Saturday, July 18, 2009

Karen Armstrong - Metaphysical Mistake

Religions scholar Karen Armstrong takes on fundamentalist Christianity for The Guardian UK.

Metaphysical mistake

Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has created bad science and inept religion.

Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong
  •, Sunday 12 July 2009 20.00 BST
  • Article history
  • The question: Should we believe in belief?

    The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity, and before undertaking the religious life many feel obliged to satisfy themselves about the metaphysical claims of the church, which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data.

    Most other traditions prize practice above creedal orthodoxy: Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Jews and Muslims would say religion is something you do, and that you cannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness. All good religious teaching – including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation – is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to "believe" them. Why?

    In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos ("reason; science") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.

    Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. In the same way, the purpose of a creation myth was therapeutic; before the modern period no sensible person ever thought it gave an accurate account of the origins of life. A cosmology was recited at times of crisis or sickness, when people needed a symbolic influx of the creative energy that had brought something out of nothing. Thus the Genesis myth, a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion, was balm to the bruised spirits of the Israelites who had been defeated and deported by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar during the sixth century BCE. Nobody was required to "believe" it; like most peoples, the Israelites had a number of other mutually-exclusive creation stories and as late as the 16th century, Jews thought nothing of making up a new creation myth that bore no relation to Genesis but spoke more directly to their tragic circumstances at that time.

    Above all, myth was a programme of action. When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something "true" about human life and the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not be proven rationally. If you did not act upon it, it would remain as incomprehensible and abstract – like the rules of a board game, which seem impossibly convoluted, dull and meaningless until you start to play.

    Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

    But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth, and Newton and Descartes claimed it was possible to prove God's existence, something earlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied. Christians bought into the scientific theology, and some embarked on the doomed venture of turning their faith's mythos into logos.

    It was during the late 17th century, as the western conception of truth became more notional, that the word "belief" changed its meaning. Previously, bileve meant "love, loyalty, commitment". It was related to the Latin libido and used in the King James Bible to translate the Greek pistis ("trust; faithfulness; involvement"). In demanding pistis, therefore, Jesus was asking for commitment not credulity: people must give everything to the poor, follow him to the end, and commit totally to the coming Kingdom.

    By the late 17th century, however, philosophers and scientists had started to use "belief" to mean an intellectual assent to a somewhat dubious proposition. We often assume "modern" means "superior", and while this is true of science and technology, our religious thinking is often undeveloped. In the past, people understood it was unwise to confuse mythos with logos, but today we read the mythoi of scripture with an unparalleled literalism, and in "creation science" we have bad science and inept religion. The question is: how can we extricate ourselves from the religious cul-de-sac we entered about 300 years ago?

    A Verb for Nirvana by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

    I like the idea of Nirvana being a verb - another great essay from Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Yes, it's a long article, but it's Saturday morning so kick back with your favorite beverage and spend a few minutes reading this fine teaching.

    Back in the days of the Buddha, nirvana (nibbana) had a verb of its own: nibbuti. It meant to "go out," like a flame. Because fire was thought to be in a state of entrapment as it burned — both clinging to and trapped by the fuel on which it fed — its going out was seen as an unbinding. To go out was to be unbound. Sometimes another verb was used — parinibbuti — with the "pari-" meaning total or all-around, to indicate that the person unbound, unlike fire unbound, would never again be trapped.

    Now that nirvana has become an English word, it should have its own English verb to convey the sense of "being unbound" as well. At present, we say that a person "reaches" nirvana or "enters" nirvana, implying that nibbana is a place where you can go. But nirvana is most emphatically not a place. It's realized only when the mind stops defining itself in terms of place: of here, or there, or between the two.

    This may seem like a word-chopper's problem — what can a verb or two do to your practice? — but the idea of nirvana as a place has created severe misunderstandings in the past, and it could easily create misunderstandings now. There was a time when some philosophers in India reasoned that if nirvana is one place and samsara another, then entering into nirvana leaves you stuck: you've limited your range of movement, for you can't get back to samsara. Thus to solve this problem they invented what they thought was a new kind of nirvana: an unestablished nirvana, in which one could be in both places — nirvana and samsara — at once.

    However, these philosophers misunderstood two important points about the Buddha's teachings. The first was that neither samsara nor nirvana is a place. Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process. You may be able to be in two places at once — or even develop a sense of self so infinite that you can occupy all places at once — but you can't feed a process and experience its end at the same time. You're either feeding samsara or you're not. If you feel the need to course freely through both samsara and nirvana, you're simply engaging in more samsara-ing and keeping yourself trapped.

    The second point is that nirvana, from the very beginning, was realized through unestablished consciousness — one that doesn't come or go or stay in place. There's no way that anything unestablished can get stuck anywhere at all, for it's not only non-localized but also undefined.

    The idea of a religious ideal as lying beyond space and definition is not exclusive to the Buddha's teachings, but issues of locality and definition, in the Buddha's eyes, had a specific psychological meaning. This is why the non-locality of nirvana is important to understand.

    Just as all phenomena are rooted in desire, consciousness localizes itself through passion. Passion is what creates the "there" on which consciousness can land or get established, whether the "there" is a form, feeling, perception, thought-construct, or a type of consciousness itself. Once consciousness gets established on any of these aggregates, it becomes attached and then proliferates, feeding on everything around it and creating all sorts of havoc. Wherever there's attachment, that's where you get defined as a being. You create an identity there, and in so doing you're limited there. Even if the "there" is an infinite sense of awareness grounding, surrounding, or permeating everything else, it's still limited, for "grounding" and so forth are aspects of place. Wherever there's place, no matter how subtle, passion lies latent, looking for more food to feed on.

    If, however, the passion can be removed, there's no more "there" there. One sutta illustrates this with a simile: the sun shining through the eastern wall of a house and landing on the western wall. If the western wall, the ground beneath it, and the waters beneath the ground were all removed, the sunlight wouldn't land. In the same way, if passion for form, etc., could be removed, consciousness would have no "where" to land, and so would become unestablished. This doesn't mean that consciousness would be annihilated, simply that — like the sunlight — it would now have no locality. With no locality, it would no longer be defined.

    This is why the consciousness of nirvana is said to be "without surface" (anidassanam), for it doesn't land. Because the consciousness-aggregate covers only consciousness that is near or far, past, present, or future — i.e., in connection with space and time — consciousness without surface is not included in the aggregates. It's not eternal because eternity is a function of time. And because non-local also means undefined, the Buddha insisted that an awakened person — unlike ordinary people — can't be located or defined in any relation to the aggregates in this life; after death, he/she can't be described as existing, not existing, neither, or both, because descriptions can apply only to definable things.

