Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems - Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD

[Disclosure: I am reviewing a free ePub copy of this book provided by the publisher without the expectation of a review, good or bad.]

The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems

by Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, Harvard
Guilford Press, 2010
Hardcover: $35.00
Paperback: 14.95

Amazon: $28.00/$10.17

A couple of years ago, I was browsing the bookstore at a Psychotherapy Networker conference and found Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (Guilford Press, 2005), edited by Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel, and Paul R. Fulton. I knew none of the editors and only one of the authors, but it had a cool cover (yes, I sometimes buy books based on the cover) with some good blurbs from names I recognized. While the book was written for therapists, I still found it useful at the time, even as a non-professional.

Part of my interest in the book was due to my being Buddhist and that mindfulness is an essential practice for many Buddhists. There was also a 20+ year interest in psychology that was then emerging again as a desire to become a therapist (which I am now in the process of doing). The book was a great introduction to the ways these two fields intersect in useful and important ways.

Since then I have read many other books on mindfulness in psychology as the cross-over has become one of the dominant paradigms in modern psychotherapy, seen in everything from Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and now including Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT, developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, based on Jon Kabat-Zinn's MBSR). The acronyms can be daunting.

What ties all of these approaches together, however, is that they all embrace mindfulness practice as a way to help heal the psyche. In the preface to The Mindfulness Solution, Ronald Siegel (who is on the faculty at The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy) points out that mindfulness has proven useful for everything from anxiety and depression to stress-related physical disorders (insomnia, chronic pain) to addictions of all forms.

But on the everyday level (and mindfulness in Buddhism is meant to be an everyday practice), mindfulness can help us be more calm in traffic, less stressed at work, and better partners in our relationships. And this is what Siegel is offering the reader of his book.

For those, like me, who like to know what's in a book before buying it, here is the table of contents:

I. Why Mindfulness Matters
1. Life Is Difficult, for Everyone
2. Mindfulness: A Solution
3. Learning to Practice Mindfulness
4. Building a Mindful Life

II. Everyday Practices For Unruly Minds, Bodies, and Relationships
5. Befriending Fear: Working with Worry and Anxiety
6. Entering the Dark Places: Seeing Sadness and Depression in a New Light
7. Beyond Managing Symptoms: Transforming Pain and Stress-Related Medical Problems
8. Living the Full Catastrophe: Mindfulness for Romance, Parenting, and Other Intimate Relationships
9. Breaking Bad Habits: Learning to Make Good Choices
10. Growing Up Isn't Easy: Changing Your Relationship with Aging, Illness, and Death
11. What's Next? The Promise of Mindfulness

When You Need More Help: How to Find a Therapist
I'd like to quote some passages, as well, but the ePub format (Adobe Digital Editions) doesn't allow me to copy and paste text. So take my word for it, his writing style is engaging and entertaining. Each chapter is broken up into shorter sections with headers, making it easy to pick the book up and read for a while, returning to it later.

Buddhism and Mindfulness

In the Preface, Siegel points out that nearly all of our struggles and suffering in life are, at least in part, made worse by the fact that we seek comfort and avoid pain, only to discover that this avoidance generates even more suffering. In essence, this is what the Buddha taught more than 2,500 years ago in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Although Western psychology has been interested in Buddhism going all the way back to William James, and later Carl Jung, it has only been in the last 10-20 years that this interest has taken a useful form for both therapists and lay people (those who have not explicitly already adopted Buddhism).

Siegel's approach to mindfulness seems largely non-sectarian, acknowledging its sources in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, as well as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American traditions. For some Buddhists who adhere to a very formal mindfulness practice based in the early Pali teachings (see Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Mindfulness Defined) this might be seen as a misuse of the teachings.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers us the origin of the word mindfulness, but emphasizes its Pali roots.
T. H. Rhys‐Davids, the British scholar who coined the term “mindfulness” to translate the Pali word sati, was probably influenced by the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others—in other words, to always keep their needs in mind. But even though the word “mindful” was probably drawn from a Christian context, the Buddha himself defined sati as the ability to remember, illustrating its function in meditation practice with the four satipatthanas, or establishings of mindfulness.
And these are the four foundations (establishings) of mindfulness:
He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves... the mind in & of itself... mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.”—SN 48:10
Thanissaro Bhikkhu is very clear in his article that many of the ways mindfulness is taught in the West run counter to the original intent of the Theravada tradition from which he comes. He is very precise about how the key phrases in mindfulness texts should be defined and understood. He likely would have some issues with Siegel's use of and presentation of mindfulness practice as it appears in The Mindfulness Solution.

Be that as it may, this book is written by a Western psychologist for the general population - it is not a dharma text for Buddhists in general or Buddhist scholars in particular. For those who want a more traditional take on mindfulness practice, I would suggest reading the article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (linked above) and also checking out Mindfulness in Plain English, by the Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, which is available as a free PDF (follow the link).

The Mindfulness Solution

Siegel is very practical in his presentation, countering arguments that adding mindfulness practice - yet another thing to add to our already too busy lives - just is not doable. His reply is that if we will learn to be mindful on a daily basis, we will actually have more time in our lives because we will not waste time avoiding things or cleaning up messes we have made by acting in ways counter to our best interests. We also are more rested and less stressed.

Importantly, at least to me as a Buddhist, Siegel offers the reader a way to build a daily meditation practice as well as ways to become mindful on a moment-to-moment basis. Both are necessary in my mind - and in Siegel's as well. Too many Buddhists spend their time on the cushion each day and then go about their lives without any mindful awareness; similarly, a lot of people are adopting mindfulness practices but do not have any formal meditation practice. Both are necessary but not individually sufficient.

Throughout the book, Siegel offers inventories, exercises, and meditations designed to help us get in touch with our resistance to change, our negative thoughts, or the ways we rank ourselves (and that's just in the first chapter of the book). The exercises may seem simple or pointless for some, but if you do them, the cumulative impact in terms of self-awareness is considerable.

I was particularly drawn to the part of Chapter Two where Siegel outlines some of the science supporting mindfulness practice. This has been one of my interests for quite a while, beginning with reports in the popular press of Dr. Richard Davidson's work at the University of Wisconsin with Tibetan monks (which is covered here). The results showed that the more meditation experience a person has, the greater its positive impact on brain structure and function. He could have gone on for the whole chapter, but he presents enough science to convince although not overwhelm the average reader.

The third and fourth chapters offer a variety of ways in to mindfulness practice, which felt useful to me because everyone will have different needs and abilities in taking up a new discipline. Even the Buddha recognized that each student could potentially need a different teaching. Again, there are exercises and sample meditations for people to try out on their own.

I want to acknowledge that he offers one of my favorite techniques as a coach and future therapist, the body-scan meditation (pg. 72). I could go on and on about the science behind why this is such a useful approach, but I will simply say that the body is our immediate, first-person connection to the world of experience - if we can learn to hear it, sans intellectual filters (which is part of what mindfulness teaches), we could go a long way toward living healthier more balanced lives.

