Saturday, October 10, 2009

Duff McDuffee - James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2, Injures 19 in Sweat Lodge Fiasco

This is freaking bat-shit crazy - if this guy isn't sued to the point he is living in his car there is no justice in the world (and there isn't or these people would not be dead).

Duff McDuffee has written two great posts about this tragedy:

James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2, Injures 19 in Sweat Lodge Fiasco

written by Duff McDuffee on October 9th, 2009

The news is going around that our pal James Arthur Ray has two dead participants and 19 hospitalized after a 2-hour long sweat in Sedona, AZ. Some partipants paid up to $9000 for this “Spiritual Warrior Event.” From the AP release:

Many people began feeling ill after about two hours in the sweat box, emerging lightheaded and weak, said Verde Valley Fire District Chief Jerry Doerksen.

Two hours in a sweat lodge!? This is insane. (UPDATE: I’ve been informed–by my girlfriend–that 2 hours or even much longer is commonplace for sweats. I still think this is insane.) I remember doing a sweat with the Boy Scouts, and it was about 15 minutes before we got out and dumped ourselves with cold water. Ever spent 2 hours in a sauna with no break?

But this is the logic of these kinds of workshops–break you down to build you up. Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within is very similar–long hours, no breaks, constant full-on exercises. While there is usually no explicit instruction that you must remain with the group, the pressure to do so can be enormous even when way beyond your limits.

I’m guessing that these deaths and injuries were not a result of “carbon monoxide” (which tested negatively) but intense psychological pressure to remain in a dangerous situation far beyond the limits of safety and sanity.

I know several people who have gone to the hospital for various reasons after “large group awareness trainings” such as Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event.” Many people online have complained of received mild to moderate burns on their feet after Tony Robbins’ firewalk, for example. It’s time we brought these gurus to justice and demanded that personal change workshops be safe for all.

When something goes wrong in such a seminar due to it being overly intense and dangerous, usually the victims are blamed for “not taking 100% responsibility,” thus dodging the responsibility of the seminar leaders. Personally, I think we should hold James Arthur Ray 100% personally responsible for the death of these two seminar participants, up to and including going to jail.
Read the whole post.

The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens

written by Duff McDuffee on October 10th, 2009

As I reported on yesterday, participants of James Arthur Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event” got more than they paid for (and they paid $9,695 each) when two people died and 19 were injured in a large sweat lodge with 64 people.

What can we learn from this?

One thing we might conclude is that all spiritual teachers or personal development gurus are bad, and should be avoided. Or that James Arthur Ray specifically is a greedy, evil person. Or that the Law of Attraction and The Secret are total bullshit. And these would indeed be ways to read the situation that have some merit. I’ve been tending to take this more cynical view of personal development and spirituality lately.

But what if we read this event through the eyes of magick? James Ray claims lineage in the Western esoteric or occult tradition, so perhaps we could learn something interesting from reading this terrible event in this way that would deepen our understanding. Perhaps we could even find some ideas for moving forward in a positive new paradigm for personal development.

When I begin to think about the deaths of Ray’s seminar participants in this way, I find myself having a change of heart towards the man, far less cynical about his words and basic message while still holding him accountable for what transpired. Perhaps you will have a similar change of heart.

Read the whole post.

There are lots of useful links in each article.

All in the Mind - You are NOT a Self! - bodies, brains and the nature of consciousness [Thomas Metzinger]

Great episode!

You are NOT a Self! - bodies, brains and the nature of consciousness

German philosopher of mind Thomas Metzinger is one of the world's top researchers on consciousness, instrumental in its renaissance as a respectable problem for scientific enquiry. From out of body experiences to lucid dreaming, anarchic hand syndrome to phantom limbs - his investigations have taken him to places few dare to go. Be spooked, bewildered and amazed.

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Transcripts are published on Wednesdays, streaming and downloadable audio on saturdays directly after broadcast.


Professor Thomas Metzinger
Professor of Philosophy,
Director, Theoretical Philosophy Group
Department of Philosophy
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Further Information

All in the Mind blog - for your comments and discussion

9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science 2009
Thomas Metzinger was a keynote speaker at the conference, held at Macquarie University Sept 30 - Oct 2, 2009

Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness

Brain hijinks: out-of-body experiences and other tricks of consciousness (details of Thomas Metzinger's work with Olaf Blanke)
Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2008

Is the visual world a grand illusion? : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2003

Psychoprosthetics: Can a Prosthesis Ever Really become a Part of You? : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2002

David Chalmers on the conundrum of consciousness : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2003

Susan Greenfield contemplates consciousness : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2002

Nature of Consciousness debate - Part 1 of 2 : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2004

Nature of Consciousness debate - Part 2 of 2 : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2004

Radiant Cool: Detective Thriller takes on Consciousness : Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National, 2003


Title: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self
Author: Thomas Metzinger
Publisher: Basic Books, 2009
ISBN-10: 0465045677

Title: Full-body illusions and minimal phenomenal selfhood
Author: O. Blanke & T. Metzinger
Publisher: Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(1):7-13 (2009)


Natasha Mitchell

Pat Enkyo O'Hara - Practice Is What We Are

This article was the source of yesterday's Daily Dharma quote -great brief article from Tricycle.

Practice is what we are

by Pat Enkyo O'Hara

Like a Dragon in Water Enkyo Roshi TricycleThinking about steadiness in practice reminds me of when I was a little girl and would swim in the great breaking waves of the Pacific coast of Baja California. The surf was ragged, and sometimes treacherous, but for those who were accustomed to its rhythms, it was possible to swim through and around the currents, to bob up from under the fiercest waves. I think a key to this ability was sensing that one was part of the ocean and that to play in it was to let go into the wave, sometimes swimming under, sometimes alongside it. There were days when the ocean was utterly calm and days of wild intensity, and for a child, no matter what, there was that fish-like ease and joy of play.

Perhaps most of us enter meditation practice with the hope of finding that kind of natural joy in our lives, in the hopes of experiencing each moment fully, with the freshness of moment-to-moment awareness. And in the initial stages of our practice, many of us manage to find the quiet space that opens us to our spaciousness and spontaneous nature. Buoyed by this experience, our practice gratifies us and propels us along for a while.