    The essential step toward this non-localized, undefined realization is to cut back on the proliferations of consciousness. This first involves contemplating the drawbacks of keeping consciousness trapped in the process of feeding. This contemplation gives urgency to the next steps: bringing the mind to oneness in concentration, gradually refining that oneness, and then dropping it to zero. The drawbacks of feeding are most graphically described in SN 12.63, A Son's Flesh. The process of gradually refining oneness is probably best described in MN 121, The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness, while the drop to zero is best described in the Buddha's famous instructions to Bahiya: "'In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.' That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."

    With no here or there or between the two, you obviously can't use the verb "enter" or "reach" to describe this realization, even metaphorically. Maybe we should make the word nirvana into a verb itself: "When there is no you in connection with that, you nirvana." That way we can indicate that unbinding is an action unlike any other, and we can head off any mistaken notion about getting "stuck" in total freedom.

    Related Readings

    "All beings subsist on nutriment." [Khp 4]

    Then Ven. Radha went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: "'A being,' lord. 'A being,' it's said. To what extent is one said to be 'a being'?"

    "Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for form, Radha: when one is caught up (satta) there, tied up (visatta) there, one is said to be 'a being (satta).'

    "Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be 'a being.'"

    SN 23.2

    "If one stays obsessed with form, that's what one is measured (limited) by. Whatever one is measured by, that's how one is classified.

    "If one stays obsessed with feeling...

    "If one stays obsessed with perception...

    "If one stays obsessed with fabrications...

    "If one stays obsessed with consciousness, that's what one is measured by. Whatever one is measured by, that's how one is classified.

    "But if one doesn't stay obsessed with form, that's not what one is measured by. Whatever one isn't measured by, that's not how one is classified.

    "If one doesn't stay obsessed with feeling...

    "If one doesn't stay obsessed with perception...

    "If one doesn't stay obsessed with fabrications...

    "If one doesn't stay obsessed with consciousness, that's not what one is measured by. Whatever one isn't measured by, that's not how one is classified."

    SN 22.36

    * * *

    "If one stays obsessed with form, that's what one is measured (limited) by.

    "One attached is unreleased; one unattached is released. Should consciousness, when standing, stand attached to (a physical) form, supported by form (as its object), established on form, watered with delight, it would exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation.

    [Similarly with feeling, perception, and fabrications.]

    "If a monk abandons passion for the property of form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, then owing to the abandonment of passion, the support is cut off, and there is no base for consciousness. Consciousness, thus unestablished, not proliferating, not performing any function, is released. Owing to its release, it is steady. Owing to its steadiness, it is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, he (the monk) is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'"

    SN 22.53

    * * *

    "What one intends, what one arranges, and what one obsesses about: This is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing of consciousness. When that consciousness lands and grows, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

    "If one doesn't intend and doesn't arrange, but one still obsesses [about something], this is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing of consciousness. When that consciousness lands and grows, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. Such [too] is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

    "But when one doesn't intend, arrange, or obsess [about anything], there is no support for the stationing of consciousness. There being no support, there is no landing of consciousness. When that consciousness doesn't land & grow, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress."

    SN 12.38

    * * *

    "There are these four nutriments for the maintenance of beings who have come into being or for the support of those in search of a place to be born. Which four? Physical food, gross or refined; contact as the second, intellectual intention the third, and consciousness the fourth. These are the four nutriments for the maintenance of beings who have come into being or for the support of those in search of a place to be born.

    "Where there is passion, delight, & craving for the nutriment of physical food, consciousness lands there and grows. Where consciousness lands and grows, name-&-form alights. Where name-&-form alights, there is the growth of fabrications. Where there is the growth of fabrications, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging, & death, together, I tell you, with sorrow, affliction, & despair.

    [Similarly with the nutriment of contact, intellectual intention, and consciousness.]

    "Just as — when there is dye, lac, yellow orpiment, indigo, or crimson — a dyer or painter would paint the picture of a woman or a man, complete in all its parts, on a well-polished panel or wall, or on a piece of cloth; in the same way, where there is passion, delight, & craving for the nutriment of physical food... contact... intellectual intention... consciousness, consciousness lands there and grows. Where consciousness lands and grows, name-&-form alights. Where name-&-form alights, there is the growth of fabrications. Where there is the growth of fabrications, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging, & death, together, I tell you, with sorrow, affliction, & despair.

    "Where there is no passion for the nutriment of physical food, where there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness does not land there or grow. Where consciousness does not land or grow, name-&-form does not alight. Where name-&-form does not alight, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging, & death. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.

    [Similarly with the nutriment of contact, intellectual intention, and consciousness.]

    "Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall having windows on the north, the south, or the east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by way of the window, where does it land?"

    "On the western wall, lord."

    "And if there is no western wall, where does it land?"

    "On the ground, lord."

    "And if there is no ground, where does it land?"

    "On the water, lord."

    "And if there is no water, where does it land?"

    "It does not land, lord."

    "In the same way, where there is no passion for the nutriment of physical food... contact... intellectual intention... consciousness, where there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness does not land there or grow. Where consciousness does not land or grow, name-&-form does not alight. Where name-&-form does not alight, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging, & death. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair."

    SN 12.64

    * * *

    "One neither fabricates nor mentally fashions for the sake of becoming or un-becoming. This being the case, one is not sustained by anything in the world (doesn't cling to anything in the world). Unsustained, one is not agitated. Unagitated, one is totally unbound right within. One discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'

    "Sensing a feeling of pleasure, one discerns that it is fleeting, not grasped at, not relished. Sensing a feeling of pain... Sensing a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, one discerns that it is fleeting, not grasped at, not relished. Sensing a feeling of pleasure, one senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of pain... Sensing a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, one senses it disjoined from it."

    MN 140

    * * *

    Nandaka: "Just as if a skilled butcher or butcher's apprentice, having killed a cow, were to carve it up with a sharp carving knife so that — without damaging the substance of the inner flesh, without damaging the substance of the outer hide — he would cut, sever, & detach only the skin muscles, connective tissues, & attachments in between. Having cut, severed, & detached the outer skin, and then covering the cow again with that very skin, if he were to say that the cow was joined to the skin just as it had been: would he be speaking rightly?"

    "No, venerable sir. Why is that? Because if the skilled butcher or butcher's apprentice, having killed a cow, were to... cut, sever, & detach only the skin muscles, connective tissues, & attachments in between; and... having covered the cow again with that very skin, then no matter how much he might say that the cow was joined to the skin just as it had been, the cow would still be disjoined from the skin."