In the end, no matter which form of mindfulness practice you choose, Siegel is offering ways to be happier, healthier, and more balanced.

The Dalai Lama on the Difference Between Religion and Spirituality

by the Dalai Lama,
compiled & edited by Mary Craig

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another--an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or philosophical reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or hell. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayers and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit--such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with questions of nirvana and salvation are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.

--from The Pocket Dalai Lama by the Dalai Lama, compiled and edited by Mary Craig

* * *

What's filled with great articles, new releases and dharma news? The latest edition of Snow Lion: The Buddhist Magazine & Catalog, now available online!

Daniel B. Smith: Is There an Ecological Unconscious?

Interesting article from The New York Times. I believe there is an ecological unconsciousness. Ecopsychology is an emerging and important field.

You can read Ecopsychology: Eight Principles by Theodore Roszak and The Psychological Benefits of Wilderness by Garrett Duncan to get a sense of the field, if you are interested.

Is There an Ecological Unconscious?

Published: January 27, 2010

About eight years ago, Glenn Albrecht began receiving frantic calls from residents of the Upper Hunter Valley, a 6,000-square-mile region in southeastern Australia. For generations the Upper Hunter was known as the “Tuscany of the South” — an oasis of alfalfa fields, dairy farms and lush English-style shires on a notoriously hot, parched continent. “The calls were like desperate pleas,” Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, recalled in June. “They said: ‘Can you help us? We’ve tried everyone else. Is there anything you can do about this?’ ”

Residents were distraught over the spread of coal mining in the Upper Hunter. Coal was discovered in eastern Australia more than 200 years ago, but only in the last two decades did the industry begin its exponential rise. Today, more than 100 million tons of black coal are extracted from the valley each year, primarily by open-pit mining, which uses chemical explosives to blast away soil, sediment and rock. The blasts occur several times a day, sending plumes of gray dust over ridges to settle thickly onto roofs, crops and the hides of livestock. Klieg lights provide a constant illumination. Trucks, draglines and idling coal trains emit a constant low-frequency rumble. Rivers and streams have been polluted.

Albrecht, a dark, ebullient man with a crooked aquiline nose, was known locally for his activism. He participated in blockades of ships entering Newcastle (near the Upper Hunter), the largest coal-exporting port in the world, and published opinion articles excoriating the Australian fossil-fuel industries. But Albrecht didn’t see what he could offer besides a sympathetic ear and some tactical advice. Then, in late 2002, he decided to see the transformation of the Upper Hunter firsthand.

“There’s a scholar who talks about ‘heart’s ease,’ ” Albrecht told me as we sat in his car on a cliff above the Newcastle shore, overlooking the Pacific. In the distance, just before the earth curved out of sight, 40 coal tankers were lined up single file. “People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.” Australian aborigines, Navajos and any number of indigenous peoples have reported this sense of mournful disorientation after being displaced from their land. What Albrecht realized during his trip to the Upper Valley was that this “place pathology,” as one philosopher has called it, wasn’t limited to natives. Albrecht’s petitioners were anxious, unsettled, despairing, depressed — just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley. Only they hadn’t; the valley changed around them.

In Albrecht’s view, the residents of the Upper Hunter were suffering not just from the strain of living in difficult conditions but also from something more fundamental: a hitherto unrecognized psychological condition. In a 2004 essay, he coined a term to describe it: “solastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’ ” A neologism wasn’t destined to stop the mines; they continued to spread. But so did Albrecht’s idea. In the past five years, the word “solastalgia” has appeared in media outlets as disparate as Wired, The Daily News in Sri Lanka and Andrew Sullivan’s popular political blog, The Daily Dish. In September, the British trip-hop duo Zero 7 released an instrumental track titled “Solastalgia,” and in 2008 Jukeen, a Slovenian recording artist, used the word as an album title. “Solastalgia” has been used to describe the experiences of Canadian Inuit communities coping with the effects of rising temperatures; Ghanaian subsistence farmers faced with changes in rainfall patterns; and refugees returning to New Orleans after Katrina.

The broad appeal of solastalgia pleases Albrecht; it has helped earn him hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants as well as his position at Murdoch. But he is not particularly surprised that it has caught on. “Take a look out there,” he said, gesturing to the line of coal ships. “What you’re looking at is climate change queued up. You can’t get away from it. Not in the Upper Hunter, not in Newcastle, not anywhere. And that’s exactly the point of solastalgia.” Just as the loss of “heart’s ease” is not limited to displaced native populations, solastalgia is not limited to those living beside quarries — or oil spills or power plants or Superfund sites. Solastalgia, in Albrecht’s estimation, is a global condition, felt to a greater or lesser degree by different people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment. As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?

Albrecht’s philosophical attempt to trace a direct line between the health of the natural world and the health of the mind has a growing partner in a subfield of psychology. Last August, the American Psychological Association released a 230-page report titled “Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change.” News-media coverage of the report concentrated on the habits of human behavior and the habits of thought that contribute to global warming. This emphasis reflected the intellectual dispositions of the task-force members who wrote the document — seven out of eight were scientists who specialize in decision research and environmental-risk management — as well as the document’s stated purpose. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting,” Janet Swim, a Penn State psychologist and the chairwoman of the task force, said, “in order to understand how to get people to act.”

Yet all the attention paid to the behavioral and cognitive barriers to safeguarding the environment — topics of acute interest to policy makers and activists — disguised the fact that a significant portion of the document addressed the supposed emotional costs of ecological decline: anxiety, despair, numbness, “a sense of being overwhelmed or powerless,” grief. It also disguised the unusual background of the eighth member of the task force, Thomas Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore. Doherty runs a private therapeutic practice called Sustainable Self and is the most prominent American advocate of a growing discipline known as “ecopsychology.”

There are numerous psychological subfields that, to one degree or another, look at the interplay between human beings and their natural environment. But ecopsychology embraces a more revolutionary paradigm: just as Freud believed that neuroses were the consequences of dismissing our deep-rooted sexual and aggressive instincts, ecopsychologists believe that grief, despair and anxiety are the consequences of dismissing equally deep-rooted ecological instincts.

“If you look at the beginnings of clinical psychology,” Patricia Hasbach, a psychotherapist and prominent ecopsychologist based in Eugene, told me, “the focus was on intrapsychic forces” — the mind-bound interplay of ego, id and superego. “Then the field broadened to take into account interpersonal forces such as relationships and interactions between people. Then it took a huge leap to look at whole families and systems of people. Then it broadened even further to take into account social systems” and the importance of social identities like race, gender and class. “Ecopsychology wants to broaden the field again to look at ecological systems,” she said. “It wants to take the entire planet into account.”