And then the inevitable distraction or doubt or difficulty arises. Whether it is a subtle change in our schedule or a disturbing loss of faith, we lose our footing, drop our practice, and often completely forget for weeks at a time that we even had a meditation practice! And it is so difficult to come back, to actually stop and sit down and practice again.

We know that we should “just do it,” but our ever-subtle and tricky “monkey minds” make that “should” and that “just” infinitely difficult, even interesting, and distracting. Instead of sitting down on our cushion or going to our meditation center, we think and talk and distract ourselves with all the reasons why not to do it. Or we simply “forget” to practice.

Now if the practice is so good for us, why is it so difficult to maintain a steady practice? It may be that the notion that practice is “good for us” is the very impediment - we all know how we can resist what is good for us at the table, at the gym, and on the Internet. This mechanical notion of practice, “if I practice, then I will be (fill in the blank),” leads to discouragement because it is not true that practice inevitably leads to happiness or anything that we can imagine. Our lives, like the ocean, constantly change, and we will naturally face great storms and dreary lulls.

How, then, to put our minds in a space where practice is always there, whether tumultuous or in the doldrums? It requires a completely radical view of practice: practice is not something we do; it is something we are. We are not separate from our practice, and so no matter what, our practice is present. An ocean swimmer is loose and flows with the current and moves through the tide. When tossed upside-down in the surf, unable to discern which way is up and which is down, the natural swimmer just lets go, breathing out, and follows the bubbles to the surface.

And so it can be with our practice. Seeing our practice as our life, we just let go and do it. We just practice a steadiness in our daily meditation. Without expectations of any kind, we just practice, day in and day out, through the high points and the low. “I really doubt this practice is helping me. Okay, still, it is time to sit, right through this doubt.” Or, “Oh, I didn’t sit all week! Okay, right now I’ll sit for twenty minutes.” And each time we come back to our practice, we experience it as more inherent to our life. Maezumi Roshi, based in Los Angeles, would often use the Spanish expression for “little by little” to indicate this patient quality of practice: “Being one with the practice, you are transformed, poco a poco.”

This understanding of our practice is expressed by the great thirteenth-century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen, when he says that our meditation practice “is not step-by-step meditation; it is simply the dharma gate of peace and joy. It is the practice-enlightenment of the Ultimate Way . . . . When you grasp this, you are like a dragon in water, or a tiger in the mountains.”

Sensei Pat Enkyo O’Hara is a Zen teacher in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi’s White Plum Sangha and received dharma transmission from Bernie Glassman. She is a founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order.

Image: © David McGlynn/Getty Image

Brain Science Podcast #62: Warren Brown on “Did my neurons make me do it?”

Great discussion - neuropsychology is going to have an increasing impact on the judicial system in the coming years. How do we balance that with our feelings about free will and personal responsibility?

BSP-62: Warren Brown on “Did my neurons make me do it?”

Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy

Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy

Episode 62 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Warren Brown, PhD, co-author (with Nancey Murphy) of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. This book was discussed in detail back in Episode 53, but this interview gave me a chance to discuss some of the book’s key ideas with Dr. Brown. We focused on why a non-reductive approach is needed in order to formulate ideas about moral responsibility that are consistent with our current neurobiological understanding of the mind.

listen-to-audio Listen to Episode 62 [Play]

Episode Transcript (Coming Soon)

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Additional Links and References:

Dharma Quote of the Week - The Path of the Bodhisattva

Buddhist Practices for
Opening to Others
by Rob Preece

Dharma Quote of the Week

The story is told that when Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, was looking at the lives of human beings upon this planet, he saw how much pain and suffering we inflict upon each other, and for a moment his compassion faltered. He almost abandoned his vow to liberate us from suffering. At that instant, his body exploded into a thousand pieces, represented in the image of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. If this can happen to the figure who, in Buddhism, most exemplifies compassion, then perhaps we can be forgiven for not always finding it easy to sustain a compassionate heart in the face of so much suffering in the world.

We may live in times when material, economic, and scientific progress is moving at a rate never before seen, yet our capacity to live peacefully alongside each other seems to remain elusive. When confronted with the constant evidence of so much brutality and corruption present in the world, whether this is seen on the news or experienced closer to home, it is common to feel a sense of anger and outrage, and to feel powerless to do anything to change the ignorance, greed, and hatred that motivate most of the atrocities our fellow humans inflict upon each other. Are we, individually or collectively, able to go beyond the dominance of our instinctual selfishness that reaps so much harm?

...Whatever spiritual tradition we may be part of, if we wish to live our lives with greater openness to others, and with the courage and heart to cope with adverse conditions, we have much to learn from the path of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva, sometimes translated as "the awakening warrior," dedicates his or her life to the welfare of others and is willing to face the challenges of life to do so. The bodhisattva's way of life does not lead to a spiritual escape from the reality of the world. Rather, the bodhisattva cultivates the capacity to live within the raw reality of suffering on the ground and transform life's adverse circumstances into a path of awakening. A bodhisattva makes a clear decision to remain embodied and in relationship to life even while reaching states of awareness that go far beyond our normal reality. Such a person is said to renounce the peace of nirvana and overcome the fear of samsara. What gives this attitude to life a particular significance is that it recognizes that only through fully awakening our innate wholeness can we achieve the greatest benefit to others.

Central to this approach to life is a quality of intention called bodhichitta, often translated as "the awakening mind." The awakening mind is most often described as the clear, compassionate intention to attain the state of buddhahood for the welfare of all sentient beings. While "the awakening mind" may seem like a relatively simple phrase, its actual psychological, emotional, and social implications are huge. It is a reorientation of the whole of an individual's direction and meaning in life, rooted in a deep sense of compassion and responsibility towards the welfare of the world.

~ From The Courage to Feel: Buddhist Practices for Opening to Others by Rob Preece, published by Snow Lion Publications

Friday, October 09, 2009

Transformational Bias in Integral Psychotherapy?

I don't know that there is a transformational bias in integral psychotherapy, but I definitely experience such a bias on occasion in how I look at clients - and I am sure that it does not serve the client's best interests. I want to explore that possible bias here.

This musing/exploration was inspired by a discussion in my individual therapy class this week, a case study on a man named "George." I'll provide details below.

First, let's define some terms so that we are clear on what I am talking about here.