    "This simile, sisters, I have given to convey a message. The message is this: The substance of the inner flesh stands for the six internal media; the substance of the outer hide, for the six external media. The skin muscles, connective tissues, & attachments in between stand for passion & delight. And the sharp knife stands for noble discernment — the noble discernment that cuts, severs, & detaches the defilements, fetters, & bonds in between."

    MN 146

    * * *
    Gone to the beyond of becoming, you let go of in front, let go of behind, let go of between. With a heart everywhere let-go, you don't come again to birth & aging.

    Dhp 348

    * * *

    Then the Blessed One went with a large number of monks to the Black Rock on the slope of Isigili. From afar he saw Ven. Vakkali lying dead on a couch. Now at that time a smokiness, a darkness was moving to the east, moved to the west, moved to the north, the south, above, below, moved to the intermediate directions. The Blessed One said, "Monks, do you see that smokiness, that darkness...?"

    "Yes, Lord."

    "That is Mara, the Evil One. He is searching for the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman: "Where is the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman established?" But, monks, it is through unestablished consciousness that Vakkali the clansman has become totally unbound."

    — SN 22.87

    * * *


    He who has reached the end:
    Does he not exist,
    or is he for eternity free from dis-ease?
    Please, sage, declare this to me
    as this phenomenon (dhamma) has been known by you.

    The Buddha:

    One who has reached the end has no criterion (limit)
    by which anyone would say that —
    for him it doesn't exist.
    When all phenomena (dhamma)
    are done away with,
    all means of speaking
    are done away with as well.

    Sn 5.6

    * * *

    "What do you think, Anuradha: Do you regard form as the Tathagata?"

    "No, lord."

    "Do you regard feeling as the Tathagata?"

    "No, lord."

    "Do you regard perception as the Tathagata?"

    "No, lord."

    "Do you regard fabrications as the Tathagata?"

    "No, lord."

    "Do you regard consciousness as the Tathagata?"

    "No, lord."

    "What do you think, Anuradha: Do you regard the Tathagata as being in form?... Elsewhere than form?... In feeling?... Elsewhere than feeling?... In perception?... Elsewhere than perception?... In fabrications?... Elsewhere than fabrications?... In consciousness?... Elsewhere than consciousness?"

    "No, lord."

    "What do you think, Anuradha: Do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?"

    "No, lord."

    "Do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?"

    "No, lord."

    "And so, Anuradha — when you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, 'Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

    "No, lord."

    "Very good, Anuradha. Very good. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress."

    SN 22.86

    * * *

    "But, Master Gotama, the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?"

    "'Reappear,' Vaccha, doesn't apply."

    "In that case, Master Gotama, he does not reappear."

    "'Does not reappear,' Vaccha, doesn't apply."

    "...both does & does not reappear."

    "...doesn't apply."

    "...neither does nor does not reappear."

    "...doesn't apply."

    "How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if the monk reappears... does not reappear... both does & does not reappear... neither does nor does not reappear, he says, '... doesn't apply' in each case. At this point, Master Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured."

    "Of course you're befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you're confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. How do you construe this, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, 'This fire is burning in front of me'?"


    "And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, 'This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?' Thus asked, how would you reply?"

    "...I would reply, 'This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.'"

    "If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, 'This fire burning in front of me has gone out'?"


    "And suppose someone were to ask you, 'This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?' Thus asked, how would you reply?"

    "That doesn't apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass & timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as 'out' (unbound)."

    "Even so, Vaccha, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. 'Reappears' doesn't apply. 'Does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Both does & does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Neither reappears nor does not reappear' doesn't apply.

    "Any feeling... Any perception... Any mental fabrication...

    "Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. 'Reappears' doesn't apply. 'Does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Both does & does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Neither reappears nor does not reappear' doesn't apply."

    MN 72

    * * *

    "Consciousness without surface, without end, luminous all around, does not partake of the solidity of earth, the liquidity of water, the radiance of fire, the windiness of wind, the divinity of devas [and so on through a list of the various levels of godhood to] the allness of the All."

    — MN 49

    * * *
    Consciousness without surface, without end, luminous all around: Here water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing. Here long & short coarse & fine fair & foul name & form are all brought to an end. With the cessation of [the aggregate of] consciousness each is here brought to an end.

    DN 11

    * * *
    Not hoarding, having comprehended food, their pasture — emptiness & freedom without sign: their trail, like that of birds through space, can't be traced. Effluents ended, independent of nutriment, their pasture — emptiness & freedom without sign: their trail, like that of birds through space, can't be traced.

    Dhp 92-93

    ©2005 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
    From a file provided by the authhor.
    This Access to Insight edition is ©2005–2009 John T. Bullitt.

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    Friday, July 17, 2009

    Psychology / Neuroscience Link Dump

    I'm never going to get around to posting these links, so here is some stuff you might enjoy - follow the link to see more than the first paragraph.

    Parts Of Brain Involved In Social Cognition May Be In Place By Age Six
    Social cognition—the ability to think about the minds and mental states of others—is essential for human beings. In the last decade, a group of regions has been discovered in the human brain that are specifically used for social cognition. A new study in the journal Child Development investigates these brain regions for the first time in human children. The study has implications for children with autism.
    In Adolescence, Girls React Differently Than Boys To Peers' Judgments
    Teenagers yearn to fit in and be accepted by their friends. A new study suggests that girls and boys think differently about being judged by their peers as they move through adolescence.
    Chocolate cravings and the menstrual cycle
    I've just found a remarkable study on how female chocolate cravings vary throughout the hormone cycle and drop off after menopause. While the cravings are not solely explained by hormone changes, some of the effect does seem to be linked.
    How Monkeys Teach Tool Use
    How do baby monkeys learn to use tools? Apparently through lessons from mom, according to new findings that suggest education is a very ancient trait in the primate lineage. Long-tailed macaques near an old Buddhist shrine in Lopburi, Thailand, often pull hair from female tourists for use as dental floss. When female monkeys see their young watching them, they exaggerate their flossing. Primatologists at Kyoto University and their colleagues note that such overemphasis is much like what human mothers do when teaching infants, dubbed “motion­ese” by behavior scientists (after “motherese,” or baby talk).
    Brain wiring creates false memories

    BRAIN connections that encourage the formation of false memories have been identified. Such memories appear to be more likely in people with high-quality links between neurons in a particular brain area.