The terms in which ecopsychology pursues this admittedly ambitious goal are steeped in the field’s countercultural beginnings. Ecopsychology emerged in the early 1960s, just as the modern environmental movement was gathering strength, when a group of Boston-area graduate students gathered to discuss what they saw as the isolation and malaise infecting modern life. It had another brief period of efflorescence, particularly on the West Coast and among practitioners of alternative therapies, in the early ’90s, when Theodore Roszak, a professor of history (he coined the word “counterculture”) published a manifesto, “The Voice of the Earth,” in which he criticized modern psychology for neglecting the primal bond between man and nature. “Mainstream Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban-industrial society,” he later wrote. “All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance — or perhaps too frightening to think about.” Ecopsychology’s eclectic following, which includes therapists, researchers, ecologists and activists, still reflects these earlier foundations. So does its rhetoric. Practitioners are as apt, if not more apt, to cite Native American folk tales as they are empirical data to make their points.

Yet even as it remains committed to its origins, ecopsychology has begun in recent years to enter mainstream academic circles. Last April, Doherty published the first issue of Ecopsychology, the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “the relationship between environmental issues and mental health and well-being.” Next year, M.I.T. Press will publish a book of the same name, edited by Hasbach and Peter Kahn, a developmental psychologist, and Jolina Ruckert, a Ph.D. candidate, both at the University of Washington. The volume brings together scholars from a range of disciplines, among them the award-winning biologist Lynn Margulis and the anthropologist Wade Davis, as it delves into such areas as “technological nature” and how the environment affects human perception. Ecopsychology is taught at Oberlin College, Lewis & Clark College and the University of Wisconsin, among other institutions.

Ecopsychologists are not the first to embrace a vital link between mind and nature. They themselves admit as much, emphasizing the field’s roots in traditions like Buddhism, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. They point to affinities with evolutionary psychology — to the idea that our responses to the environment are hard-wired because of how we evolved as a species. They also point to biophilia, a hypothesis put forward by the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, in 1984, that human beings have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Though Wilson’s idea has been criticized as both deterministic and so broad as to be untestable, the notion that evolution endowed humans with a craving for nature struck a lasting chord in many sectors of the scientific community. Over the past quarter-century, Wilson’s hypothesis has inspired a steady flow of articles, books, conferences and, last year, the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center in northwest Florida.

But unlike Wilson and his followers, ecopsychologists tend to focus on the pathological aspect of the mind-nature relationship: its brokenness. In this respect, their project finds echoes in the culture at large. Recently, a number of psychiatrically inflected coinages have sprung up to represent people’s growing unease over the state of the planet — “nature-deficit disorder,” “ecoanxiety,” “ecoparalysis.” The terms have multiplied so quickly that Albrecht has proposed instituting an entire class of “psycho­terratic syndromes”: mental-health issues attributable to the degraded state of one’s physical surroundings. Ecopsychologists, many of whom are licensed clinicians, remain wary of attributing specific illnesses to environmental decline or of arguing that more-established disorders have exclusively environmental causes. Rather, they propose a new clinical approach based on the idea that treating patients in an age of ecological crisis requires more than current therapeutic approaches offer. It requires tapping into what Roszak called our “ecological unconscious.”

LAST JUNE, I PAID a visit to Doherty, who works in a stone-fronted building in northeast Portland, in an office decorated with a sweeping topographical map of Oregon and a fountain that trickles water onto a pile of stones. He has receding red hair and a red mustache and beard; a small silver hoop dangles from the cartilage of his left ear. Doherty was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo and then went to Columbia University, where he majored in English. Afterward, he worked in a variety of jobs that reflected his interest in the environment: fisherman, wilderness counselor, river-rafting guide, door-to-door fund-raiser for Greenpeace.

As a therapist with activist credentials in a “green” city on the West Coast, Doherty is fairly representative of ecopsychologists today. He is also typical in that he was inspired to enter the field by Roszak’s “Voice of the Earth.” To some extent Doherty remains under Roszak’s spell. When we met, he talked about “an appropriate distrust of science,” and the “dualistic” character of empiricism — the mind/body split — which gives society “free rein to destroy the world.” But he recognizes that ecopsychology endorses a few dualisms of its own. “A more simplistic, first-generation ecopsychology position simplifies the world,” he said. “Either you’re green or you’re not. Either you’re sane or you’re not. It conflates mental health and/or lack of mental health with values and choices and the culture.” His mission, he said, is to spearhead a “second-generation ecopsychology” that leaves these binaries behind.

The bulk of his work is therapeutic. Like any therapist, Doherty, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, sees patients and discusses routine concerns like sex and family dynamics. Unlike most therapists, he asks about patients’ relationships with the natural world — how often they get outdoors, their anxieties about the state of the environment. He recently developed a “sustainability inventory,” a questionnaire that measures, among typical therapeutic concerns like mood, attitudes and the health of intimate relationships, “comfort with your level of consumption and ecological footprint.”

The ways in which clinicians perform ecotherapy vary widely. Patricia Hasbach often conducts sessions outdoors; she finds that a natural setting helps to broaden a client’s perspective, has restorative benefits and can serve as a source of powerful metaphors. “Ecotherapy stretches the boundaries of the traditional urban, indoor setting,” she told me. “Nature provides a live and dynamic environment not under the control of the therapist or client.” Often this leads to revelatory sensory experiences, as in the case of one client who struggled with a sense of emotional numbness. The feeling dissipated after he put his feet in an icy mountain stream.

Doherty, who teaches a class on ecotherapy with Hasbach at Lewis & Clark, places less emphasis on the outdoors — not only because his office is located in an especially urban section of Portland but also because he worries about perpetuating a false dichotomy between the wilderness and the city. His Sustainable Self practice attracts a clientele that is typically self-selecting and eager to inject an ecological perspective into their sessions. Usually, his clients don’t come to him with symptoms or complaints that are directly attributable to environmental concerns, but every so often he has to engage in what he calls “grief and despair work.” For example, one client, Richard Brenne, a climate-change activist and an avid outdoorsman, came to Doherty because he was so despondent about the state of the planet and so dedicated to doing something to help that it was damaging his relationship with his family. In an e-mail message to me, Brenne praised Doherty for helping him face the magnitude of the problem without becoming despairing or overwrought. Some would argue that treating Brenne’s anxiety about the environment and the negative effect it had on his family life is no different from treating a patient whose anxieties about work cause problems at home. But for Doherty, treating an obsession with ecological decline requires understanding how the bond between the patient and the natural world may have been disrupted or pathologized. Doherty is currently working on a theoretical model in which a person’s stance toward environmental concerns can be categorized as “complicated or acute,” “inhibited or conflicted” or “healthy and normative.”

Read the rest of the article.

Books - A Skeptic’s Skeptic: A New Biography of Jacques Derrida

This book looks like a compelling look at an interesting man. From Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life.

A Skeptic’s Skeptic

A new biography takes a look at Derrida’s philosophy of disillusionment

By David Kaufmann | 7:00 am Jan 20, 2010

Derrida, at home in Ris-Orangis, near Paris, in 2001.