Integral Psychotherapy:
Integral Psychotherapy is a term that has been developed independently by both by practicing psychologists and psychotherapists who are also students of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (such as Brant Cortright, Alok Pandey, and Soumitra Basu) and by Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute. It is therefore used in two different contexts, although both within the context of integral thought: referring either to the synthesis of western psychology and psychotherapy with the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, or to to the application of Wilberian Integral theory to psychotherapy and personal development.
I am using the Wilber version here, as outlined in Integral Psychology. Essentially this entails the use of his quadrant model, developmental lines and stages, as well as states of consciousness and personality types - all of which is generally referred to as AQAL. For an overview of integral psychology, check out this article by John Rowan, or this video featuring Jeff Soulen.

A horizontal change in surface structures or patterns; the shuffling and stabilizing of
those surface structures. (Includes agency and communion as primary expressions.)
Essentially we are talking here about change within a stage - an expansion of tools or perspectives within a given developmental stage.

A vertical change in deep structures. The emergence of deeper forms of agency and wider communions. A shift to any higher level in a holarchy. (Includes Eros and Agape as driving forces.)
Most often, transformation is talked about as an upward shift in developmental stage, though not exclusively.

Both of the preceding definitions are taken from the AQAL Gloassary - see the glossary for meanings of other terms in the definitions

For the purposes of this discussion, transformation will be seen as the transition from a lower, less complex perspective to a greater, more complex perspective. The stage model I will be referring to will be Robert Kegan's subject-object model of complexity of mind, mostly because the case study under examination lends itself to that particular model more than others.

The Case:

I'm going to abbreviate the case study we were given in class for the purposes of this blog post, so here are the particulars:
George is a 54-yr old man whose wife made an appointment for him two months after he had found that his father (who was living in a guest house on their ranch) had shot himself to death with a shotgun. Since then he had become withdrawn, had lost his appetite and lost weight, had stopped going into work at the business he had taken over from his father years early and expanded considerably, and had began to sleep poorly and have nightmares when he did sleep. George was an only child and his mother had passed away two years prior. He was married with two sons and an 18-year-old daughter still living at home.

George stated he had been a hard worker his whole life, but recently had no desire to get up in the morning, and even less desire to go to work. In fact, he was questioning whether or not he wanted to continue with the family business at all. He felt like simply riding and raising horses (he can afford to do this due to his success as a self-made business man).

While George felt sincere grief and some responsibility over his father's death, he recognized that his father's health was failing and that his father never wanted to be a burden on anyone. More troubling to George was his lack of interest in the family business and his considerable guilt over not caring about it any more.

He seemed to be questioning what he wanted to do with his life at this point and was experiencing dissatisfaction and restlessness.
So the assignment was to discuss the treatment plan we would develop for this man. There was some disagreement as to whether we treat the depression or the grief first, and what to do about the potential PTSD (too early to diagnose in many opinions). We concluded that dealing with and resolving the grief would most likely reduce and/or remove the depression, which is how it played out in the real world.

So I'm sitting there thinking, "WAIT! There is a huge opportunity here for this man to evolve a bit."

I could clearly see that this death was a transformative crisis that had opened George to a potential new way of being in the world, a more authentic and more complex perspective. George was deeply embedded in what Kegan calls the interpersonal stage and now refers to as "socialized mind." He followed his father into the family business, as had one of his two sons. He was a man of responsibility and loyalty to his family. Those qualities are great, but he also seems to be constrained by self-imposed limits on what he can do in life.

This perspective had been shaken by his father's death. He no longer had interest in the family business. He did not seem to want to follow the same path his father had followed (who had continued going into the business every day even though he did not actually work). He was restless and not satisfied with how things were going in his life. He was thinking about raising horses and spending more time riding.

There was a tremendous opportunity here for George to shift from socialized mind to "self-authoring mind." Even if there was not a full stage-shift, he was in that liminal space often created by loss when one is open to change (see this article on the ritual structure of change for an understanding of liminal space in the change process) and could have certainly broadened his perspective with the right guidance.

As I sat in class thinking these thoughts, it occurred to me that he did not go to therapy to evolve. In fact, he had no intention of going at all and did it simply because his wife of 30 years wanted him to go.

As an integrally-informed (student) therapist and as someone who has done a tremendous amount of self-work in seeking transformation, I have a bias toward transformation over translation - and I think that many integral folks do. Even Kegan, a well-known father of the integral psychology movement, seems to express this bias in his books (all of them are designed to help people evolve through stages by identifying language and immunities that block evolution).

But is this the best thing for the client?

In George's case - and to an extent I see him as a fair John Doe representative - I'm not so sure that what I would have wanted for him was the best thing for him. I suspect that the outcome generated by our professor (his therapist) was more appropriate to his needs and life.

Is there a bias toward pushing clients into transformation among those who practice integral psychotherapy? I don't know, but I certainly can entertain that bias - and it's something I need to look at closely. It is not my job to "grow" clients (as Don Beck has been known to say regarding his Spiral Dynamics Integral model). It is my job to serve the client as best I can.

Shambhala Sun - Waking Up to Your World by Pema Chödrön

Another great dharma lesson from Pema Chodron and Shambhala Sun.

Waking Up to Your World


Throughout our day we can pause, take a break from our usual thoughts, and wake up to the magic and vastness of the world around us. Pema Chödrön says this easy and spacious type of mindfulness practice is the most important thing we can do with our lives.

One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?

Every day of your life, every morning of your life, you could ask yourself, “As I go into this day, what is the most important thing? What is the best use of this day?” At my age, it’s kind of scary when I go to bed at night and I look back at the day, and it seems like it passed in the snap of a finger. That was a whole day? What did I do with it? Did I move any closer to being more compassionate, loving, and caring—to being fully awake? Is my mind more open? What did I actually do? I feel how little time there is and how important it is how we spend our time.

What is the best use of each day of our lives? In one very short day, each of us could become more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more in touch with the dream-like quality of reality. Or we could bury all these qualities more deeply and get more in touch with solid mind, retreating more into our own cocoon.

Every time a habitual pattern gets strong, every time we feel caught up or on automatic pilot, we could see it as an opportunity to burn up negative karma. Rather than as a problem, we could see it as our karma ripening, which gives us an opportunity to burn up karma, or at least weaken our karmic propensities. But that’s hard to do. When we realize that we are hooked, that we’re on automatic pilot, what do we do next? That is a central question for the practitioner.

One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths, and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.