    Individuals often recall the same events differently or report memories of things they should have been too young to recall. To find out if a tendency to manufacture false memories is reflected in brain structure, Lluis Fuentemilla at the University of Barcelona in Spain and colleagues induced them in 48 students in the lab.

    Michio Kaku: Mr Parallel Universe

    Nice article from the Guardian UK on one of the founders of string theory.

    Michio Kaku: Mr Parallel Universe

    Michio Kaku is playing the hottest game in town, with his new variation of string theory. By John Crace.

    Michio Kaku, physicist, City University of New York

    Michio Kaku, physicist, City University of New York

    Take a trip to a New York ice-rink at the weekend and you're likely to see a middle-aged Japanese man jumping and spinning in perfect harmony with Newtonian physics. This is Michio Kaku's idea of relaxation; no relativity, little friction - just one man and the three laws of motion. He moves almost effortlessly, his blades carving perfect patterns in the ice; but then the three-dimensional world should present few problems to a man who is equally at home in 11.

    Kaku is the Henry Semat professor of theoretical physics at the City University in New York, and the man who, in the late 1960s, co-founded the field theory of strings - the equation that united a complex series of equations which described the behaviour of sub-atomic particles into a coherent whole.

    Mention string theory - the notion that an electron is not a dot, but a rubber band which, if vibrated enough times, can turn into every single sub-atomic particle in the universe - to most people and you get a glazed incomprehension: but to theoretical physicists it is just about the hottest topic around. "It either explains everything, or it explains nothing," Kaku shrugs, though his expression tells you exactly which side of the fence he is on.

    Over in the US you can buy a T-shirt with Kaku's equation printed on the front, but it has taken a while for him to gain this recognition. Back in 1974, he was laughed off campus when it was discovered that strings could only vibrate coherently in 10-dimensional hyperspace, and Kaku groans as he remembers being taunted by the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman with "How many dimensions are you living in today?".

    Kaku started work on another theory, only to realise he was looking at the same phenomenon at a higher vibration on the rubber band. And no one is laughing any more. For years, physicists and cosmologists have been searching for the grand theory that united quantum physics and gravity theory. Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life on just this problem, trying, in his words, "to read the mind of God".

    "He got to the fourth dimension and dabbled with the fifth," says Kaku, "but there wasn't yet the understanding of the nuclear force and quark model to allow him to progress. String theory is now the only real contender for the grand unified theory; everything else has fallen by the wayside. If Einstein had never lived, we would have been able to determine all his ideas from string theory."

    Kaku slips into overdrive as he explains all the implications. "String theory predicts the universe is like a soap bubble that is expanding and dying," he says. Billions of years from now stars will blink out; the night sky will be dark and the oceans will freeze over. But we may have an escape route. Our soap bubble co-exists with other soap bubbles; every time a black hole forms it may be creating a baby universe. The matter being sucked in may be blown out the other side, creating a white hole in a twin universe, which will expand very rapidly, like our own Big Bang.

    "Perhaps, also, a Type III civilisation, which can harness the Planck energy, will open a hole in space and tunnel through a wormhole to a parallel, warmer universe. There is no other hope. Either leave the universe or die with it. If the wormhole is microscopic in size then we may send a nanobot that can reproduce itself indefinitely and create cloning factories to recreate the dead civilisation through it."

    This sounds like something out of Star Trek, but Kaku is deadly serious as he goes on to talk up his latest variation of string theory - M (membrane) theory, which operates out of 11 dimensions - and to speculate on multi-worlds theory, a new version of quantum theory, which predicts there may be clones of ourselves with separate lives. "It sounds crazy," he admits, "but we can't apologise for it as it's a possibility." He notices my eyebrow rise. "It's a theory that's being pushed strongly by physicists over here in Oxford," he adds, as if to show it's not just some nutty Stateside notion.

    Kaku's voice washes easily over you. Each sentence makes sense. It's only when you get to the end of each paragraph that you realise you're hopelessly lost. But you don't really care, because it is never less than entertaining. And - academic credentials aside - this is Kaku's strong point. In the US, he's a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and has his own weekly radio show that explains the ins and outs of hyperspace and parallel universes.

    It's a skill that was born out of necessity. "I remember being at the final congressional hearing in 1994 to decide whether the US government would fund the building of an atom smasher outside Dallas that would be twice the size of that at Cern, Geneva," he says. "A physicist was asked, 'Will we find God?'. The reply came back, 'We will find the Higgs Boson [sub-atomic particle].' That answer cost US physics the £12bn project.

    "Thinking back, I would have said, 'This machine will take us as close as humanly possible to his or her greatest creation - genesis itself. It will give us a window on the instant of creation.' Before 1990, physicists only had to say 'Russia' to get their hands on cash, but since the end of the cold war, we have had to learn the language of the taxpayer."

    It's a language that Kaku now speaks fluently, and the financial rewards have been forthcoming. Tempting as it is to caricature theoretical physicists as a bunch of geeks happy to operate in a mathematically pure vacuum, the reality is rather different. For the theoretical is rapidly becoming practical, as billions of dollars are now being spent to test the validity of string theory.

    When Cern opens for business in two years' time, Kaku expects physicists to find evidence of sparticles - higher vibrations of the superstring, echoes from the 11th dimension. But his biggest hopes are pinned on the Laser Inferometry Space Antenna (Lisa), which will be launched in 2011. "Lisa is three satellites connected by laser beams which stretch 3m miles across space. This may pick up shock waves from the instant of creation, and maybe even pick up the umbilical cord of our universe."

    Kaku's bet is that string theory will then be verified, but there's plenty happening here on earth to keep him occupied. Both string and M theory predict that gravity can seep across parallel universes - which means their existence can be proven by looking for deviations from Newton's inverse square law of gravity. One such experiment has already been conducted in Denver. "The results came back negative," he smiles, "but this just shows there are no parallel universes in Denver. Physicists in Atlanta are already planning to repeat the experiment at the atomic level."

    It's hard to keep track of parallel universes, especially when Kaku keeps insisting they could be here, right now, in your living room and that there could be a universe in which Elvis Presley never died and in which Hitler was never born. But maybe Kaku's own life encourages him to believe in his own parallel world. For in most normal worlds, the first-born son of Japanese immigrants who were interned outside San Francisco during the second world war don't go on to refine and redefine Einsteinian physics.