CREDIT: Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images

In Who Was Jacques Derrida?, David Mikics provides a lucid, polemical intellectual biography of the French philosopher. He is also settling accounts. In the 1970s and 1980s, Derrida, who died six years ago at 73, was the most important and most polarizing figure in the humanities in America. His brand of thought, deconstruction, dominated classrooms, conferences, articles, and books. Derridian deconstruction was a heady brew of high philosophical discussion and counterintuitive assertion, all spiced up by Derrida’s trademark labyrinthine style, which was easy to parody but hard to surpass.

Mikics was in the thick of it. Now a professor of English at the University of Houston, he earned his doctorate at Yale when it was the mother ship of literary theory in America. In the mid-’80s he was a follower of Derrida, drawn in by the Frenchman’s bracing skepticism. In many ways, Who Was Jacques Derrida? serves as an explanation of Mikics’s own rejection of skepticism, of his disillusionment with disillusion itself.

Philosophical skepticism aims to demonstrate that our attempts to make unequivocally valid claims about the world are ultimately misguided. To put it simply, Derrida’s writings from the 1960s to the 1980s sought to show that the history of Western thought tried and failed to nail down the essences of things because things do not have essences to speak of. A subtle dialectician, he argued that there was nothing as unstable as the notion of a stable identity and nothing less knowable than what appears directly before us.

For those who hated him, Derrida was a mountebank, a sloppy thinker and even sloppier writer whose antics did nothing but muddle what should be clear. To those who loved him—and his defenders were as ferocious as his detractors—he offered a whole new way of thinking. According to Mikics, both sides were wrong.

But in his own way, Mikics stands with Derrida’s detractors. Through a series of careful analyses, he maintains that Derrida was sometimes a brilliant misreader of the philosophical tradition and often an egregious one. Always attentive to the problems and the questions that Derrida avoided, he finds Derrida most instructive in his failure to move from doubt to any feasible ethics or politics. According to Mikics, Derrida was allergic to psychology, which Mikics calls “the most palpable sign of our existence, our inner life.” As a result, the philosopher was unable to think about motives and responsibilities. This was a major failing because in the end, Derrida was unable to theorize convincingly about ethics.

Mikics does not share Derrida’s unwillingness to talk about inner lives. Although he does not speculate often about Derrida’s motives, the biographical structure of the book shows just how central to his thought Derrida’s childhood as a lower-middle class French-speaking Jew in Algeria during the 1930s and 1940s actually was. During the period of French colonization, Algerian Jews aligned themselves with the colonizers and this meant that the Derridas were triply if not quadruply marginalized. They were Jews in a Muslim country run by foreign Catholics; they were outsiders in a country of Arabs ruled by Europeans and, during World War II they were pariahs to both the surrounding population and to the government.

This alienation was key to Derrida’s development. A few years before his death, Derrida said with his typical paradoxical vigor that “nothing for me matters as much as my Jewishness, which, however, in so many ways, matters so little in my life.” Derrida was never a practicing Jew. Nevertheless, as Mikics shows, he strongly identified with Jewish thinkers like the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and with Jewish writers, like the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès. However, the real force of his Jewishness might be best sought elsewhere, in his inability to take either yes or no for an answer.

Derrida constantly took contrarian, if not outright rebellious, stances. He did not like assuming the protective coloring of his surroundings. When he arrived in the early 1950s at the most elite of French universities, the École Normale Supérieure, he chafed against the Marxist orthodoxy of his professors and refused to join the cult of Jean-Paul Sartre—a philosopher whose influence he called “nefarious” and “catastrophic.” Derrida did not follow the path of political engagement favored by his colleagues. Rather, by close and often inventive readings of major texts from the philosophical and literary traditions, he sought to blow up philosophical certainty.

But there were limits to his subversion. Mikics locates one of the major fault lines in Derrida’s thought in the philosopher’s prophetic tones, his “fondness for apocalyptic drama,” which works against his reluctance to imagine the apocalypse itself. According to Mikics, Derrida might have aspired to the end of Western metaphysics and he might have adopted the language and some of the practices of the avant-garde, but he could not run full-out at the future. He wrote like a radical in favor of the moderate.

Derrida’s split persona—revolutionary and ultimately conservative at the same time—goes a long way toward explaining his influence in the American academy. His insistence on close reading made him congenial for literature departments, and his pronouncements made close readings appear consequential. What is more, Derrida’s timing was perfect. His reputation in the United States grew at that point when being a hippie was not a political statement but a “lifestyle choice” and when many of the energies of the late ’60s had become merchandised or bogged down in economic stagnation. At a time of retrenchment, Derrida promised a kind of liberation that did not depend on ethnic or gender identity, a freeing of thought that was intellectually disruptive and could, if need be, serve politically progressive ends.

Then, there is also the matter of his prose. Derrida at his best was an excellent writer. His sentences are Proustian in their length and in their subtle ironies. Like Joyce, he piled pun on pun and paradox on paradox in a serious defense of the mobility of thought. Derrida was Baroque in a way that makes many English-speaking readers nervous because it is too French, too witty, and not sufficiently down-to-earth. Even so, complication has its pleasures.

As it turned out, American deconstruction had a good run, but by the early ’90s it had begun to falter. The discovery that Derrida’s friend Paul de Man had been an intellectual collaborator with Nazis caught Derrida flat-footed. And then the Berlin Wall fell and the map changed. Derrida tried to catch up and turn his thought toward politics and ethics. His thinking drew closer and closer to Levinas, who had developed a brilliant way of showing how religion (particularly Judaism) and philosophy could justify each other without doing themselves an injustice. At the heart of Levinas’s brilliant, spooky work stands the notion of an ethics beyond calculation, a fundamental responsibility for suffering that annihilates self-interest. Although Levinas was able to give flesh to his abstruser musings in the course of his famous lectures on the Talmud, the English philosopher Gillian Rose had a point when she called his theory a form of Jewish Buddhism.

Mikics will have none of it. An informed and sympathetic reader of Levinas (as he is of all the Jewish texts he discusses), he is particularly critical of this period in Derrida’s life. He dismisses Derrida for not reaching beyond an airy language of sacrifice to discuss concrete ethical choice. He will not forgive Derrida for what he sees as the philosopher’s unwillingness to engage in moral judgment, for “scanting the life we live with others in favor of textual abstraction.”

Harsh stuff. Mikics is fierce in his convictions and to be sure he could be more generous to Derrida. Nevertheless, he might be right. In the end, Who Was Jacques Derrida? will not close the account on Derrida. Through his clarity and commitments, Mikics has opened the books once again.

Father Thomas Keating - Contemplative Dimensions of Human Experience

Nice. Via MIT World videos.

About the Lecture

In a mind-stretching talk covering the history of the planet, development of higher-order consciousness, and East-West religious practices, Trappist monk Thomas Keating claims that humanity is poised to take its next evolutionary step, to the “furthest levels of human understanding.”

While Keating’s focus is on the “human family,” he begins his talk with Earth’s emergence from the cosmos, and the origins of life on this planet. He dwells on human evolution, especially development of the neocortex. This “point at which the human spirit began to function” is captured by scripture, when God breathes life into Adam, suggests Keating. The greatest achievement of this long sweep of history, Keating proposes, is the reflective human brain, plastic and responsive to experience, like a mesa shaped by the forces of nature over time.