Before I talk more about consciously pausing or creating a gap, it might be helpful to appreciate the gap that already exists in our environment. Awakened mind exists in our surroundings—in the air and the wind, in the sea, in the land, in the animals—but how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?

If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing, you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you, and the sacredness of the space will penetrate.

Or maybe not. Maybe you are already caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before. Maybe you worry about something that has to be done, or hasn’t been done, or a letter that you just received. Maybe you are caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon.

For all of us, the experience of our entanglement differs from day to day. Nevertheless, if you connect with the blessings of your surroundings—the stillness, the magic, and the power—maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.

On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing—to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.

You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye. Then for a moment you stick your head out and realize, Wow! Look at that sky! Look at that squirrel! Look at that person!

The great fourteenth-century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa talked about our useless and meaningless focus on the details, getting so caught up we don’t see what is in front of our nose. He said that this useless focus extends moment by moment into a continuum, and days, months, and even whole lives go by. Do you spend your whole time just thinking about things, distracting yourself with your own mind, completely lost in thought? I know this habit so well myself. It is the human predicament. It is what the Buddha recognized and what all the living teachers since then have recognized. This is what we are up against.

“Yes, but…,” we say. Yes, but I have a job to do, there is a deadline, there is an endless amount of e-mail I have to deal with, I have cooking and cleaning and errands. How are we supposed to juggle all that we have to do in a day, in a week, in a month, without missing our precious opportunity to experience who we really are? Not only do we have a precious human life, but that precious human life is made up of precious human days, and those precious human days are made up of precious human moments. How we spend them is really important. Yes, we do have jobs to do; we don’t just sit around meditating all day, even at a retreat center. We have the real nitty-gritty of relationships—how we live together, how we rub up against each other. Going off by ourselves, getting away from the people we think are distracting us, won’t solve everything. Part of our karma, part of our dilemma, is learning to work with the feelings that relationships bring up. They provide opportunities to do the most important thing too.

If you have spent the morning lost in thought worrying about what you have to do in the afternoon, already working on it in every little gap you can find, you have wasted a lot of opportunities, and it’s not even lunchtime yet. But if the morning has been characterized by at least some spaciousness, some openness in your mind and heart, some gap in your usual way of getting caught up, sooner or later that is going to start to permeate the rest of your day.

If you haven’t become accustomed to the experience of openness, if you haven’t got any taste of it, then there is no way the afternoon is going to be influenced by it. On the other hand, if you’ve given openness a chance, it doesn’t matter whether you are meditating, working at the computer, or fixing a meal, the magic will be there for you, permeating your life.

As I said, our habits are strong, so a certain discipline is required to step outside our cocoon and receive the magic of our surroundings. The pause practice—the practice of taking three conscious breaths at any moment when we notice that we are stuck—is a simple but powerful practice that each of us can do at any given moment.

Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place will dawn upon you, if you let your mind relax and drop for just a few breaths the storyline you are working so hard to maintain. If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.

When you are waking up in the morning and you aren’t even out of bed yet, even if you are running late, you could just look out and drop the storyline and take three conscious breaths. Just be where you are! When you are washing up, or making your coffee or tea, or brushing your teeth, just create a gap in your discursive mind. Take three conscious breaths. Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble. Let it be just a moment in time, and then go on.

You are on your way to whatever you need to do for the day. Maybe you are in your car, or on the bus, or standing in line. But you can still create that gap by taking three conscious breaths and being right there with the immediacy of your experience, right there with whatever you are seeing, with whatever you are doing, with whatever you are feeling.

Another powerful way to do pause practice is simply to listen for a moment. Instead of sight being the predominant sense perception, let sound, hearing, be the predominant sense perception. It’s a very powerful way to cut through our conventional way of looking at the world. In any moment, you can just stop and listen intently. It doesn’t matter what particular sound you hear; you simply create a gap by listening intently.

In any moment you could just listen. In any moment, you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience. You could look at your hand resting on your leg, or feel your bottom sitting on the cushion or on the chair. You could just be here. Instead of being not here, instead of being absorbed in thinking, planning, and worrying, instead of being caught up in the cocoon, cut off from your sense perceptions, cut off from the power and magic of the moment, you could be here. When you go out for a walk, pause frequently—stop and listen. Stop and take three conscious breaths. How precisely you create the gap doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to punctuate your life with these thought-free moments. They don’t have to be thought-free minutes even, they can be no more than one breath, one second. Punctuate, create gaps. As soon as you do, you realize how big the sky is, how big your mind is.

When you are working, it’s so easy to become consumed, particularly by computers. They have a way of hypnotizing you, but you could have a timer on your computer that reminds you to create a gap. No matter how engrossing your work is, no matter how much it is sweeping you up, just keep pausing, keep allowing for a gap. When you get hooked by your habit patterns, don’t see it as a big problem; allow for a gap.

When you are completely wound up about something and you pause, your natural intelligence clicks in and you have a sense of the right thing to do. This is part of the magic: our own natural intelligence is always there to inform us, as long as we allow a gap. As long as we are on automatic pilot, dictated to by our minds and our emotions, there is no intelligence. It is a rat race. Whether we are at a retreat center or on Wall Street, it becomes the busiest, most entangled place in the world.

Pause, connect with the immediacy of your experience, connect with the blessings; liberate yourself from the cocoon of self-involvement, talking to yourself all of the time, completely obsessing. Allow a gap, gap, gap. Just do it over and over and over; allow yourself the space to realize where you are. Realize how big your mind is; realize how big the space is, that it has never gone away, but that you have been ignoring it.

Find a way to slow down. Find a way to relax. Find a way to relax your mind and do it often, very, very often, throughout the day continuously, not just when you are hooked but all the time. At its root, being caught up in discursive thought, continually self-involved with discursive plans, worries, and so forth, is attachment to ourselves. It is the surface manifestation of ego-clinging.

So, what is the most important thing to do with each day? With each morning, each afternoon, each evening? It is to leave a gap. It doesn’t matter whether you are practicing meditation or working, there is an underlying continuity. These gaps, these punctuations, are like poking holes in the clouds, poking holes in the cocoon. And these gaps can extend so that they can permeate your entire life, so that the continuity is no longer the continuity of discursive thought but rather one continual gap.