    His awakening came on hearing the news of Einstein's death when he was eight years old. "I saw this picture of his unfinished work lying on his desk," he says, "and it became like a real-life murder mystery that I wanted to solve." By the time he was 16, Kaku had bought 400lb of steel and 22 miles of copper wire and had built his very own atom smasher in the family garage. It was powerful enough to pull fillings out of teeth, but the only thing it smashed was the house. "It broke every fuse and ruined every circuit breaker," he admits ruefully.

    But it had the desired effect. Kaku came to the attention of the renowned US physicist Edward Teller, who took him under his wing and secured him a scholarship to Harvard. Even then there was a parallel twist. "I discovered later that all Teller's scholarship students were earmarked for the Star Wars programme at Los Alamos," Kaku says. "I was offered a chance to work there, but I've always thought science was about creation, not destruction. So I turned it down."

    Kaku's legacy remains unclear. He could go down in history as a brilliant but misguided mathematician or he could be the first person to read the mind of God. But you sense that he isn't too bothered either way. "String theory is the only game in town," he says, "and you can't afford not to play it to the end." In any case, isn't there a parallel universe in which there's a Michio Kaku who reckons string theory is a load of nonsense?

    "Quite possibly," he laughs, before teleporting himself out of the room.

    The CV

    Name: Michio Kaku

    Age: 57

    Job: Henry Semat professor in theoretical physics, City University of New York

    Before that: visiting professor at Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

    Radio: hosts Explorations, an hour-long programme in the US

    Publications: Nine books, including Parallel Worlds, Hyper space and Visions, and more than 70 articles

    Likes: figure skating

    Dislikes: hiding in foxholes for the US army

    Married: with two children

    Shambhala Times - On Differing Views and Paths

    Great interview. It seems best, in my opinion, to get issues within a sangha out into the open. This would only seem to be one side of the split within the Shambhala community, but it's important to get a conversation going.
    On Differing Views and Paths
    July 16, 2009 – 6:00 am | Permalink |
    "Window blind" - Miksang photo by Joey Johannsen

    Window blind - Miksang photo by Joey Johannsen

    Shambhala Times is delighted to publish this interview, conducted by Andrew Safer and published in conjunction with Radio Free Shambhala.

    Radio Free Shambhala: As you know, there has been tension and disagreement between some of Trungpa Rinpoche’s senior students and some of the students of the Sakyong, regarding changes to the practice path and differences of view. Many of these senior students do not feel that there is room for them within the Shambhala mandala.

    Richard Reoch: It’s true that some of the long-term students of the Vidyadhara feel like they’re not supported. I and others have been in conversation with some of the long-term acharyas to see what is the practice support that is needed that would continue to nurture their path, and not make them feel excluded.

    RFS: Sometimes the samaya of these senior students has been questioned.

    Richard Reoch: That’s not what I feel Shambhala vision is about. I do not believe we should be commenting on or having the presumption to comment on another practitioner’s samaya. We all have a common, deep karmic connection. Probably most of us can’t even fathom it. We are all in this extraordinary lineage stream. We have a deep shared vision, at least about what Shambhala means, in an archetypal sense, in our subconscious.

    To regard someone who is maintaining samaya within the Shambhala lineage as a dissenter is a mistaken view. It is not helpful to comment on the legitimacy of another person’s practice of samaya. Perhaps this happens because we don’t have the ground for the perpetuation of lineage in this culture. If you think several generations ahead, are we going to say that the students of the next Sakyong are dissenters because they’re following the teachings of Mipham? This is a fundamental misunderstanding of lineage.

    One problem with the transplantation of egoless devotion from a culture like Tibet to a culture like we have in the West is we don’t have a tradition of lineage in modern form. We don’t have the cultural roots to support that. We are all grappling with how to understand this profound teaching.

    I try to use the office I hold (as President), and the authority that goes with it to deal with this issue. When members of our community are described as “border tribes”–when they write me or meet with me–I devote a lot of time and try to learn from them. I think there has been a kind of polarization in which extreme language is used. We genuinely have to go deeper, beneath this level of argument, to find the commonality. I’m definitely doing that, person to person.

    Maybe now that the current orientation of the path is getting clearer, we need to have a conversation with the senior acharyas about precisely what could be the support that can be provided for people who started on a particular element of the path of Shambhala and that needs to continue and be supported?

    Five Sakyongs down the road, there will be people who say “I make a personal connection by reading the works of the Vidyadhara.” Others will say, “How fortunate it was for Shambhala that Mipham the Great reincarnated as the Sakyong.” Eventually, it’s not just about tolerating differences; it’s about appreciating the incredible richness that’s available in our kingdom.

    RFS: The real question is: how are the teaching stream and legacy of Trungpa Rinpoche going to continue?

    Richard Reoch:
    I’ve been in discussions with Carolyn Gimian since the beginning of the Chogyam Trungpa Legacy Project about the importance of that initiative. The analogy we have used is that the Legacy Project is like a presidential library, so things don’t end up smoldering and being lost. I’ve had some initial conversations with some of the longer-term students and acharyas about how to create an identifiable and helpful framework so no one is seen as being on one track or the other, or as renegades which is antithetical to the long-term survival of the lineage.

    RFS: Many people who are devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche and who don’t consider the Sakyong to be their teacher don’t feel welcomed by the community, and they’re afraid to speak up.

    Richard Reoch: One of the earliest statements issued by the Mandala Governing Council created after the first Shambhala Congress was a statement on the commitment to openness. I asked members of that council to list the issues that people are afraid to speak up about. We seemed to have inherited an incredible atmosphere of fear, and I did not understand that. I had no idea the extent to which this community was traumatized. When I asked what issues were not being addressed, people were afraid to name the issues. I think we all realized, “Wow, we can’t even talk about what we can’t talk about!” Opening up that discussion was like Glasnost and Perestroika in Shambhala.

    I talked to Larry Mermelstein, and asked, “Is there anything we can do to reduce this climate of fear?” Some people were experiencing this fear in a very palpable way. If we can’t create a social framework in which we understand that people will have different points of view, then all the notions of fearlessness and openheartedness–everything we’re so proud of about the Shambhala inheritance–absolutely won’t take root. We can’t build an enlightened society on a basis of fear.

    Wherever I go, I invite people to talk to me about this so I can out find more about it. Sometimes, because someone has said something extremely abusive, we feel like we’re going to lose membership There are people hiding out, as if they’re the old Chi Kung masters at the height of the Cultural Revolution hoping they’re not noticed by the Red Guards. It’s a slow process of personal conversation, trying to address these tendencies of people persecuting each other.