We’re born predisposed to seek security and survival, and base our definitions of happiness on gratification of such needs, leading to lives in search of power, control, esteem, sensual pleasure. These primitive “emotional programs for happiness” obstruct what may be the ultimate opportunity: “fulfilling human capacity…through access of spiritual levels of our being.” We find evidence for this potential in “sages and saints who have understood the rational capacities of the brain to open itself to love in the fullest sense and levels of happiness, peace, freedom and joy.” But this higher state isn’t limited to mystics, says Keating: Humankind stands “at a significant crossroads,” ready to pass through the gate of rational consciousness to “further levels of human understanding.”

Finding this gate will prove a challenge to most, because of ingrained habits and cultural reinforcements. Fortunately, we have the words and examples of “spiritual traditions of the world” to help us break from the “straitjacket of emotional programs,” and attempt to achieve “the contemplative dimension of human experience.” Keating describes how Jesus invites “everyone into the ultimate reality” in the Sermon on the Mount, and recounts the story of Elijah, the Jewish prophet, who “heard the sound of sheer silence” in the desert. The great religions show that it is possible to achieve the “discipline of quieting the mind, letting go of desires or attachments we’re overly committed to, so we can be free to relate to our inmost being, where ultimate reality dwells” – even or especially when enmeshed in the difficulties of daily life. Keating invites his audience to join him in “a place of silence,” where they may “let go of interior dialog, thinking about a past and future,” and “let God act in us.”

About the Speaker:

Thomas Keating, Trappist monk (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance)

Thomas Keating was born in New York City, and attended Deerfield Academy, Yale University, and Fordham University, graduating in December 1943. He is a founder of the Centering Prayer movement and of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.

Keating entered the Cistercian Order in Valley Falls, Rhode Island in January, 1944. He was appointed Superior of St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado in 1958, and was elected abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts in 1961. He returned to Snowmass after retiring as abbot of Spencer in 1981, where he established a program of ten-day intensive retreats in the practice of Centering Prayer, a contemporary form of the Christian contemplative tradition.

In 1984, along with Gustave Reininger and Edward Bednar, he co-founded Contemplative Outreach, Ltd., an international, ecumenical spiritual network that teaches the practice of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, a method of prayer drawn from the Christian contemplative tradition. Contemplative Outreach provides a support system for those on the contemplative path through a wide variety of resources, workshops, and retreats. Keating also helped found the Snowmass Interreligious Conference in 1982 and is a past president of the Temple of Understanding and of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue among other interreligious activities.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reactions to J. D. Salinger's Death from Around the Web

A collection of reactions to the death of J. D. Salinger from around the internet - and one wonders what hidden treasures from his pen may be released in the coming years. I want to point out that even The Onion, which is mentioned below, had something to say about Salinger's death: Bunch of Phonies Mourn JD Salinger.

We begin with the article by Charles McGrath from the New York Times, perhaps the longest tribute I have so far seen.

J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91

Published: January 28, 2010

J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.

Mr. Salinger’s literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, announced the death, saying it was of natural causes. “Despite having broken his hip in May,” the agency said, “his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death.”

Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.

With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “goddam”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading “Catcher” used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.

The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell tens of thousands of copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon in 1980, even said that the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.” In 1974 Philip Roth wrote, “The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture.”

Many critics were even more admiring of “Nine Stories,” which came out in 1953 and helped shape later writers like Mr. Roth, John Updike and Harold Brodkey. The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it), and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — in favor of an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony. Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”

Mr. Salinger also perfected the great trick of literary irony — of validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend. Orville Prescott wrote in The Times in 1963, “Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation.”

As a young man, Mr. Salinger yearned ardently for just this kind of attention. He bragged in college about his literary talent and ambitions, and wrote swaggering letters to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail.

In 1953, Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish, N.H. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

Read the whole article.

And now from the rest of the world . . . . Collected at Arts & Letters Daily.
J. D. Salinger, reclusive author whose Catcher in the Rye caught the mood of a generation, is dead ...
Charles McGrath ... The New York Times
AP ...
Stephen Miller ...
Elaine Woo ...
London Times ...
Bart Barnes ...
FT ...
Telegraph ...
Mark Krupnick ...
Richard Lacayo ...
Tom Leonard ...
Martin Levin ...
Rick Moody ...
Richard Lea ...
Malcolm Jones ...
Morgan Meis ...
Chris Wilson ...
Robert Fulford ...
Ian Shapira ...
Michael Ruse ...
Christopher Reynolds ...
David Usborne ...
Joe Gross ...
Stephen King ...
John Walsh ...
Henry Allen ...
Mark Feeney ...
Ron Rosenbaum (1997) ...
John Timpane ...
Alex Beam ...
Verlyn Klinkenborg
A collection of articles and Salinger stories from Slate.

J.D. Salinger, RIPStories on the late, great writer from the Slate archives.

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger died Thursday of natural causes at the age of 91. His novel The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, was a blockbuster success—it has sold more than 65 million copies. Over the years, Slate has published numerous articles on J.D. Salinger and his work. You can find links to these below.

"What a Phony: I read the banned Catcher in the Rye 'sequel' so you don't have to," by Juliet Lapidos. Posted July 15, 2009.

"Save the Salinger Archives! Even if we have to save them from Salinger himself," by Ron Rosenbaum. Posted Friday, June 5, 2009.

"Salinger on Trial," by Judith Shulevitz. Posted Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000.

"Hapworth 16, 1924: A Chatterbox Investigation," by Timothy Noah. Posted Monday, Sept. 11, 2000.

"J.D. Salinger, Failed Recluse," by Alex Beam. Posted Tuesday, June 29, 1999.

"I Was a Teen-Ager for the New York Times: Onetime Salinger paramour Joyce Maynard sells herself, piece by piece," by Alex Beam. Posted Friday, Jan. 9, 1998.
Check out all of Saliger's stories at The New Yorker: find links to all of them here.

Another tribute round-up from The Guardian UK:

JD Salinger: A tribute roundup

From favourite quotes to speculation over the secret stash of unpublished works, the blogosphere is awash with JD Salinger tributes and anecdotes

JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Phonies and fans ... JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Photograph: Amy Sancetta/AP

Outpourings of prose from what the New York Times is calling Salingerologists greeted the death of the world's most famous literary recluse, JD Salinger, yesterday.

Tributes are everywhere, from Stephen King (not "a huge Salinger fan, but I'm sorry to hear of his passing – the way you'd feel if you heard an eccentric, short-tempered, but often fascinating uncle had passed away"), to Neil Gaiman ("I loved the short stories, liked Catcher, admired his isolation and the way he stopped") and my personal favourite, John Hodgman: "I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive". Not really sure what to make of Bret Easton Ellis though: "Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!"