But before we get carried away by the idea of continual gap, let’s be realistic about where we actually are. We must first remind ourselves what the most important thing is. Then we have to learn how to balance that with the fact that we have jobs to do, which can cause us to become submerged in the details of our lives and caught in the cocoon of our patterns all day long. So find ways to create the gap frequently, often, continuously. In that way, you allow yourself the space to connect with the sky and the ocean and the birds and the land and with the blessing of the sacred world. Give yourself the chance to come out of your cocoon.

This teaching is based on a talk given to the monks and nuns at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Pema Chödrön is resident acharya (senior teacher). It has been adapted for a lay audience.

Waking Up to Your World, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, September 2008.

Body Posture Affects Confidence In Your Own Thoughts

Further proof that body (objective) and mind (subjective) are much more intimately linked than many people like to think. From Medical News Today.

Body Posture Affects Confidence In Your Own Thoughts

Main Category: Psychology / Psychiatry
Article Date: 07 Oct 2009 - 3:00 PDT

Sitting up straight in your chair isn't just good for your posture - it also gives you more confidence in your own thoughts, according to a new study.

Researchers found that people who were told to sit up straight were more likely to believe thoughts they wrote down while in that posture concerning whether they were qualified for a job.

On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept these written-down feelings about their own qualifications.

The results show how our body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"Most of us were taught that sitting up straight gives a good impression to other people," Petty said. "But it turns out that our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up convincing yourself by the posture you're in."

Petty conducted the study with Pablo Briñol, a former postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State now at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, and Benjamin Wagner, a current graduate student at Ohio State. The research appears in the October 2009 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.

The study included 71 students at Ohio State. When they entered the lab for the experiment, the participants were told they would be taking part in two separate studies at the same time, one organized by the business school and one by the arts school.

They were told the arts study was examining factors contributing to people's acting abilities, in this case, the ability to maintain a specific posture while engaging in other activities. They were seated at a computer terminal and instructed to either "sit up straight" and "push out [their] chest]" or "sit slouched forward" with their "face looking at [their] knees."

While in one of these positions, students participated in the business study, which supposedly investigated factors contributing to job satisfaction and professional performance.

While holding their posture, students listed either three positive or three negative personal traits relating to future professional performance on the job.

After completing this task, the students took a survey in which they rated themselves on how well they would do as a future professional employee.

The results were striking.

How the students rated themselves as future professionals depended on which posture they held as they wrote the positive or negative traits.

Students who held the upright, confident posture were much more likely to rate themselves in line with the positive or negative traits they wrote down.

In other words, if they wrote positive traits about themselves, they rated themselves more highly, and if they wrote negative traits about themselves, they rated themselves lower.

"Their confident, upright posture gave them more confidence in their own thoughts, whether they were positive or negative," Petty said.

However, students who assumed the slumped over, less confident posture, didn't seem convinced by their own thoughts - their ratings didn't differ much regardless of whether they wrote positive or negative things about themselves.

The end result of this was that when students wrote positive thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more highly when in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to confidence in the positive thoughts.

However, when students wrote negative thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more negatively in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to more confidence in their negative thoughts.

Petty emphasized that while students were told to sit up straight or to slump down, the researchers did not use the words "confident" or "doubt" in the instructions or gave any indication about how the posture was supposed to make them feel.

In a separate experiment, the researchers repeated the same scenario with a different group of students, but asked them a series of questions afterwards about how they felt during the course of the study.

"These participants didn't report feeling more confident in the upright position than they did in the slouched position, even though those in the upright position did report more confidence in the thoughts they generated," Petty said.

That suggests people's thoughts are influenced by their posture, even though they don't realize that is what's happening.

"People assume their confidence is coming from their own thoughts. They don't realize their posture is affecting how much they believe in what they're thinking," he said.

"If they did realize that, posture wouldn't have such an effect."

This research extends a 2003 study by Petty and Briñol which found similar results for head nodding. In that case, people had more confidence in thoughts they generated when they nodded their head up and down compared to when they shook their head from side to side.

However, Petty noted that body posture is a static pose compared to head nodding, and probably more natural and easy to use in day-to-day life.

"Sitting up straight is something you can train yourself to do, and it has psychological benefits - as long as you generally have positive thoughts," he said.

For example, students are often told when taking a multiple-choice test that if they're not absolutely sure of the answer, their first best guess is more often correct.

"If a student is sitting up straight, he may be more likely to believe his first answer. But if he is slumped down, he may change it and end up not performing as well on the test," he said.

Wired - Supermassive Black Holes Collide to Become Even More Super and Massive

Nice article - love black hole theories . . . and cool pictures.

Supermassive Black Holes Collide to Become Even More Super and Massive


New X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory added to an image previously captured by the Hubble Space Telescope created this amazing composite image of two black holes on the verge of colliding.

The two supermassive black holes, which show up as two points of light in the center of the galaxy NGC 6240, are only 3,000 light-years apart. Astronomers think the two will eventually combine into a single, larger black hole.

Also combining to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts are the two pieces of this image, shown below. Space photos are often a combination of multiple images and sets of data, designed to bring out the details and beauty of the subject. In this case, Chandra’s X-ray data and Hubble’s optical data come together to create an image so stunning that it looks like it must be an artist’s rendering.


Images: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/C.Canizares, M.Nowak. Optical: NASA/STScI.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Peter Bregman - To Change Effectively, Change Just One Thing

Peter Bregman's history and qualifications:

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. He is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change. You can sign up to be notified when he writes a new post or email him at

What he proposes here is very similar to what Robert Kegan talks about in Immunity to Change - many of Kegan's clients talk about change in terms of the "one big thing."

His approach to weight loss isn't going to work for most people, but his basic approach is sound. This is a good idea, to focus on one thing only, but for most people, simply dropping one food from the diet is not the answer. It needs to go deeper.

We need to find the things that are working counter to our desired change. For example (based on a client of mine), a woman wants to lose 30-40 pounds, but every time she gets close to the goal, she begins to get attention from men and falls off the program, gaining back a lot of the weight. The real problem for her is not the diet/exercise, it's the fear of intimacy. Until she fixes that, all the diets and exercise will never work. We need to find the hidden assumptions that sabotage our desire to change.

Anyway, here is the article.

To Change Effectively, Change Just One Thing

2:42 PM Tuesday October 6, 2009

I lost 18 pounds in the past month and a half.