    When Radio Free Shambhala was established, people contacted me as if this was the end of the world. “No, just think ahead,” I said. “If we think about the new golden age of Shambhala, there will be countless websites and social networking opportunities where people express their experience of the dharma and of different teachers, including what others might disagree with. If there’s one thing that prevents establishing the kingdom of Shambhala, it’s called fascism, and I’m not having anything to do with that.”

    President Reoch writes: “I was asked by Radio Free Shambhala to talk about the current guidelines for inviting teachers and, in the course of that, asked if I could talk also about the issue of fear in our mandala. I am delighted that Radio Free Shambhala is posting that interview on its website. Along these very same lines, I was deeply touched to hear the Sakyong say recently: ‘It is not a matter of us all agreeing. It is a matter of us not giving up.’”

    The Nature of Human Nature- Ending the War Within by John Groberg

    Are we a multiple self? Or, as the Christian tradition holds, a singular self? I lean toward the idea of multiple selves that we conflate into a single mono-self. This article also seems to side with the idea of multiple selves.

    This was posted at

    The Nature of Human Nature- Ending the War Within
    by John Groberg

    Much has been said about human nature. Some believe that human nature is inherently good and others believe that human nature is inherently evil and self-centered. There is some truth to both of these views. The reality is that our human nature is inherently "multi-natured". We all know this through our own direct experience.

    There are times you feel magnanimous, loving, kind and incapable of being offended.
    There are other times when you feel depressed, angry, self-indulgent, petty or easily offended.

    This internal conflict between multiple natures is so basic to human nature- it is what makes me just like you and you just like anyone else. And not just anyone else alive today- but anyone else that ever lived or ever will live. We are all equal in the sense that we have this common human nature that we experience as internal struggle. If we're fortunate- we can learn to integrate and unify our multiple natured human nature into a complete whole.

    Learning to experience, and integrate our multiple natures is the very essence of the "human experience". And experience is a great way to describe it- because it can only be understood through experience- or I prefer to use another form of the word- experiment.

    There are a multitude of names and descriptions for this "multi-natured" phenomenon:

    - The cartoon version of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other

    - Freud's Super Ego, Id and the Ego.

    - "High self" and a "low self"

    - Spirit and Shadow

    - Yin and Yang

    - Spiritual Man and Natural Man

    - The native American "Two Hungry Wolves"

    I have no doubt that every culture that ever existed has some analogy to attempt to describe this basic fact of life because, as already stated, it is truly universal to the human experience.

    So we know we have dual or multiple natures. Now what? Are we supposed to go to battle inside and eliminate one, or just reach a truce. Is it a sort of "cold war" inside us that we have to battle our whole lives?

    These "war within" mindsets stem from the belief that our "lower" nature, our ego, or choose whatever analogy you want, is something that needs to be hated, feared, battled, subdued and extinguished if we are to live a happy or "saintly" life. But is it really true that our so called "lower" nature should be eliminated? Could it be that we shouldn't try to eliminate our lower nature, that it actually serves a useful purpose?

    As I've studied this in my own mind and through reading the writings of many other philosophers and prophets throughout time, I've come to the conclusion that our so called "ego" is there for a reason- a very good reason. What reason is that? To preserve and extend physical life. I don't believe God makes mistakes. Our "ego" is very misunderstood by our rational mind. I imagine the ego just chuckles at our demonizing it- knowing all along that without it, our physical body would immediately die. To me the "ego" is much more than just our sense of identity or our pride. It is that part of us that is responsible for maintaining, preserving and extending life. It does this at a "subconscious" level over which we have little to no control (thank goodness). It regulates our heart beat, digests our food, breathes in and out, maintains chemical, energetic and thermal equilibrium, heals our wounds, mends our broken bones, and divides our cells, all without requiring any conscious input from our rational minds. What an amazing program we come already coded with! All our rational scientific discoveries pale in comparison to the sheer power and perfection of our built-in "super bio computer" we sometimes call our "ego". The ego's programming is simple: protect, preserve and extend physical life. How it accomplishes this is anything but simple.

    Now, it is also true that if left without leadership, the ego's directive can cause all sorts of non-resourceful outcomes- jealousy, greed, violence, infidelity, crime, war- you name the vice or sin- it's underlying source is the un-managed ego trying to "protect, preserve and extend" that physical life over which it is programmed to serve- typically at the expense or at odds with other egos trying to do the same thing.

    I believe that instead of battling our ego or seeing it as "sinful", it is more resourceful to meet it with understanding and even gratitude for the important and irreplaceable role it plays in our very physical survival. Then it can become a friend and ally in our journey of life instead of an inner enemy that cannot really be defeated.

    The ego- as powerful as it is, in many ways is like a child. It just wants to be appreciated and it also craves leadership in the form of boundaries. That leadership and those boundaries can temporarily come from outside sources like laws, cultural norms, parental expectations, rules, commandments, etc. But all of those sources are ultimately hollow and the ego knows it. The real leadership and boundaries that the ego will ultimately respect and obey can only come from within- from our Spirit- from the true captain of our physical ships we call our body.

    So when you feel your ego getting the best of you by retreating from Unity and Connectedness to Self and Separateness, instead of battling it try telling your ego something like this:

    "Ego, thank you so much for all you do to protect and maintain this amazing body. You're doing an amazing job and I don't thank you nearly enough. Without you, this body would be dead and I know it. So thank you and keep up the great work. Now, here's where the boundaries are in this case. I've been around a lot longer than this body has, and it's my job to be the boss of this life. Just trust me on this one- you'll be able to carry out your vital role more effectively if you follow my direction in this case. As the boss, I love that I can delegate so completely and effortlessly such complex things to you. I also love how you can be humble and obedient and see the big picture here."

    Use your own words- the point is to appreciate the ego for the important role it plays, but also provide the direction and leadership that, like the relative child that it is (compared to your Spirit), it actually craves.

    So while it may seem like we have dual or multiple natures, in reality there is only one- there is only unity. Left and right brain are really just brain. Natural and Spiritual Man are really just Man. Light and Dark are really just one revolution of the planet. They are two sides of the same coin. The one without the other is not only meaningless, it's not even possible.

    As we learn to "include and transcend" our multiple natures into a unified whole human nature of body, mind and spirit we begin to discover what has been there all along- before our beliefs of separation came along. We discover our True Self.

    Author's Bio
    John Groberg writes on a wide variety of topics related to personal and spiritual growth. His slogan is Grow. By Choice™. His articles draw out principles of personal and spiritual growth common to the world’s ancient wisdom and spiritual texts as well as many of the great philosophers, poets, and writers of ancient and modern times. These principles are then put to the test in his own life with an emphasis on simple, sustainable practices we can apply in our daily lives to more effectively deal with the stresses and struggles of modern life and to more fully realize the benefits of deliberate growth. John developed a model called the Divine-Align-Shine model as a way of visually organizing the principles, practices and the overall process of personal and spiritual growth. His writings are cataloged and organized on his website, where contact information is available.

    Shrink Rap Radio #213 - The Highly Sensitive Person with Ted Zeff

    Ah, yes, a topic close to my heart. I am an HSP, and sometimes it sucks to be that way in a world that has no clue what it means or poorly we sometimes fit into the world as it is.

    Shrink Rap Radio #213 - The Highly Sensitive Person with Ted Zeff

    photo of Dr. Ted Zeff

    Ted Zeff, Ph.D., is the author of two books on the highly-sensitive person: The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide and a workbook titled, The Highly Sensitive Person’s Companion. He is currently working on a third book: The Highly Sensitive Boy-Helping Your Son Become a Strong, Confident, Emotionally-Healthy Man. He received his doctorate in psychology in 1981 from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. He currently teaches workshops on coping techniques for highly sensitive people. He has taught stress reduction and insomnia management for over fifteen years at various hospitals and medical groups.

    Dr. Zeff has recently been giving many radio interviews throughout the United States and Canada at such stations as NPR affiliate KCLU in Santa Barbara, CA., cable talk CRN with Jack Roberts in Los Angeles, WTMD in Baltimore and WZLX in Boston. In addition, he has been interviewed on the popular TV show “Good Morning Bay Area.”

    A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

    icon for podpress [Play] Standard Podcast [1:08:53m]: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download [Play]

    Knowing Me, Myself And I: What Psychology Can Contribute To Self-knowledge

    Interesting little article from Science Daily.

    Knowing Me, Myself And I: What Psychology Can Contribute To Self-knowledge

    ScienceDaily (July 16, 2009) — How well do you know yourself? It's a question many of us struggle with, as we try to figure out how close we are to who we actually want to be. In a new report in Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychologist Timothy D. Wilson from the University of Virginia describes theories behind self-knowledge (that is, how people form beliefs about themselves), cites challenges psychologists encounter while studying it, and offers ways we can get to know ourselves a little better.

    The study of self-knowledge has tended to focus on how accurate we are at determining our own internal states, such as our emotions, personality, and attitudes. However, Wilson notes that self-knowledge can be broadened to include memory, like recalling how we felt in the past, and prospection, predicting how we will feel in the future. Knowing who we were and who we will be are as important to self-knowledge as knowing who we are in the present. And while a number of researchers are conducting studies that are applicable to those various facets of self-knowledge, Wilson observes that there is not much communication between them, one reason this field is challenging to investigate.

    Although it can be fairly simple to assess how people's attitudes change over time--that is, have them predict how they will feel at certain time and then actually measure their feelings at that time-- it is more difficult to measure people's current self-knowledge accurately. Some methods of acquiring accurate information on a person's feelings or their personality are to compare reports from their peers and study their nonverbal behavior. However, Wilson has "great faith in the methodological creativity" of his "fellow social psychologists" and is confident that questions raised by these types of experiments will be answered in the next few years.

    Although Wilson acknowledges all the interesting findings that have come out of new technologies, such as fMRI, he cautions that those type of studies may not be very relevant to studying issues associated with self-knowledge.

    There are a number of theories that aim to describe self-knowledge by a dual-process model, pitting the unconscious against the conscious. Wilson notes that these theories are pessimistic in that they view the unconscious as something that cannot be breached. However, he remarks that "self-knowledge is less a matter of careful introspection than of becoming an excellent observer of oneself."

    Wilson suggests some ways that can help us learn more about ourselves, such as really attempting to be objective when considering our behaviors and trying to see ourselves through the eyes of other people. Another way of knowing ourselves better is to become more aware of findings from psychological science. Wilson concludes, "Most of us pay attention to medical findings that inform us about our bodies (e.g., that smoking tobacco is harmful), and can learn about our psychological selves in the same way."

    Journal reference:

    1. . Know Thyself. Perspectives on Psychological Science, (in press)
    Adapted from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science.

    Thursday, July 16, 2009

    Charlie Rose Talks With Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran

    Nice interview. V.S. Ramachandran is one of the good guys in neuroscience.

    V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. Ramachandran initially trained as a doctor and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Ramachandran’s early work was on visual perception but he is best known for his experiments in behavioral neurology which, despite their apparent simplicity, have had a profound impact on the way we think about the brain. He has been called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.

    In 2005 he was awarded the Henry Dale Medal and elected to an honorary life fellowship by the Royal Instituion of Great Britain. His other honours and awards include fellowships from All Souls College, Oxford, and from Stanford University; the Presidential Lecture Award from the American Academy of Neurology, two honorary doctorates, the annual Ramon Y Cajal award from the International Neuropsychiatry Society, and the Ariens-Kappers medal from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences. In 2003 he gave the annual BBC Reith lectures and was the first physician/psychologist to give the lectures since they were begun by Bertrand Russel in 1949. In 1995 he gave the Decade of the Brain lecture at the 25th annual (Silver Jubilee) meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Most recently the President of India conferred on him the second highest civilian award and honorific title in India, the Padma Bhushan.

    Ramachandran has published over 180 papers in scientific journals (including five invited review articles in the Scientific American). He is author of the acclaimed book “Phantoms in the Brain” that has been translated into nine languages and formed the basis for a two part series on Channel Four TV (UK) and a 1 hour PBS special in USA. NEWSWEEK magazine has named him a member of “The Century Club” – one of the “hundred most prominent people to watch in the next century.”

    Holger Nauheimer - 7 Dimensions: Principal Skills of Change Facilitators

    An excellent blog and an excellent post for anyone interested in the change process.

    7 Dimensions: Principal Skills of Change Facilitators

    Some months ago, Nils Atle Krokeide, Bernd Weber and I sat together and tried to define what are the general skills of a change facilitator. This is what we came up with:

    Dimension 1: Ability to Grasp Clients’ Needs

    Key Aspects:
    The ability to grasp or understand a client’s needs is the precondition for the design and redesign of the change process. The skilled change facilitator is aware of the fact that that the client’s needs will rarely be fully revealed nor fully known neither by the client nor by the facilitator. The Client-Facilitator System must be able to perceive these needs as fully as possible and to formulate and to document these needs as they are developing. This is the basis for the initial proposal to the client. The facilitated system understands that needs will continually be uncovered, revealed and developed during the change process and requires regular adjustments (contracting).

    Related Skills:

    • Empathy
    • Ability to understand context specific culture
    • Analysis of the need system, e.g. stakeholder needs, functional needs, basic individual needs, business needs,
    • Identification of compatibility, contradictions and potential conflicts
    • Interview techniques e.g. systemic questioning
    • Tools for documentations and monitoring of changing needs
    • Informal and formal information gathering
    • Sensitivity for the clash of intra-organizational cultures, traditions and rituals.
    Dimension 2: Contracting Process

    Key Aspects:

    The traditional understanding of consultancy sees “contracting” as one step in the consultancy process which ends with a signature. The Change-Facilitator understands that contracting includes the whole process of creating, maintaining and changing the professional relationship between facilitator and client. In this light contracting starts with the first contact and ends only with the facilitation process. CONTRACTING turns out to be “The full assignment management process”, combining project and relationship management.

    Related Skills:
    • Have an ear for the (changing) client’s needs, budgeting, conflict management, analysis of documentation, intercultural communication, differentiation of roles (customer/process owner/client/key actors, etc.), dealing with role complexity, proposal writing, structure of contracts, differentiate and facilitate the formal and the informal contracting (informal shifting of contracts, formal re-definition of contracts, intermediate and final contracts).
    • Contract context analysis
    • Contract structure, examples of real contracts
    • Frame contract, intervention contracts and TORs
    • (Self-) monitoring of contract development
    • Sales and negotiation strategies
    Dimension 3: Dealing with Complexity

    Key Aspects:

    The concept of complexity in change facilitation is based on system theory applied to the social field. Whereas in everyday contexts the polarity is seen as being SIMPLE vs. COMPLICATED, COMPLEXITY is a BEHAVIOUR that can be observed also in simple systems. In complex systems the relation between cause and effect (= the system’s behaviour) is non-linear. Logical analysis of social systems such as organizations is not enough. Complex systems tend to show chaotic behaviour. That is one reason why they are not easily manageable. The systemic approach is holistic and proved to be successful for dealing with complex systems.
    Complexity may, for example, grow by increasing diversity in the stakeholder system, by growing amount and intensity of interconnections (feedback-loops) between the elements of the system, but also by growing uncertainty by changing roles or increasing role-mix of individual actors etc.

    Experienced facilitators know: “People do not resist change, systems do.”

    Related Skills:
    • Identification of logical and non-logical aspects of group and organization behaviour.
    • The principles of occidental logical thinking. Hierarchy as the social construction that manages may create and manage complicated systems, but fails with regard to complex behaviour of real social systems
    • Examples for non-logical thinking traditions (e.g. occidental: dialectics, Gestalt-Theory and oriental: Yin-Yang thinking)
    • Complex behaviour of organizations and institutions: functional complexity
    • Intra-individual complexity
    • Dealing with and separating different levels of complexity in change (Ralph Stacey and David Snowden models).
    • Intervention design and implementation that uses logical and non-logical strategies
    Dimension 4: Design of Change Interventions

    Key Aspects:

    Change in organizations happens simultaneously at different levels: individuals change their beliefs, skills and attitudes; they have to let go of old habits and welcome new ones. Teams establish new rules, processes and relationships. The organization as a whole might change culture, structure and leadership models. The skilled change facilitator is able to think multi-dimensionally and to translate the client’s needs into a sequence of interventions that has to be designed with care, creativity and respect which addresses these different levels of change.

    Related Skills of a Change Facilitator:
    • Systems thinking
    • Ability to communicate at different hierarchical levels (shop floor to board room)
    • Broad knowledge of change facilitation intervention techniques
    • Flexibility in design and redesign
    • Methods for co-creating intervention designs together with clients and for getting their ownership
    • Project management skills
    • Conceptualization and drafting skills
    • Ability to use different graphical and presentation software
    • Creating a change facilitation plan
    Dimension 5: Implementation of Change Processes

    Key Aspects:
    In change processes, roles are not stable. As a consequence, change facilitators are the implementers of change strategies. Although the client is the owner of the change process, they hold us accountable for success or failure. This contradiction is a fact. The facilitator may initiate, plan, organise and carry out specific interventions such as training courses, expert consultations, coaching, facilitation of workshops, design of communication strategies, steering of the process, trust building, creating and supporting communities of practice, and much more. The classical division between process and expert consultant has been replaced by a holistic role model of the change facilitator, who is a true multi-artist.

    Related Skills:
    • Training skills (online and face-to-face)
    • Facilitation skills (online and face-to-face; classical and whole systems change)
    • Coaching skills (online and face-to-face)
    • Expert consulting skills and knowledge (online and face-to-face)
    • Project management skills
    • Conflict management and mediation skills
    • Ability to recognize own strengths and weaknesses and flexibility to assemble the right team to do the job
    • High frustration tolerance within an environment characterised by uncertainty, low transparency and open or hidden power struggles
    • Broad spectrum of change models and intervention methods, including paradox interventions
    • Facilitation of interventions for personal development
    • Ability to tailor-make new interventions that respond to the client system’s situation and facilitate experiential learning
    • Ability to hold time and space – allowing the right things to emerge (whatever happens is the right thing...)
    • Ability to consequently apply the minimum intervention principle - do one thing less
    Dimension 6: Roles and attitudes

    Key Aspects:
    The skilled facilitator is able to differentiate behaviour, role, function and position in organizations. In everyday communications in organizations, these concepts are used in a clouded way. When the organization starts to change, this might prove not to be functional any longer.

    Facilitators are able to perceive and to communicate which role mixes are assigned to them by the client and to negotiate change of roles according to the systemic needs. This process requires a set of attitudes which are accessible for the facilitator all the time: being a servant, humbleness, ability to be a warrior and a healer, reliability, persistency, being a continuous learner and curiosity.

    Related Skills:
    • Self-reflection and insight of one’s own changeability
    • Determination to stay the course
    • Goal and success orientation
    • Empathy
    • Ability to identify and communicate the difference between behaviour, role, function and position in organizational change processes
    Dimension 7: Change models

    Key Aspects:
    Presently there exist a variety of change models starting from Kurt Lewin’s classical unfreeze-change-freeze model up to recent models such as Theory U of Otto Scharmer, etc. The skilled change facilitator is aware of the fact that “THE correct model” does not exist.

    Related Skills:
    • To identify the change models that lies in fact behind the client’s interventions realized before the contracting the facilitator
    • The ability to decide what kind of change models which will support change interventions in different situations and contexts of the client’s system.