A fan remembers meeting Salinger in his 20s: "'You'd better come inside,' Salinger said. Krawczyk came in, and they went to the kitchen. As he remembers it, Krawczyk was not offered a seat or a cup of coffee … Then Krawczyk asked about The Catcher in the Rye. 'Did you think it would be such a popular book?' he asked. 'It's been a nightmare,' Krawczyk recalls Salinger answering. The writer did not elaborate."

Publisher Roger Lathbury, who corresponded with Salinger over the possible publication of Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1988 – it went sour after the press got wind of the plans – reveals, for the first time, details of his meeting with the author. "He was waiting patiently. I shook hands with him and apologized for being late and explained about the briefcase. He said, 'I was afraid of that.' He was trying to make me feel at ease but he was probably nervous, too.' They ordered. Salinger 'recommended the Parmesan soup, or a soup with Parmesan flavouring. I said, 'I am a vegetarian' and he said, 'I am largely a vegetarian.' I didn't know what that meant – sort of like saying, 'I am a little bit pregnant.'"

Collections of favourite Salinger quotes are springing up all over the place – "It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road", someone suggests here – and here GalleyCat has collected some old Salinger reviews (including Updike on Franny and Zooey: "His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humor, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present American life").

The question everyone's really asking, though, is what will happen to the writing. Salinger is said to have a "secret cache" of about 15 unpublished novels, but yesterday his literary agent declined to comment on whether they exist or are likely to be published, and his publisher said there were "no plans" for any new books.

My own favourite tribute comes from the always-excellent Onion. "Bunch of Phonies Mourn JD Salinger," it reports. "In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author JD Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud … 'There will never be another voice like his.' Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything."

Salinger himself, I think, might have approved of that one. It's pretty certain he'd have been unimpressed by all the chatter, – Holden Caulfield perhaps said it best: "Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."

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Zen Habits - [Seth Godin] The Reason You’re Stuck (and the one best way to avoid the six ways that will keep you stuck)

Excellent article from Zen Habits - There are a lot of articles on how to change, but very few people ever consider why they are stuck. And being stuck is the root of the problem. This is a guest post for Habits from Seth Godin, author of the new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?. Personally, I had no idea who Seth Godin is, but I see his name from time to time on web, so I looked around. He seems to be a prolific and popular dude, so that's cool.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from best-selling author and top blogger Seth Godin, author of the new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?.

Why is it so difficult to ship?

Ship as in get it out the door. Ship as in make a difference at work. Ship as in contribute your art and vision and expertise and passion to the project you’re working on.

Regular readers of this blog (and of Leo’s life-changing book) have seen first hand what happens when you force the distractions out of your life and focus on what needs to be completed instead. What he has taught us is that when you focus your efforts and energies on things that matter and cut out the stalling and distractions, amazing things happen. It’s absolutely astonishing how much we can accomplish (and insanely disappointing how few people do).

What separates the few who ship from the masses who stumble, stall and ultimately surrender?

The resistance.

Steven Pressfield first wrote about the resistance a few years ago. The resistance is that little voice in the back of your head, the one that tells you that it will never work, the one that insists you check your email one last time, the one that worries that people will laugh at you.

The resistance loves committees and it hates a mission. The resistance creates fear and uncertainty, and it will do almost anything to keep you from being noticed. There’s a biological underpinning to the resistance–your amygdala. The amygdala is the pre-historic portion of your brain, located near the brain stem. It’s responsible for fear and anger and revenge and sex and survival. When the amygdala is aroused, when it feels threatened, when there’s a sense that people might actually laugh at you, it takes over. It rises up in rage and fear and shuts you down.

And so the resistance kicks in. The resistance goes to meetings and plays devil’s advocate (I didn’t know the devil needed an advocate.)

The resistance finds excuses, it makes tasks needlessly complex (or oversimplifies so much that you fail). The resistance uses phrases like, “see, I told you it would never work.” The resistance demands that you study the issue more, or grab a Diet Coke, or go visit those friends who are in from out of town and you won’t be able to see them unless you go right now. The resistance invented yak shaving. The resistance is also responsible for giving you an even better idea just before you finish this one… in fact, the resistance will do anything it can to prevent you from shipping.

Why do little companies get so much more out the door than big ones? Because big companies have committees, groups of people designed to protect the status quo, to prevent failure, to avoid catastrophe. The committee is made up of humans, each of whom is battling her own version of the resistance. “If this ships, my boss will see it, and I might get fired.” “If this ships, a kid might use it, cut of his finger and I might get in trouble.” “If this ships, people are going to think it was my idea, and there’s a chance, just a chance, they might hate it.” Most of all, “if this ships, people might laugh at me.” And so the committee shoots for the lowest common denominator of safety, a product or service or idea that arouses no one’s lizard brain. Which means mediocre. Or late. Or both.

The iPod came from two people, Steve and Jonathan. The Zune came from 250. Which product would you rather own?

The resistance sabotaged my work for years. It pushed me to focus on average topics, delivered in a blameless way, because that felt safer.

So, when others were starting search engines or revolutionizing the online world, I was busy creating sort of ordinary books for sort of ordinary editors who were looking for the next small thing. And no one scolded me for doing this. No one looked at my sort of average work and called me out on it, because they were fighting the very same resistance as I was. It’s surprisingly easy to get through life and make a career out of being average… the resistance would prefer it if you did.

The resistance is powerful, so powerful that all the shortcuts, time savers and focusing tools are powerless in its path. Now you know its name. Now you know how it sneaks in under the radar and sounds quite sensible as it undermines your work and compromises your vision. When the resistance appears, you must call it out. Call it by name. Recognize it for what it is and then defeat it. You will defeat it not by rationalization or even a calm discussion. You will defeat it with single-minded effort, effort so deep and dedicated that it might exhaust you.

Unfortunately, the web is filled with tips and tricks and lists that appear to help you in your quest to shut up the lizard, to defeat the resistance. I say unfortunately because these lists are calm, practical and ultimately ineffective. They are polite in the face of a nefarious enemy, they are rational in the face of screaming insecurity. None of them are working for you because you may not be serious about actually defeating the resistance. It’s fun to procrastinate and comforting to dissemble, because not shipping doesn’t arouse the lizard brain. It’s safe.

The challenge then, the missing link in the Zen Habits is this: you must quiet the lizard brain. You must defeat the resistance. You must find something SO IMPORTANT that it is worth enraging your prehistoric fears, SO IMPORTANT that you can’t sleep until it ships, SO IMPORTANT that yes, you are willing to go through all the hoops Leo lays out for you in order to ship.

Either that, or you could be mediocre instead.

Seth Godin is the author of a new book called Linchpin. It’s about recognizing, defeating and ultimately destroying the resistance on the path to doing work that matters. Read more about the book.

With All the Happiness Books, How Come We Aren't Happy?

Two interesting articles (one a review of anti-happiness books) suggest it is much harder to be happy than the recent books on how to be happy might suggest. And then, a whole issue of Collegium (Volume 3, 2008) is devoted to articles on happiness from a multidisciplinary perspective.