I didn't exercise harder or longer than usual. I didn't read a new diet book supported by evidence and filled with rules and recipes. I didn't eat prepared meals from a diet organization.

I've done all those things in the past and some of them worked but none of them lasted. They were too complicated or too expensive or too cumbersome to continue.

So I made a different decision this time. A much simpler one.

First a little background on losing weight. Every new diet book explains why it's better than all the previous ones. This new plan, the author claims with enthusiasm, holds the key to losing weight and keeping it off forever. It will succeed where the others have failed.

So we decrease our fat consumption. Or increase it. We eat more protein. Or less. We raise our intake of carbohydrates. Or reduce it. And the question lingers: which is the best diet to lose weight?

Well, we now have the answer. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year put 811 overweight adults through four different diets, each one a different proportion of fat, carbohydrates and protein.

The result? On average participants lost 12 pounds after six months and kept nine pounds off after two years. No matter which diet they followed. Certainly some diets are healthier than others. But in terms of losing weight? No diet was better than any other. Because all diets work through a single mechanism — they restrict your calorie intake. People lose weight when they eat less.

If that's true, then the best diet is the simplest one. So I asked myself: what's the one thing I can change that will make the biggest difference in my calorie consumption? Everyone has one thing.

Mine was sugar. Sometimes I would eat three bowls of ice cream in a day. If I changed that, everything else would work itself out. Cutting out sugar was the one thing that would give me the highest return.

So I stopped eating it. No more cookies, candy, cake, ice cream. That's the only change I consciously made. I sidestepped millions of complex little decisions most diets require — counting, weighing, choosing, deciding. No phases, no recipes, no thinking.

Each person's one thing could be different. For some it might be fried foods. For others, meat. For others still, soft drinks. What's important is to keep it simple.

The implications of this are huge, not just for diets but for all behavior change (after all, what else is a diet but behavior change?).

Typically, people overwhelm themselves with tasks in their eagerness to make a change successfully. But that's a mistake. Instead, they should take the time up front to figure out the one and only thing that will have the highest impact and then focus 100% of their effort on that one thing.

A few years ago a Fortune 100 client asked me to design a new leadership training program. They already had one and had spent several years training people in it, but now they wanted a new one. Why? Because the current one wasn't having the impact they wanted.

I asked to see the old one. Honestly? While I'd love to say my leadership ideas are far superior, I thought the ones they were using were equally good. Leadership models are no different than diets — most of them are just fine. The brilliance is rarely in the model, it's in the implementation.

Don't start from scratch, I pleaded with them. You've already spent years spreading the word, inculcating the language, and socializing the concepts of the old leadership methodology. People are familiar with it. Don't get rid of it.

Just simplify it. Reduce it to its essence. What's the one thing that will have the greatest impact on their leadership?

After some thought they concluded that if managers communicated more with their employees it would solve the majority of their issues. Great, I suggested, focus all your efforts on that. Let everything else go.

Sam, an entrepreneur friend of mine, called me disheartened after his business didn't work out. He's taking a few months off before starting his next venture, and we discussed how he should spend his time. It turns out that Sam's dyslexic and has always had difficulty reading.

We agreed he should do one thing in his time off: read every day. That's unusual advice from me. Usually I tell people to forget about their weaknesses and focus on their strengths. But in Sam's case the dividend will be huge. If he can tackle reading, not only will it open doors for him, he'll conquer the one thing he thought he couldn't do. That confidence will change everything else in his life.

If you're going to work on a weakness, never choose more than one.

A large retail organization with stores all over the world — we'll call it Marla's Clothing — developed ten "Gold" behaviors they wanted all sales associates to exhibit. Things like greet each customer, ask customers if they want an accessory at the point of sale, measure customers for a good fit, and thank each customer for shopping at the store. Stores in which sales associates exhibited all ten behaviors saw a substantial increase in sales.

After some time, Marla's Clothing sent in mystery shoppers to see how the sales associates were doing. Management was pleased: on average the associates were displaying nine of the ten behaviors.

I asked the project lead if they had seen a change in sales as a result of this 90% success rate. After a short inspection of the data it turned out they hadn't.

So we looked to see if the associates were each missing different behaviors or if they were avoiding a specific one of the ten. As we suspected, they were all skipping the same behavior: measuring customers for a good fit.

"You don't have ten Gold behaviors," I told the project lead, "You have one. Measuring customers for a good fit is your one thing." We instructed the sales associates to focus solely on doing that one thing. Marla's Clothing sales shot up.

"18 pounds!" a friend of mine exclaimed. "You should write a book about it."

I considered it for a second but quickly realized I'd only have one thing to say.

"Not a book," I responded, "but maybe a blog post."

While Adolescents May Reason As Well As Adults, Their Emotional Maturity Lags, Says New Research

We recently learned that adolescents are just as rational as adults, including a greater ability to grasp long range outcomes than we had previously suspected. But we now know that emotional development, or the lack of it, may explain some of their behaviors.

This raises interesting legal issues, as the article points out.

While Adolescents May Reason As Well As Adults, Their Emotional Maturity Lags, Says New Research

ScienceDaily (Oct. 8, 2009) — A 16-year-old might be quite capable of making an informed decision about whether to end a pregnancy – a decision likely to be made after due consideration and consultation with an adult – but this same adolescent may not possess the maturity to be held to adult levels of responsibility if she commits a violent crime, according to new research into adolescent psychological development.

"Adolescents likely possess the necessary intellectual skills to make informed choices about terminating a pregnancy but may lack the social and emotional maturity to control impulses, resist peer pressure and fully appreciate the riskiness of dangerous decisions," said Laurence Steinberg, PhD, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University and lead author of the study. "This immaturity mitigates their criminal responsibility."

The findings appear in the October issue of American Psychologist, published by the American Psychological Association.

Steinberg and his co-authors address this seeming contradiction in a study showing that cognitive and emotional abilities mature at different rates. They recruited 935 10- to 30- year-olds to examine age differences in a variety of cognitive and psychosocial capacities.

The participants took different tests measuring psychosocial maturity and cognitive ability to examine age patterns in numerous factors that affect judgment and decision-making. The maturity measures included tests of impulse control, sensation-seeking, resistance to peer influence, future orientation and risk perception. The cognitive battery included measures of basic intellectual abilities.

