally attendant to exchanges across boundaries of cultures and disciplines. For example, when we speak of the "science of meditation," we need to be sensitive to exactly what is meant by such a statement. On the part of scientists, I feel, it is important to be sensitive to the different connotations of an important term such as meditation in their traditional context. For example, in its traditional context, the term for meditation is bhavana (in Sanskrit) or gom (in Tibetan). The Sanskrit term connotes the idea of cultivation, such as cultivating a particular habit or a way of being, while the Tibetan term gom has the connotation of cultivating familiarity. So, briefly stated, meditation in the traditional Buddhist context refers to a deliberate mental activity that involves cultivating familiarity, be it with a chosen object, a fact, a theme, habit, an outlook, or a way of being. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of meditation practice - one focusing on stilling the mind and the other on the cognitive processes of understanding. The two are referred to as (i) stabilizing meditation and (ii) discursive meditation. In both cases, the meditation can take many different forms. For example, it may take the form of taking something as object of one's cognition, such as meditating on one's transient nature. Or it may take the form of cultivating a specific mental state, such as compassion by developing a heartfelt, altruistic yearning to alleviate others' suffering. Or, it could take the form of imagination, exploring the human potential for generating mental imagery, which may be used in various ways to cultivate mental well-being. So it is critical to be aware of what specific forms of meditation one might be investigating when engaged in collaborative research so that complexity of meditative practices being studied is matched by the sophistication of the scientific research.

Another area where a critical perspective is required on the part of the scientists is the ability to distinguish between the empirical aspects of Buddhist thought and contemplative practice on the one hand and the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions associated with these meditative practices. In other words, just as we must distinguish within the scientific approach between theoretical suppositions, empirical observations based on experiments, and subsequent interpretations, in the same manner it is critical to distinguish theoretical suppositions, experientially verifiable features of mental states, and subsequent philosophical interpretations in Buddhism. This way, both parties in the dialogue can find the common ground of empirical observable facts of the human mind, while not falling into the temptation of reducing the framework of one discipline into that of the other. Although the philosophical presuppositions and the subsequent conceptual interpretations may differ between these two investigative traditions, insofar as empirical facts are concerned, facts must remain facts, no matter how one may choose to describe them. Whatever the truth about the final nature of consciousness - whether or not it is ultimately reducible to physical processes - I believe there can be shared understanding of the experiential facts of the various aspects of our perceptions, thoughts and emotions.

With these precautionary considerations, I believe, a close cooperation between these two investigative traditions can truly contribute toward expanding the human understanding of the complex world of inner subjective experience that we call the mind. Already the benefits of such collaborations are beginning to be demonstrated. According to preliminary reports, the effects of mental training, such as simple mindfulness practice on a regular basis or the deliberate cultivation of compassion as developed in Buddhism, in bringing about observable changes in the human brain correlated to positive mental states can be measured. Recent discoveries in neuroscience have demonstrated the innate plasticity of the brain, both in terms of synaptic connections and birth of new neurons, as a result of exposure to external stimuli, such as voluntary physical exercise and an enriched environment. The Buddhist contemplative tradition may help to expand this field of scientific inquiry by proposing types of mental training that may also pertain to neuroplasticity. If it turns out, as the Buddhist tradition implies, that mental practice can effect observable synaptic and neural changes in the brain, this could have far-reaching implications. The repercussions of such research will not be confined simply to expanding our knowledge of the human mind; but, perhaps more importantly, they could have great significance for our understanding of education and mental health. Similarly, if, as the Buddhist tradition claims, the deliberate cultivation of compassion can lead to a radical shift in the individual's outlook, leading to greater empathy toward others, this could have far-reaching implications for society at large.

Finally, I believe that the collaboration between neuroscience and the Buddhist contemplative tradition may shed fresh light on the vitally important question of the interface of ethics and neuroscience. Regardless of whatever conception one might have of the relationship between ethics and science, in actual practice, science has evolved primarily as an empirical discipline with a morally neutral, value-free stance. It has come to be perceived essentially as a mode of inquiry that gives detailed knowledge of the empirical world and the underlying laws of nature. Purely from the scientific point of view, the creation of nuclear weapons is a truly amazing achievement. However, since this creation has the potential to inflict so much suffering through unimaginable death and destruction, we regard it as destructive. It is the ethical evaluation that must determine what is positive and what is negative. Until recently, this approach of segregating ethics and science, with the understanding that the human capacity for moral thinking evolves alongside human knowledge, seems to have succeeded.

Today, I believe that humanity is at a critical crossroad. The radical advances that took place in neuroscience and particularly in genetics towards the end of the twentieth century have led to a new era in human history. Our knowledge of the human brain and body at the cellular and genetic level, with the consequent technological possibilities offered for genetic manipulation, has reached such a stage that the ethical challenges of these scientific advances are enormous. It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power. Yet the ramifications of these new findings and their applications are so far-reaching that they relate to the very conception of human nature and the preservation of the human species. So it is no longer adequate to adopt the view that our responsibility as a society is to simply further scientific knowledge and enhance technological power and that the choice of what to do with this knowledge and power should be left in the hands of the individual. We must find a way of bringing fundamental humanitarian and ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences. By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call "secular ethics" that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power - principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers, and followers of this religion or that religion. I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity. We are living in truly one world. Modern economy, electronic media, international tourism, as well as the environmental problems, all remind us on a daily basis how deeply interconnected the world has become today. Scientific communities play a vitally important role in this interconnected world. For whatever historical reasons, today the scientists enjoy great respect and trust within society, much more so than my own discipline of philosophy and religion. I appeal to scientists to bring into their professional work the dictates of the fundamental ethical principles we all share as human beings.

Copyright 2005 Mind and Life Institute, Boulder, CO, USA. All rights reserved.