It seems that Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (published in England as Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World), by Barbara Ehrenreich, is the center of these two articles (both from British papers - The Telegraph UK and The Financial Times - and both written by Julian Baggini).

The miserable results of our quest for happiness

Those who pillage rich traditions for contemporary tastes take the easy but shallow route to happiness, writes Julian Baggini.

Blaine Harrington III / Alamy The miserable results of our quest  for happiness
Pillaged: Buddhist traditions are being looted for hollow wisdom Photo: Blaine Harrington III / Alamy

Should we be happy that happiness has been taken down a peg or two? Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Smile or Die, has struck a chord with its argument that the benefits of positive thinking have been oversold. But the adoption of "mindfulness" classes at Tonbridge, a leading private school, suggests that the deeper problems at the heart of our cult of positivity have hardly even begun to be uncovered – and reminds us of why we should positively delight in hearing negative thoughts about positive thinking.

This may sound paradoxical. All things being equal, it is good to be happy, and it's certainly awful to be severely depressed. But what worries me is that our pursuit of happiness is leading us to judge the great intellectual and spiritual traditions of the past according to only one measure: do they increase happiness and reduce misery? That which passes the test is plundered and that which fails is left behind. The result is that wisdom is hollowed out and replaced with a soft centre of caramelised contentment.

Take, for instance, the increased use of Buddhist mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic practice. Professor Mark Williams, the director of the Mindfulness Centre at Oxford, has been leading research into this for several years now. As a psychologist concerned with mental wellbeing, he is perfectly entitled to borrow anything that might help. So too Wellington College and Tonbridge School (and soon Charterhouse and Hampton) might be right to introduce meditation classes for their pupils. As Williams put it, "This is not about converting people to Buddhism, but showing there is scientific evidence that these practices are useful."

However, it's that last word, "useful", that sums up what is lost when rich traditions are pillaged for contemporary tastes. For what does it mean for a belief or practice to be useful to human life? Those not willing to grapple with that question tend to assume the thinnest, feeblest answers: practical utility, or happiness.

The concept of mindfulness, of living in and being utterly aware of the moment, was not originally meant to serve either of these mundane goals. Rather, it was supposed to cultivate our insight into impermanence, by providing a direct awareness of the absence of persisting essences to all things. It is not simply a technique to make you feel good – it is deeply connected with a way of seeing the world, one that contains insights as well as errors. But why bother with the hard work of distinguishing the two if you can just discard the belief system completely?

Those keen to adopt mindfulness training as a mere means to a happier life ignore the fact that the ideas Buddhists have traditionally wanted people to be mindful of are not necessarily comfortable ones, even if they ultimately lead the way to nirvana. Being mindful of the flavour of freshly brewed coffee or the beauty of a common sparrow is one thing; fostering awareness of the emptiness at the heart of the self quite another.

Aristotle is another ancient sage who has been watered down for the dulled palates of the modern positive thinker. He is frequently quoted as saying that happiness "is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence". But, as any first-year undergraduate knows, the word translated here as happiness – "eudaimonia" – actually means something more like "flourishing". Eudaimonia requires that we exercise the full range of our capacities as humans – especially, but not only, our intellects. The crude adoption of Aristotle as a champion of feeling good helps happiness flourish, while flourishing flounders.

What is strange is that so many religious leaders and thinkers have gone along with this instrumental use of their core beliefs and practices. The Dalai Lama is not the only senior Tibetan Buddhist to have written books which lead on the promise of happiness; Abbot Christopher Jamison's book Finding Happiness shows that even the austere, monastic life can now be reframed to appeal to those seeking a gentler, easier fulfilment.

If we can find practical, secular advice in the works of Buddhists, stoics and saints, so be it. If Montaigne can soothe your troubled soul, take the balm. The problem is that ways of living and thinking which offer, and demand, so much more, are simply being looted to fill a toolbox for the crass engineering of positive thoughts and warm emotions. The looters are at best blind to the deeper riches on offer, at worst disfiguring the very source of their ill-gotten riches.

To be fair, many of the experts in these fields are fully aware of these dangers. But what about the management consultants, life coaches and even government agencies who are clamouring for their services? By the time the plunderers have themselves been plundered, there could be very little real meat left to nourish more demanding souls. We are witnessing deep thought being driven out by positive thought; true self-awareness sacrificed in the name of shallow happiness.

Julian Baggini is the editor of 'The Philosophers' Magazine'
* * * * *

Where happiness lies

By Julian Baggini

Published: January 15 2010 23:50 | Last updated: January 15 2010 23:50

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in 'Singin' in the Rain'
Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta £9.99, 240 pages
FT Bookshop price: £8.79

Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires
By Carol Graham
Oxford University Press £14.99, 268 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99

The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard To Be Happy
By Michael Foley
Simon & Schuster £10.99, 272 pages
FT Bookshop price: £8.79

The Happiness Project: Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
By Gretchen Rubin
HarperCollins, £16.99, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.59

A few decades ago, philosophers, economists and scientists didn’t pay much attention to happiness. They left that to the likes of comedian Ken Dodd, who famously sang that it was “the greatest gift that I possess”. Today, however, the lyrics of that chirpy ditty are virtually indistinguishable from the key claims of positive psychology – the flourishing “new science of happiness”.

“Don’t count my money, count my happiness,” sang Dodd, explaining that “Happiness is nothing but a frame of mind,” something he “thanks the Lord” for. His lyrics may be folksy in style but the content encapsulates the essence of positive psychology. In 1998, the discipline was more or less unknown, until Martin Seligman, the then president of the American Psychological Association, began promoting the message that psychology needed to get over its historic obsession with what made people feel bad and start thinking about what made them feel good instead. His 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, became an international bestseller. But perhaps more significant, politically, was Lord Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005). Layard is not a psychologist but an economist, and his service as the the British government’s “happiness tsar” has taken positive psychology beyond influence to the heart of power. Its prescriptions lie behind a range of measures, from the huge increase in NHS-funded cognitive behavioural therapists to the forthcoming provision of mental health co-ordinators in Job Centres.

Despite its prominence, the contemporary, science-backed pursuit of happiness nevertheless raises serious questions about our value system. If all that matters is that we feel good, then what about other ideals we hold for the good life? In particular, if truth and happiness conflict, which one should prevail: blissful ignorance or painful knowledge?

The most recent bunch of happiness books each provide different answers. The best, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, sides squarely with the truth. The least convincing, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, has a disregard for objective reality that even the most garrulous spin doctor would find breathtaking. Michael Foley declares in The Age of Absurdity that the modern world makes happiness impossible, while Carol Graham presents some sober, much-needed socio-economic evidence, in Happiness Around the World.

Rubin’s book chronicles a year in which she worked really, really hard on being a sunnier, more positive person by pick-and-mixing advice from psychologists, philosophers and self-help books. To outsiders, her motivation seems obscure. After all, at the time Rubin, author of biographies of John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill, was living happily in New York with a loving husband and two children. Despite this, one day she realised, “I’m not as happy as I should be.” Instead of realising that this desire for ever more happiness could be precisely what was stopping her being content with her contentment, she set out with obsessive dedication to broaden her smile, identifying what seems to work for other people and awarding herself stars on a resolutions chart when she succeeded in emulating them.

The deep ethical flaw in her project is the trumping of truth by feeling and desire. When her husband told her the year had not changed him, for instance, she simply insisted that it had. “Maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see,” she wonders, but then adds, “Maybe, but who cares?” This is where you end up if you make the pursuit of happiness your primary goal, indifferent to reality, concerned only with how you feel.

Rubin would probably have little time for the relentlessly negative-thinking Michael Foley. In his book, the novelist, poet and IT lecturer sets out to explain “Why modern life makes it hard to be happy?” Foley’s charge sheet covers pretty much everything. The promise of consumer culture, where all things good are just a chip and pin away, makes people feel entitled to everything but responsible for nothing; when anybody can be anything, talent and effort become irrelevant. Only desire matters, and nothing is easier than wanting. As we are increasingly connected to the internet or plugged into our iPhones, quiet contemplation is almost impossible – our attention spans are reducing to almost zero. There’s more but, if Foley is right, you’ve probably lost your concentration already, distracted by a tweet from a “friend” you don’t know, telling you things you don’t care about.

The problem with Foley’s entertaining tirade against the woes of late modernity is its lack of balance. He ignores truths such as the fact that most people are reasonably happy, whether rich or poor, African or European.

That is one of the surprising facts revealed in economist Carol Graham’s Happiness Around the World. As might be expected from a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, this is a solid but arid assessment of the evidence about how factors such as income, health, education, religious belief and marital status affect subjective well-being. The headline findings are already widely known: once people are lifted out of poverty, rising incomes do not make them happier; unequal societies are more miserable than equal ones; being religious, married and healthy enhances your well-being. Graham’s book demonstrates how we should not be hasty to draw conclusions from what are only statistical averages.

For example, although inequality is generally correlated with unhappiness, in the US the statistics suggest that “the only people made less happy by inequality are left-leaning rich people”. The most plausible explanation is that, for those who still dream the American dream, “inequality remains for many respondents a sign of future opportunities and mobility”.

Another complication, according to Graham, is that although richer countries do tend to be happier ones, when economies are in the midst of rapid growth, discontent rises. It seems that uncertainty, change, and the perception that there is a gravy train others are riding but you’re not, conspire against the gains of economic growth.

Graham is rightly cautious about what practical consequences follow from all this. Should you allow people to remain deceived if their false beliefs make them happier? Do you prioritise making the really unhappy reasonably content or should we aim to maximise the total amount of happiness in society? These are issues for policymakers, but also for individuals. If marriage makes you happier, for example, should you do your best to get married? Not if the wrong spouse will make your life a misery, and, as Graham points out, it depends where you live – in Russia, married people, on average, are no happier.

Barbara Ehrenreich is too committed a truth-seeker to protect happiness with falsehoods. The American writer, journalist and activist has proven herself to be a humane and astute critic of her country’s culture, exposing the harsh realities of working for the minimum wage in Nickel and Dimed, and of white-collar professional life in Bait and Switch. Her new book, Smile or Die, is a measured and informed attack on the “cult of positive thinking” that first infected the US and then spread to the rest of the world world.

Smile or Die traces the roots of American optimism and positive psychology to the 19th-century backlash against the Calvinist Puritanism of the first European settlers. The critical year was 1863, when the then invalid Mary Baker Eddy sought a “talking cure” from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. She recovered and took up his teachings when he died three years later. Both have competing claims to be the true founder of the New Thought movement, which promoted the idea that illness was essentially a psychic disturbance and could be cured by the mind alone.

Eddy went on to found Christian Science, but her ideas have trickled out across the world. William James, a psychologist and philosopher, praised them in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and they appear in such seminal 20th-century self-help texts as Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich! and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

Ehrenreich examines the pernicious contemporary versions of these ideas, from the new-age mumbo jumbo of “The law of attraction” – which tells us the universe gives to those who ask – through the relentless positivity preached by career and life coaches, to the promises of earthly rewards by American mega-churches. She even claims positive thinking was at least partly to blame for the current economic crisis, pointing to can-do chief executives who ended up captains of sinking ships, and those who sensed things were going wrong but were ostracised for their “pessimism”.

In each case she discusses, the imperative to accentuate the positive entails a disrespect for truth, which in some cases can have terrible consequences. In the powerful opening chapter, for instance, Ehrenreich describes how she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then discovered that the majority of her fellow sufferers had bought into a bogus ideology that says cancer can make you a better person, and that really wanting to get better is the key to recovery. The flipside of this, of course, is that if you don’t get better, it must somehow be your own fault for being too negative. It also has the perverse implication that it is better to get cancer than not to. “If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer?” asked sufferer Cindy Cherry. “Absolutely.” As Ehrenreich points out, such an attitude “encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

The real value of Ehrenreich’s book is that it shows that the choice is not between being positive or negative. The issue, according to Ehrenreich, is whether we start with the facts or with our attitudes. What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

With happiness, as with much else, there is no algorithm and there are no secrets. Modern life can make you miserable but on average it doesn’t and, in any case, a good life is not just a happy life but a truthful one. Knowing the facts can help us to live well but no one can provide you with a bespoke map to guide you through it. What they can do, however, is lead you astray with the promise that – with some survey data, positive thinking and a resolutions chart – mortal bliss is just a few steps away.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of ‘Complaint’
Finally, for some perspectives from all over the philosophical, humanities spectrum, the 3rd issue of Collegium was devoted to articles on happiness.

Happiness: Cognition, Experience, Language

Edited by Heli Tissari, Anne Birgitta Pessi & Mikko Salmela (2008)

Contents - Volume 3

Cover, Details & Acnowledgements (pdf)

A Happy Introduction
Full text (pdf)

Happiness in Ancient Philosophy
Juha Sihvola
Full text (pdf)

The Logical Structure of Joy (and Many Other Emotions)
Mikko Salmela
Full text (pdf)

Can We Raise the Level of Happiness?
Markku Ojanen
Full text (pdf)

What Constitutes Experiences of Happiness and the Good Life? - Building a Novel Model on the Everyday Experiences
Anne Birgitta Pessi
Full text (pdf)

Sour Faces, Happy Lives? On Laughter, Joy and Happiness of the Agelasts
Sari Kivistö
Full text (pdf)

Happy in Changing Contexts: The History of Word-use and the Metamorphoses of a Concept
Hans-Jürgen Diller
Full text (pdf)

The Conceptual Structure of Happiness
Zoltán Kövecses
Full text (pdf)

Happiness and Joy in Corpus Contexts: A Cognitive Semantic Analysis
Heli Tissari
Full text (pdf)

List of Contributors (pdf)