There were no differences among the youngest four age groups (10-11, 12-13, 14-15 and 16-17) on the measures of psychosocial maturity. But significant differences in maturity, favoring adults, were found between the 16- to 17-year-olds and those 22 years and older, and between the 18- to 21-year-olds and those 26 and older. Results were the same for males and females, the authors said.

"It is very difficult for a 16-year-old to resist peer pressure in a heated, volatile situation," Steinberg said. "Most times, there is no time to talk to an adult to inject some reason and reality to the situation. Many crimes committed by adolescents are done in groups with other teens and are not premeditated."

In contrast, differences in cognitive capacity measures increased from ages 11 to 16 and then showed no improvements after age 16 – exactly the opposite of the pattern found on the psychosocial measures. Certain cognitive abilities, such as the ability to reason logically, reach adult levels long before psychosocial maturity is attained, Steinberg said.

"Medical decisions are those where adolescents can take the time to understand and weigh options provided by health care practitioners," said Steinberg. "Rarely are these decisions made in the heat of the moment without consultation with adults. Under these circumstances, adolescents exhibit adult maturity."

Two friend-of-the-court briefs filed by APA in cases heard by the Supreme Court spurred questions about these maturity differences and the apparent inconsistency between APA's positions in the two cases. In its amicus brief filed in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, APA presented research showing that adolescents are developmentally immature in ways that are relevant to their criminal culpability. In an earlier brief filed in Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), which upheld adolescents' right to seek an abortion without parental approval, APA presented research regarding cognitive abilities that bear on medical choices, showing that adolescents are as mature as adults.

APA differentiated these two scenarios by looking at the decision-making processes required for each situation. In the Hodgson case, APA described adolescents as being competent to make informed and sound health care decisions. In the Roper case, APA characterized adolescents as too short-sighted and impulsive to warrant capital punishment, no matter what the crime. APA placed the research about psychosocial development of adolescents in the context of a court's need to determine as part of a death penalty sentence that the perpetrator can reliably be assessed as among the "worst of the worst."

In November, the Supreme Court is slated to hear two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. "Similar questions about adolescent development may be raised in these cases," Steinberg said. APA has filed an amicus curiae brief in those cases presenting relevant research, including Steinberg's most recent study, to the court.

Adolescents' legal rights, said Steinberg, should be guided by accurate and timely scientific evidence on the nature and course of psychological development. "It is crucial to understand that brain systems responsible for logical reasoning and basic information processing mature earlier than systems responsible for self-regulation and the coordination of emotion and thinking," he said.

Journal reference:

  1. Laurence Steinberg, Elizabeth Cauffman, Jennifer Woolard, Sandra Graham, Marie Banich. Are Adolescents Less Mature than Adults? Minors' Access to Abortion, the Juvenile Death Penalty, and the Alleged APA 'Flip-Flop'. American Psychologist, 2009; Vol. 64, No. 7 DOI: 10.1037/a0014763
Adapted from materials provided by American Psychological Association, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Michael Dirda - These Foolish Things

Very interesting and entertaining article - I love fools. The trickster, or wise fool, has been a favorite character of mine in myth and fiction - and sometimes, in life.
These Foolish Things

There are three kinds of fools: Real Fools, Professional Fools, and Unsuspecting Fools. The professional, a staple of Shakespeare’s plays, is, in reality, nobody’s fool.

By Michael Dirda

Aristotle is sometimes called the Master of Those Who Know, which may explain why most people find him easier to admire than to like. By contrast, his own teacher’s famous teacher might be dubbed the Master of Those Who Haven’t a Clue. Informed by an oracle that he was the wisest of men, Socrates immediately recognized that this must be some kind of Delphic joke. Wise, pshaw! At best he was just a lover of wisdom — etymologically a philo-sopher — rather than a possessor of it. Really, Glaucus — he might have said — if I’m so smart, why do I have to go around asking all these questions?

Still, Socrates does at least look the part of antiquity’s Yoda. Everyone knows that to be wise means to be old, with lots of wrinkles around kindly eyes that have seen much and forgiven much and are full of pity for the fools that mortals be. But that, in short, is the trouble with wisdom. It implies a superiority to or withdrawal from the hurly-burly of life. While most of us are surrendering to what Joseph Conrad called “the destructive element,” and probably drowning in it, the wise guy is there on the shore warm and dry in his old flannel dressing gown and his new fluffy bunny slippers, and he’s probably murmuring something like, “Grasshopper, only a fool would go into the water on a day like this.” Shaking his head, he will soon pad on back to his snug little burrow and a nice cup of chamomile tea.

This is living? Wisdom plays it safe, avoids occasions of sin, sits home on Saturday night with an improving book. Elvis used to croon that “Wise men say, ‘Only fools rush in.’” But like the king he was, he knew that a brokenhearted clown understood more about the heart than any cautious Polonius. What would love be without impetuousness? Who can love and then be wise? “The heart has reasons that the reason doesn’t know.” No proverb says that love should be the end product of careful calculation, that it’s the smart move. This is why computerized dating seems repulsive to so many people; you just know the machine would be happier working on a spreadsheet. Besides, who would trust his emotional life to a program written by some Caltech brainiac who’s spent his entire geeky existence playing Halo and Warcraft? To quote Mr. T, “I pity the fool.”

As every truly wise man or woman knows, love is just one of those crazy things, and there’s no logic to what attracts us to one person and not another. You can tot up the pluses and minuses of a relationship all you want, meditate on the possible outcomes of commitment, consult past experience, but you’d do just as well, or better, to listen to a lot of country and western music. You want an explanation for falling in love? “Maybe it was Memphis.” Montaigne, whose Socratic motto was “What do I know?” accounted for his love for his friend Etienne de la Boetie perfectly: “Because he was he and I was I.”

In other words, when it comes to falling in love, who can explain it? Who can tell me why? Well, the goddess Folly can. In Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly she proclaims that she oversees love, that folly embodies the intuitive and passionate side of life and is far more fundamental to our human well-being than propriety or reason.

And that’s just for starters. Folly points out that Christ endured the “folly” of the cross and reminded His followers to imitate “children, lilies, mustard-seed, and humble sparrows, all foolish, senseless things, which live their lives by natural instinct alone, free from care or purpose.” Folly represents the “natural” in all its senses, standing in opposition to the mind-forged manacles of societal norms and expectations. Eventually, notes Erasmus, this sort of folly can even modulate into mystical distraction and ecstasy. Plato asserted that the madness of physical love, during which we forget all about thinking and our spirit seems to leave the body, is the highest form of ordinary happiness, while Christianity offers a similar joyful and irrational dream state when the soul temporarily unites itself with God.

Humanity, that dialectical animal, likes to look at things as binary opposites: raw and cooked, gay and straight, Laurel and Hardy. Just so, foolishness is the usual antithesis of wisdom. But foolishness, as Erasmus reminds us, is one of those qualities with a bit of range to it, so that another possible opposite is prudence. In fact, prudence and wisdom are practically roommates, and while sometimes being wise can look attractive — Gandalf, anyone? — almost nobody, except perhaps investment counselors, really wants to be thought of as prudent. Might just as well be an old maid in sensible black shoes or a Mr. Peepers with a coin purse. No, no, no; give me stiletto heels or give me death! If you can’t say “keep the change,” why bother to go to the bar?

In truth, there are essentially three kinds of fools: Real Fools, Professional Fools, and Unsuspecting Fools. Real Fools are the innocents, the simpletons, the idiot savants and “naturals” who react to situations and people with an Aspergian lack of restraint or decorum. They speak their unmediated minds, and great truths sometimes emerge, as “out of the mouths of babes.” Any of them might have blurted, “The emperor has no clothes.” Forrest Gump is our great modern examplar of this kind of fool. Heaven looks out for such as these.

Professional Fools include court jesters, clowns, toadies, con artists, and a whole range of yes-men. By pretending to be stupid or servile, the Professional Fool coolly aims to reinforce his client’s conviction of his own obvious superiority. In fact, these performance artistes always quip and caper with a purpose: a salary, behind-the-throne power, a scam. In literature one of the most memorable of these professional fools is Rameau’s Nephew, who in Diderot’s famous dialogue of that name toadies to the rich and powerful in return for a snug berth and regular meals. In the film The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey is a more complex example: Hunched and crippled (as were many professional court jesters), he’s slightly pitied by the tough and obviously much smarter people all around him. But Verbal Kint is far more than the “talkative child” that his name suggests.

As for Unsuspecting Fools, they are essentially everyone else in the world, starting with you and me. Everybody plays the fool sometimes; there’s no exception to the rule. More particularly, the Unsuspecting Fool is the supposedly wise figure — a sovereign, a pedantic scholar, a pillar of the establishment — who is blind to his own vanity and self-importance, ignorant of what’s really going on, puffed up with hubris. Pride goeth before a fall. In tragic vein, Oedipus and Lear are Unsuspecting Fools.

If you want to understand the power of Real Foolishness, read fairy tales. If there’s one thing that such stories teach us, it’s to trust animals. The simpleton who befriends the local forest creatures will find the treasure and win the princess. Every time. Not the clever older brothers with some Mission: Impossible plan. The guy who takes the thorn out of the lion’s paw, who doesn’t trample on the ants, who is careful not to crush the wildflowers will be rewarded.

Why is this? Because such saintly or holy fools possess a primitive, almost prelapsarian goodness. They are close to Nature, and they are empathetic and kind and humble and unsure of themselves and maybe not very good-looking either. They’re picked on by society and were probably in the lowest reading group, and their good souls shine forth like shook foil. Think Shrek. It’s no accident that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is also the date for the Feast of Fools. Over and over again, the Bible reminds us that the humble will be exalted.

In Shakespearean comedies (and tragedies) you’re certainly smart to play the Professional Fool or clown. When Bottom the Weaver is “translated” into an ass, the very symbol of the fool, what happens? The gorgeous Titania leads him away for some quality time in her bower. Hamlet knows that with his “antic disposition” on, he can do or say whatever he’d like. There’s no need to act the conventional young intellectual like his earnest schoolmate Horatio, who probably wears a bow tie and always makes the dean’s list at Wittenberg. As for the late Yorick, that fellow of infinite jest was obviously the only person at the gloomy court of Denmark who ever brought a spark of joy into the life of the melancholy Dane: “He hath borne me on his back a thousand times!” Even the greatest of all Shakespearean characters, Falstaff, is essentially a fool writ very, very large. Wherever Sir John goes, it’s party time, Carnival, and he is the Lord of Misrule. Certainly this jolly fat man is a lot better company than, say, the rather cold-hearted and manipulative Prospero. But even that magician finally decides to drown his book and give up his power. Being superhuman isn’t half as much fun as being human.

As for those Unsuspecting Fools, take a look at King Lear. Here the best and the brightest — the king himself; the clever, upwardly mobile Regan and Goneril; that shrewd bastard Edmund — wreak nothing but havoc and sorrow. Everything goes wrong. But why, how, could this happen to them? They took every precaution, they carefully plotted and schemed, they made Venn diagrams and flow charts, and they were careful not to let people or human feelings interfere with their big plans. By contrast, the most admirable characters in the play are terribly naïve (Cordelia), insane (Edgar as Tom O’Bedlam), or simpleminded (the Fool).

One might argue that Shakespeare’s wicked characters aren’t wise but merely worldly wise and usually too smart for their own good. They’re the sort of people to whom Paul offers his famous advice in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If any man among you seem to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” They are, in fact, self-centered egotists who have suppressed the springs of natural affection. In this respect, if not in any other, they aren’t really so different from the great sages and Buddhas, who remove themselves from this world, who keep a safe distance from the bonfires of desire. The austerity of spiritual life, the quest for perfect understanding or oneness or transcendence, asks that we give up being human. Is any abstraction really worth so much?

The English author Walter Pater suggested that we should seek experience itself, rather than the fruit of experience, i.e., wisdom. Of course, he was an aesthete with an ornate style, so it’s easy to dismiss what he said. It’s important for human beings to make mistakes, to do stupid things, to go overboard, to be foolish — even if it’s painful — and not to judge themselves too harshly when they’ve been burnt. As Zorba the Greek used to proclaim, “Life is trouble!”

Let me bring this foolishness to an end by repeating the advice from the closing lines of The Praise of Folly: “Clap your hands, live well, and drink!” In other words, meine Damen und Herren, life is a cabaret. What is the use of sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play! And, then, if you’re really wise — or do I mean foolish? — you might as well dance.


Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book columnist for the Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt).