Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dr. Paul Lam: The Health Benefits of Tai Chi: Art and Science

Dr. Paul Lam, a practicing physician and Tai Chi master for more than 30 years, provides an overview of the ancient art of Tai Chi, and discusses the scientific evidence for its health benefits. Series: Integrative Medicine Today [3/2010]

The Bomb in the Brain, Part 4 - The Effects of Child Abuse (The Death of Reason)

In January I posted the first three videos in this series - the fourth one is now up at YouTube and available, so here it is.

The Bomb in the Brain

by Stefan Molyneux

The effects of child abuse run like an outgrowth of tentacles into nearly every aspect of the personality and health of a human being. Though the empirical data and evidence is quite revealing as to the extent of its lasting effects, the effect it has on ourselves is not truly realized until one is humbled by years of battle in the tireless, toil and labor of intervening work required to heal and change for the better.

The scientific evidence underlying the near-universal resistance to reason and evidence. If you want to change the world, you first must understand the unconscious barriers to thinking.

From Freedomain Radio, the largest and most popular philosophy show on the Web, hosted by Stefan Molyneux --

Stefan Molyneux is the author of several books including Real-Time Relationships: The Logic of Love - Extended Edition, he is also host of the most popular philosophy show on the web, Freedomain Radio, nominated in both the 2007 and 2008 podcast awards.

Here are the links to all four videos:

The Bomb in the Brain Part 1 - The Effects  of Child Abuse

How Your Brain Can Turn Anxiety into Calmness

Interesting lecture, given at the University of California, San Francisco. Rossman has a site called The Healing Mind, which seems to be a marketing effort as much as anything else. However, in all fairness, he is offering a complementary approach to the medical model, using the mind's own power over the power the body as an adjunct to healing - seems good to me.

Here is a blurb from his site:


Mind/Body medicine focuses on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior, and on the powerful ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect health. It regards as fundamental an approach that respects and enhances each person's capacity for self-knowledge and self-care, and it emphasizes techniques that are grounded in this approach.

Dr. Rossman founded The Healing Mind in order to raise public and professional awareness about the power and effectiveness of high quality Mind/Body self-healing techniques. Renowned as a leading expert and pioneer in Mind/Body imagery, Dr. Rossman has taught clinical guided imagery to over 10,000 health professionals since 1982.

What is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery is a Mind/Body technique that teaches you to use your imagination to reduce stress, relieve pain, change lifestyle habits, and stimulate healing responses in your body. It's a power that has been researched more than all other approaches to health combined, and it's complementary to all of them. It's safe, effective, inexpensive, and has side benefits instead of side effects! While you already have this power, you may have never been taught to use it.

The Healing Mind has developed a series of products, authored by Dr. Rossman and our team of experts, to help you manage many medical conditions and live healthier, fuller lives. Through these products you will learn to you to use your mind to deeply relax, find solutions to difficult problems, evoke healing responses in your body, and learn to listen to your body so you can better help it heal itself.

Listen now to Dr. Marty Rossman's description of guided imagery.

The site does offer a research summary in support of their approach - Download the Research PDF .

Anyway, here is the UCSF lecture.

Physician, author, speaker, researcher, and consultant Martin L. Rossman, MD, discusses how to use the power of the healing mind to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve pain, change lifestyle habits, and live with more wellness.

The Dalai Lama - Confessing Past Misdeeds

Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace
by H.H. the Dalai Lama of Tibet,
translated and edited
by Jeffrey Hopkins

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

We are all persons who have accumulated misdeeds in the past. This is indicated by the fact that at present bad thoughts constantly rise up in our minds, thereby showing that in the past for a long period we have become excessively used to these bad thoughts. In this way it is said that you can tell what you were doing in the past by examining your body now and that you can tell what will come in the future by looking at what you are doing with your mind now.

In any case, with regard to whatever misdeeds have been done in the past, you should engage in disclosure of them and in developing an intention to restrain from them in the future. For a Buddhist practitioner, the usual practices include prostration and recitation of certain mantras such as the one hundred syllable mantra. One of the best methods is to make gifts to poor and sick persons. The giving of donations for education as well as in the medical field is very great work, one of the best ways to gain merit.

--from The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace by H.H. the Dalai Lama of Tibet, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, published by Snow Lion Publications

March 10th marked the 51st anniversary of the peaceful Up-rising in Lhasa, in protest of Chin-ese occupation. Below are statements by Tibet's leaders:

The Da1ai Lama's Statement

The Kashag's Statement

Friday, March 12, 2010

P2P Wiki - Connectivist Learning Theory (George Siemens)

Over at the P2P Foundation Wiki, there is a post on Connectivist Learning Theory, a topic I am interested in as an alternative to traditional learning methods, which seem not to work for a lot of people.

Part of the history is in social learning theory (Vygotsky, Bandura, Bruner - three of my favorite dudes in psychology history). I also like that this model's theory of mind is both embodied and distributed (and I would guess, as well, culturally embedded).

Connectivist Learning Theory - Siemens

From P2P Foundation



"A central tenet of most learning theories is that learning occurs inside a person. Even social constructivist views, which hold that learning is a socially enacted process, promotes the principality of the individual (and her/his physical presence – i.e. brain-based) in learning. These theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology)… In a networked world, the very manner of information that we acquire is worth exploring. The need to evaluate the worthiness of learning something is a meta-skill that is applied before learning itself begins. When knowledge is subject to paucity, the process of assessing worthiness is assumed to be intrinsic to learning. When knowledge is abundant, the rapid evaluation of knowledge is important. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill. Including technology and connection making as learning activities begins to move learning theories into a digital age. We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act. We derive our competence from forming connections. Karen Stephenson states: “Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people.

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories…


"what is it that's unique about connectivism. As a starter to the discussion, and one that will be a critical focus in our fall course, I'll suggest the following:

1. Connectivism is the application of network principles to define both knowledge and the process of learning. Knowledge is defined as a particular pattern of relationships and learning is defined as the creation of new connections and patterns as well as the ability to maneuver around existing networks/patterns.

2. Connectivism addresses the principles of learning at numerous levels - biological/neural, conceptual, and social/external. This is a key concept that I'll be writing about more during the online course. What I'm saying with connectivism (and I think Stephen would share this) is that the same structure of learning that creates neural connections can be found in how we link ideas and in how we connect to people and information sources. One scepter to rule them all.

3. Connectivism focuses on the inclusion of technology as part of our distribution of cognition and knowledge. Our knowledge resides in the connections we form - where to other people or to information sources such as databases. Additionally, technology plays a key role of 1) cognitive grunt work in creating and displaying patterns, 2) extending and enhancing our cognitive ability, 3) holding information in ready access form (for example, search engines, semantic structures, etc). We see the beginning of this concept in tool-based discussions of Activity Theory. Connectivism acknowledges the prominence of tools as a mediating object in our activity system, but then extends it by suggesting that technology plays a central role in our distribution of identity, cognition, and thereby, knowledge.

4. Context. While other theories pay partial attention to context, connectivism recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and connections based on context. As such, it becomes increasingly vital that we focus not on pre-made or pre-defined knowledge, but on our interactions with each other, and the context in which those interactions arise. The context brings as much to a space of knowledge connection/exchange as do the parties involved in the exchange.

5. Understanding. Coherence. Sensemaking. Meaning. These elements are prominent in constructivism, to a lessor extent cognitivism, and not at all in behaviourism. But in connectivism, we argue that the rapid flow and abundance of information raises these elements to critical importance. As stated at the start of this post, constructivism found it's roots of growth in the social reform-based climate and post-modern era. Connectivism finds its roots in the climate of abundance, rapid change, diverse information sources and perspectives, and the critical need to find a way to filter and make sense of the chaos. As such, the networked centrality of connectivism permits a scaling of both abundance and diversity. The information climate of continual and ongoing change raises the importance of being continually current. As Anderson has stated, "more is different". The "more" of information and technology today, and the need to stay current, forms the climate that gives roots to connectivism." (

Principles of connectivism

- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.

- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.

- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.

- Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known

- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.

- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.

- Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.


Dave Pollard:

"here's my understanding of what it's all about, and key definitions:

1. Connectivism is a theory of learning that asserts that knowledge and learning are not (about) content, but connection. Hence:

2. Knowledge = patterns of connections, of three types:

  • 1. neural = know-what,
  • 2. conceptual = know-how, and
  • 3. social = know-who)

3. Networks = loci of knowledge.

4. Learning = making new connections (of the above types).

5. Understanding / coherence / sensemaking = forms of pattern recognition.

6. Community = those with shared knowledge and shared learning interests.

7. Workarounds = the mechanism by which individuals make sense of and apply their own learning, regardless of mandated knowledge (instruction) or accepted knowledge ('conventional' wisdom).

8. Accepted knowledge (wisdom) = what evolves as power shifts, people die and the make-up of communities changes; wisdom is inherently 'conventional' and tyrannical.

9. The 'wisdom of crowds' is not 'wisdom' at all, but rather collective knowledge = the aggregation and appreciation of patterns of knowledge of large numbers of independent people, shared; this is much better than wisdom!" (

Characteristics of Connective Knowledge Networks

"You probably grew up learning that there are two major types of knowledge: qualitative and quantitative. Distributed knowledge adds a third major category to this domain, knowledge that could be described as connective. A property of one entity must lead to or become a property of another entity in order for them to be considered connected; the knowledge that results from such connections is connective knowledge.

According to Downes (2005), connective knowledge networks possess four traits:


Is the widest possible spectrum of points of view revealed?


Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?


Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members' perspectives?


Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?" (


George Siemens: From whence does connectivism originate?

All ideas have a heritage. All concepts have roots. A few related to connectivism:

1. Tools augment our ability to interact with each other and to act. Tools are extensions of humanity, increasing our ability to externalize our thinking into forms that we can share with others. Language is an example. Activity theory provides a basis in this regard. So does the socio-cultural work of Vygotsky. Gibson's notion of affordances of tools, while based in his research on perception, also serves a role in validating tool use. And how could we leave Wittgenstein's notion of negotiated understanding out of a language discussion? Similarly, tools are "carriers of patterns of previous reasoning" (Pea) and reflect some type of ideology. This view is also prominent in Postman's assertion that all technology carries an ideology.

2. Contextual/situated nature of learning. Situated learning draws from the work of Lave and Wenger, though, it's not too much of a stretch to say that Papert's emphasis on active doing fits this at least partly.

3. Social learning theory. Here we can draw from Bandura's emphasis on self-efficacy, Bruner, Vygotsky, and others.

4. Epistemological views: all learning theory is rooted in epistemology (even though von Glaserfeld declares we are in a post-epistemological era, suggesting that providing a theory of knowledge is exactly what constructivism cannot do). As an epistemological basis for connectivism, I've found Stephen Downes' work on connective knowledge valuable. More recently, Dave Cormier has been advancing the concept of rhizomatic knowledge and community as curriculum.

5. Concept of mind. The notion of mind is enormously complex. We encounter a unique blend of philosophers, neuroscientists, and artificial intelligence in this area such as Churchlands, Papert & Minsky, McClelland & Rumelhart, Clark (embodied cognition), Spivey, and more. Mind is seen - too varying degrees - as embodied and distributed across numerous devices, relationships and artifacts. Hutchins popularized the notion in his text on Distributed Cognition. These concepts are also reflected in Weicks' papers on heedful interrelating. Salomon's edited text on Distributed Cognitions extends these ideas into an educational context.

6. We also find a compatible view of connectivism in the work of new media theorists such as McLuhan, exploring the impact of technology on what it means to be a human. The impact of technology on humanity will continue to grow in greater prominence as we are increasingly able to augment human cognitive functioning through pharmaceuticals and the future promise of embedded chips.

7. We also find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complextiy and systems-based thinking. For example, Mason, Davis, and others, recently published a series of articles on the impact of complexity theory on the enterprise of education. Individuals like Barnnett suggest it should more accurately be called "supercomplexity" as we are not able to even begin to understand the directions things will take in the future.

8. Network theory. Sociologists, mathematicians, and physicists have spent several decades defining networks and network attributes. We are able to define key network structures, manner of behaviour, and flow of information. Concepts like small worlds, power laws, hubs, structural holes, and weak/strong ties are common in literature. Educational focus of networks comes from work by Starr-Roxanne Hiltz, Chris Jones, Martin de Laat, and others. Networks are prominent in all aspects of society, not just education. This prominence is partly due to the recognizable metaphor of the internet...but networks have always existed. As Barabasi states, networks are everywhere. We just need an eye for them." (

More Information

  1. George Siemens maintains a blog and a wiki at
  2. A response to some critical reviews about connectivism, at
  3. Connectivism: a theory for learning in a world of growing complexity. By Kay Strong, Holly Hutchins. mpact: Journal of Applied Research in Workplace E-learning, Vol 1, No 1 (2009)

The Liberal Moment - What Happened?

An interesting collection of articles from Democracy: The Journal of Ideas.

The standard narrative, at this point, is this: Fourteen months ago, the progressive breast swelled with joy and hope at Barack Obama’s ascent to power; today, much of that hope is lost, and the fault sits squarely on the shoulders of the man who raised expectations so thrillingly in 2008 and has deflated them so utterly since. Without question, there is something to the story. But it is, perhaps, a little more cathartic than explanatory. Nine thinkers and writers assess where we are.

Michael Sandel: Obama and Civic Idealism
Michael Walzer: Missing the Movement
Danielle Allen: It's Up to Obama
William Galston: A Time of Limits
Martha Nussbaum: Learning from the World
Robert Reich: Principles Before Heroes
Katha Pollitt: What Happened to Women?
Brad Carson: Liberalism, Unwilling and Unable
Joe Klein: DMV Liberalism
Here is the introductory essay for the issue.
What Happened?
by Michael Tomasky

The standard narrative, at this point, is this: Fourteen months ago, the progressive breast swelled with joy and hope at Barack Obama’s ascent to power; today, much of that hope is lost, and the fault sits squarely on the shoulders of the man who raised expectations so thrillingly in 2008 and has deflated them so utterly since.

Without question, there is something to the story. But it is, perhaps, a little more cathartic than explanatory. In assuming Obama to be a transcendent man, the master narrative offers an analysis rooted in Carlyle’s idea that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men"–a touch ironic, since liberal historians and practitioners have tended to eschew Carlyle’s view in favor of a more "ground-up" interpretation of events, one that examines not only the people in power but the people out of power, around it, and below it, alongside the institutional forces that shape and surround all of those actors.

Indeed, many liberals have been thinking about the past 14 months in precisely these ways. What are those institutional forces today–which ones are powerful, and which ignorable? What was the true nature of the historical moment of November 2008–a sea change, a more tentative correction, or something even more limiting than that? What realities, beyond those that have to do with Obama himself, exist to nurture today’s liberalism or to strangle it? Is contemporary liberalism equipped–intellectually, organizationally–to address today’s concerns? And if not, how should it change?

Last December, we at Democracy formulated four questions that attempted to sum up these thoughts:

1. We often speak and think of the historical left-right pendulum–e.g., it swung to the left in the 1960s, to the right in the 1980s. Where is that pendulum right now, at the end of Obama’s first year as President?

2. How are things different today from 1933, 1965, or 1993? Is there a general trajectory of change over the last 77 years?

3. Without getting into of-the-moment politics and thinking in more historical terms, what is possible now? Are big things possible today (or even desirable), or is this just a different and more incrementalist time? What are the limits of progressive governance?

4. Is today’s liberalism as it should be? What important attribute or capacity does it lack? What role should it aspire to play in the twenty-first century that it is not playing now?

To answer these questions, we asked some of America’s leading progressive thinkers to give us their takes on where the last 14 months fit within the historical scope of American liberalism. Here are their responses, which get at what may be the central challenge for progressives today. We have a liberalism that wants to do much–that has, over the years and decades, only added to its list of goals and desired interventions. But we have a system that seemingly in both political and policy terms simply can’t accommodate all those desires. We have what you might call an idea-oversupply problem. How, then, do we prioritize? What goals can succeed in the short term–and in the long term, can succeed in opening up more breathing room for the list?

Our symposium does not definitively answer these questions; they are, ultimately, unanswerable, destined for a state of constant flux, like Heraclitus’ ever-flowing river into which one cannot take the same step twice. But they’re the right questions, and our contributors address them in provocative ways.

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Masculine Heart - Thoughts Toward a Developmental Model of Masculine Identity

Over at my other blog, The Masculine Heart, I have posted the first two parts (of three) in my exploration of "Thoughts Toward a Developmental Model of Masculine Identity."

In Part One, I look at the history of identity development models, beginning with William E. Cross, Jr.'s Nigrescence Model, and then I also take a look at Rita Hardiman's White Racial Identity Development Model. I had originally planned to build on Hardiman's model, as well as a model presented by Janet Helms, but subsequent research redirected my interests.

In Part Two, which I posted yesterday, I explore a few masculinity models that I discovered after my earlier research. I look at work Michael J. Diamond and Jay Wade (the first a Freudian model which offers little to my perspective, and the second a more useful model of social reference group influence, which does offer some value). From there I moved into a brief look at David A. Scott and Tracy L. Robinson's "White Male Identity Development: The Key Model," which is useful, as well, but focused only a white males, not all males.

Finally, I take an in-depth look at the "Social Identity Development Theory" proposed by Rita Hardiman and Bailey W. Jackson, and which is based in part on Hardiman's previous racial development model. This offers a more comprehensive look at identity because it includes both the dominant culture (the agents) who define what is "good," and the minority cultures (the targets) who are defined as "less than" by the dominant culture. There is also an active and passive element to two of the stages that make them more comprehensive.

In Part Three (yet to come), I will propose my own model based on the most useful elements from each of the models already examined. My hope is to approach a model of integrated masculine identity from an early naive stage through manifestations of physical, cultural, relativist, and integrated stages of masculine identity (those will not be the actual stage names). I am also hoping to examine the revision to Erickson's identity development stage created by James Marcia (adolescent identity crisis). Here is a brief look at his addition to Erikson's model:

Upon developing a semi-structured interview for identity research, Marcia proposed Identity Status of psychological identity development:

  • Identity Diffusion – the status in which the adolescent does not have a sense of having choices; he or she has not yet made (nor is attempting/willing to make) a commitment
  • Identity Foreclosure – the status in which the adolescent seems willing to commit to some relevant roles, values, or goals for the future. Adolescents in this stage have not experienced an identity crisis. They tend to conform to the expectations of others regarding their future (e. g. allowing a parent to determine a career direction) As such, these individuals have not explored a range of options.
  • Identity Moratorium – the status in which the adolescent is currently in a crisis, exploring various commitments and is ready to make choices, but has not made a commitment to these choices yet.
  • Identity Achievement - the status in which adolescent has gone through a identity crisis and has made a commitment to a sense of identity (i.e. certain role or value) that he or she has chosen

Note that the above status are not stages and should not viewed as a sequential process.

These are the essential outcomes of the adolescent identity crisis, not the sequence of development. Three of these four result in a closed system, i.e., having accepted an identity. Only the "moratorium" position leaves open the possibility of further development, although all of the perspectives (aside from maybe the "diffusion" stance, in which there is no sense of options - think perhaps here of a young conservative Baptist male in a small town in Mississippi, there would be no sense of options, only one way to "be" that is not even chosen, it just is how it's done).

Anyway - I will get Part Three up as soon as possible. I welcome any thoughts readers might want to share. It is my hope to publish this at some point, develop a measure, and then test it's validity in the real world.

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Tricycle: Starting from Scratch - A Talk with Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor is one of the most controversial Western Buddhist teachers, and in many ways, he is closest to my own perspectives. Having said this in public spaces over the last year has generated a lot of discussion, and more than a few people contend that if I share Batchelor's perspectives on things such as rebirth and karma, then I most certainly am not a "real" Buddhist.

I prefer to think of my perspective as post-conventional or post-modern Buddhism. I may be all wrong, too. I am in agreement with Batchelor's approach to the dharma teachings as outlined here, for better or worse.

His new book is Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, and Buddhism Without Beliefs remains a great but controversial book.

Starting from Scratch

A talk with Stephen Batchelor

steven batchelor

Stephen Batchelor never planned to be controversial. He began as a young and earnest practitioner, leaving his native Britain in 1972, at age eighteen, to study with some of the most revered Asian Buddhist teachers around at that time. He ordained first as a Tibetan monk, and then, later, as a monk in the Korean Zen tradition.

Yet although he adopted his root teachers’ languages, philosophies, and customs, he eventually found himself ill-suited to monastic life. In 1985, he returned to England, where he settled down with his wife, Martine, a former nun in the Korean Zen tradition.

Back at home, Batchelor began to formulate a distinctly Western approach to the Buddha’s teachings, and in his best-selling book “Buddhism Without Beliefs” (1997), he openly acknowledged his deep skepticism toward the doctrines of karma and rebirth. The firestorm of protest that followed—from traditional and even not-so-traditional Buddhists—surprised Batchelor. (He was characterized at the time as Buddhism’s bad boy at best and anti-dharma at worst.)

In his new, autobiographical book, “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist,” Batchelor has arrived at what he considers to be the bare bones of Buddhism, upon which, he argues, an entirely new practice and understanding of dharma can be built. As always, Batchelor is as articulate as he is frank. No doubt many will cry foul. — James Shaheen

You were a Tibetan and later a Korean Buddhist monk. Then you disrobed. Can you say something about that? As a monk, I had to play a certain role in society; I was obliged to follow the precepts and injunctions that were necessary for a representative of the Buddhist traditions in which I was ordained. As much as I valued my monastic training, I also found myself frequently in social situations where I didn’t feel entirely comfortable playing the role of a Buddhist monk. This was particularly true in the West, where my robes alone declared that I belonged to a particular Asian tradition. But when I found myself trying to have a serious conversation with someone in Germany or Switzerland, I often felt a strong conflict between what I felt I was obliged to say as a Buddhist monk and what I actually felt to be the case on a particular issue. And so in that sense I felt that I was a bit of a fake—particularly when I began to have serious doubts about certain elements of Buddhist orthodoxy: the belief in rebirth, different realms of existence, and so forth.

What do you hope to accomplish with “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”? I think dogma has become a problem in Buddhism. Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be superimposed upon the dharma as we find it presented in the earliest known sources— for example, the Pali canon—just as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed upon the historical fragments of his life that one likewise finds scattered throughout the canon. What I’ve done is to try to strip away the myths about Siddhattha Gotama, to try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of the Buddha as a human being. I’ve also tried to remove some of the dogmas that have developed subsequent to the material we find in the Pali canon, which are now entrenched as Buddhist doctrine.

How do you do that? The methodology I used was to ask myself, What is there within the Pali canon that is distinctively and steven batchelor monkoriginally a Buddhist idea? If I find a doctrine or teaching that talks of past or future lives, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death, I put that to one side as something that was already widely believed at the Buddha’s time. And by this process of subtraction—by removing things that are either found in the Upanishads or in other earlier Indian teachings (and things that have a blatantly supernatural quality to them)—I can begin to isolate those teachings that are distinctive to what the Buddha was teaching in the fifth century BCE.

What, then, did you conclude were distinctly Buddhist ideas? Four things stand out. One is the principle of dependent origination, or “conditioned arising,” as I call it; the second is the practice of mindful awareness—being focused upon the totality of what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience; the third is the process of the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Eightfold Path; and fourth, the principle of self-reliance—how the Buddha really wanted his students to become autonomous in their understanding of the dharma, and not to generate dependencies upon either the memory of him or upon some authority figure within the monastic community.

By getting down to the bare bones of what the Buddha was teaching, one is then perhaps in a position to begin to rethink Buddhism from the ground up. And I feel the four points that I listed are entirely adequate for constructing a new vision of the dharma, both as a worldview and as a form of spiritual and ethical practice, which speaks to our condition here and now.

Why do you think we need a new Buddhism? Don’t you risk arrogance here? I would be the first to acknowledge that in undertaking such an endeavor one risks falling prey to one’s own conceits and confusions. If a particular traditional practice works well for a certain person, then I would only encourage that person to continue with it. But in my own case—as well as that of numerous others—it is clear that traditional Asian Buddhist approaches do not seem to work so well. Yet the great strength of Buddhism throughout its history is that it has succeeded many times in reinventing itself according to the needs of its new host culture. What is happening today in the West is no different. Historically, we can see that priestly Buddhist elites have tended to assume increasing authority over the majority of lay practitioners, and to some extent have lost sight of the aim that practitioners should become autonomous in their practice. Instead we often find a culture that is quite deferential, even dependent upon, devotion to a particular group of experts—be they lamas or roshis or ajahns. Such devotion certainly has its place in Buddhist training, but if we are to articulate the dharma in our own language, in the context of our own time, at a certain point I feel we need to respectfully detach ourselves from priestly and dogmatic authority in order to find our own authentic voice.

Where does that leave you in relation to traditional Buddhist cultures and teachers? In my own case, I feel no great need to go and sit any longer at the feet of traditional Asian teachers. But it may be that something will come up in my life or in my understanding that will necessitate further study and dialogue with Asian traditions. I don’t know. It should not be forgotten that over the last forty or so years we’ve produced a generation of teachers and scholars and writers who have had a long-standing, full-time engagement with the dharma, comparable to that of many Asian teachers. That is, we now have a generation of Westerners with a considerable amount of experience and insight, which, I would hope, should enable them to stand pretty much on their own two feet. Such independence is, as I said before, something I believe the Buddha encouraged.

Your book takes an autobiographical turn; it’s not just about your beliefs, but how they evolved. Why? I find I am less and less comfortable with assuming you can make such a clear-cut distinction between the ideas that you hold and the life that you have lived. I don’t think the two are really separable, especially if you see Buddhism as a practice rather than just an object of academic interest. None of these texts and practices can be understood apart from their impact on your own subjective experience as a human being living in a particular place, being of a certain age, being in a particular situation. Buddhism has never flourished in a vacuum. ‚

(excerpt from) "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist"

“Stories are impossible but it’s impossible to live without them. That’s the mess I’m in.” —Wim Wenders

On returning to England, I could have enrolled in a university, gained a degree in religious studies, and then pursued an academic career. Indeed, many of my peers, who had also trained with Tibetan lamas or Zen masters in Asia, chose this option after disrobing and returning to the West. But I found the entire academic approach to Buddhism chilling. Much as I valued the meticulous work of scholars in dissecting and analyzing Buddhist texts, I could not bring myself to adopt the clinical distance required for achieving such “objectivity.” To have done so would have felt like a betrayal.

(excerpt from) "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist"

On “Buddhism without Beliefs”

Instead of being the noncontentious introduction to Buddhism that was initially conceived, “Buddhism without Beliefs” triggered what Time magazine, in its cover issue on Buddhism in America, called “a civil but ferociously felt argument” about whether it was necessary for Buddhists to believe in karma and rebirth. I had proposed in the book that one could hold an agnostic position on these points, i.e., keep an open mind without either affirming or denying them. Naively perhaps, I had not anticipated the furor that this suggestion would create.

The ensuing controversy showed that Buddhists could be as fervent and irrational in their views about karma and rebirth as Christians and Muslims could be in their convictions about the existence of God. For some Western converts, Buddhism became a substitute religion every bit as inflexible and intolerant as the religions they rejected before becoming Buddhists. I argued that Buddhism was not so much a creedal religion as a broad culture of awakening that, throughout its history, had shown a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions. For a while I hoped that “Buddhism without Beliefs” might stimulate more public debate and enquiry among Buddhists about these issues, but this did not happen. Instead, it revealed a fault line in the nascent Western Buddhist community between traditionalists, for whom such doctrines are nonnegotiable truths, and liberals, like myself, who tend to see them more as contingent products of historical circumstance.

What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted? I suppose some of it has to do with fear of death, the terror that you and your loved ones will disappear and become nothing. But I suspect that for such people, the world as presented to their senses and reason appears intrinsically inadequate, incapable of explaining this fraught and brief life on earth. One assumes the existence of hidden forces that lie deep beneath the surface of the contingent and untrustworthy world of day-to-day experience. Many Buddhists would argue that to jettison belief in the law of karma—a scheme of moral bookkeeping mysteriously inhering within the structure of reality itself—would be tantamount to removing the foundations of ethics. Good acts would not be rewarded and evil deeds not punished. Theists have said exactly the same about the consequences of abandoning belief in God and the divine judgment.

Image 1: Stephen Batchelor during his time as a Korean monk, circa 1981.
Image 2: Batchelor during his time as a Tibetan monk, circa 1978.

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Dharma Quote - Enlightenment Is a Specific Experience

Books Two, Three, and Four:
Buddhism's Journey to Tibet
by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye
trans. and intro. by Ngawang Zangpo

Dharma Quote of the Week

Under the heading of the great way's [Mahayana's] perspective, we read of how the Buddha merely demonstrates the process of enlightenment in this world, something he has done and will do repeatedly. Kongtrul quotes the Buddha in an important discourse:

"In the past, countless ages ago, in a world-system that united as many realms as there are grains of sand in the Ganges, I attained enlightenment as Transcendent Buddha Crown of the Powerful One, aided beings, and transcended sorrow. Then once again, from that point until the present age, I have repeatedly demonstrated the inconceivable process of enlightenment.
"I will continue, until cyclic existence is empty, to demonstrate [this process of] enlightenment beginning with the initial development of the mind of awakening as an ordinary being."

While such statements do not help us grasp the nature of the Buddha's enlightenment, they do underline the fact that enlightenment is a specific experience, the result of a known and knowable process that the Buddha deliberately demonstrates time and again so that we might follow his example, no guesswork involved.

--from Treasury of Knowledge, Books Two, Three, and Four: Buddhism's Journey to Tibet by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, translated and introduced by Ngawang Zangpo, published by Snow Lion Publications

March 10th marked the 51st anniversary of the peaceful Up-rising in Lhasa, in protest of Chin-ese occupation. Below are statements by Tibet's leaders:

The Da1ai Lama's Statement

The Kashag's Statement

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Todd Kashdan - Why We Need Psychologists in Government and the White House

Interesting argument - and an almost convincing perspective. One of the comments raises the specter of using psychologists in government for less than noble purposes, not unlike those who were used to design interrogation techniques for the CIA to use on "enemy combatants." Kashdan replies that we would put only the best people in those jobs, but knowing how government works, that is not likely to ever happen.

Anyway, it's worth the read - he acknowledges that this article is just a humble beginning toward rethinking government. By the way, Kashdan is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life - you can read his argument for why his book will help you [PDF].

Why We Need Psychologists in Government and the White House

Todd Kashdan

Clinical psychologist, scientist, professor of psychology at George Mason University

No single person is qualified for any major government position. Consider Homeland Security. Who happens to be an expert in global politics, terrorism, immigration, computer viruses, culture and religion, modern weaponry, anxiety management, health communication, and conflict resolution (just to name a few)? Don't misunderstand me. I am not criticizing Secretary Janet Napolitano or her predecessors or successors. My point is that we need to take a close look at how people are selected to run our country.

I could care less if someone paid their dues with decades of government experience. In fact, this often works against people's ability to improve the welfare of the country. Because they are inside the system, they often fail to pay attention to what is arcane and wasteful of resources to an outsider. Instead of relaying recent examples such as filibusters and nuclear options in the Senate, consider that in New Jersey, it is illegal to pump your own gas (because why would taxpayers want short lines at rest stops); in Wisconsin, it is illegal to make cheese without a license (because why should the government miss an opportunity to profit from culinary creations in your home); in Florida, there is a law that is very specific about prohibiting sexual relations with porcupines (now maybe this is a good thing because quills hurt). When your life is devoted to testing and challenging ideas, it is easier to ask basic questions such as who made this rule and do the benefits outweigh the costs. But I want even more from my leaders.

I want someone who can critically analyze information, consider alternative perspectives before reaching a formal decision, communicate in an emotionally intelligent and persuasive manner, and form good relationships with people. Being able to analyze information is insufficient if you can't reach decisions. Being open to alternative perspectives is insufficient if you can't critically assess what information is helpful, unhelpful, and tangential. Forming good relationships is insufficient if you are unable to critically assess other people's biases and take this into account when working with them. Being able to reach a decision is insufficient if you can't communicate in a clear, persuasive manner why it is the best possible option.

We need people that are experts in problem solving, decision making, communication, human behavior, and social relationships to create the conditions for a government to function optimally. This is the province of people trained in psychology -- the science of human mental functioning and behavior.

Our educational system is a prime example of the gap between what science knows and how organizations function. Currently, our schools require children to narrowly concentrate on the correct answer to clearly defined questions formulated by other people. Unfortunately, this approach is divorced from what children confront in their daily lives-terrain where the problems often have yet to be formulated and the available information and possible answers are often ambiguous at best. Our children are being trained for the future by passively consuming information about what happened in the past. With this approach, our children are ill-prepared for practical and creative thinking. A more scientifically informed approach would focus on how to be mindfully aware of the unique nature of a given situation, how to tolerate ambiguity, and how to critically examine and synthesize diverse perspectives. This is not about being politically correct. This is about recognizing that our knowledge and perspective is limited. Only through multiple perspectives can we grasp the totality of an idea or issue.

Who cares if children can do well on a standardized exam? Who cares if they know when the Magna Carta was issued? Who cares if they can name the United States president before John F. Kennedy? I want children to think through the decision of whether or not to have a trade embargo with Cuba. I want children to consider and defend good candidates for a mission to colonize another planet (scientists? teachers? working mothers with law degrees? children who survived a drug-infested Ghetto to attend college?). I want children to work through the dilemma of how to provide disaster relief for Haiti earthquake survivors while simultaneously diverting some resources to prepare for a sustainable future. As for trigonometry, they can take online tutorials and exams online and upon feedback, get assistance as needed. Nobody needs trig to thrive in the real world. If you do, go read a book. Something children can learn as they are trained to be good critical thinkers. Psychologists know this. The science shows that the dominant passive learning approach is abysmal. Most schools and government officials simply aren't paying attention. If you happen to care about future generations, then our educational system is a problem....

If we value effective leadership, productivity, creativity, and human welfare, then it is time for psychologists to enter the fray of government. Consider the litany of policy issues where psychology can inform best practice: education, health care, the economy, science and technology, international relationships, war and peace, and preserving and enhancing the environment. Most importantly, humans are deeply biased in their thinking and this is relevant to every single government initiative.

Our preferences are driven by the status quo. We are biased to keep things the way they are and avoid risks generated by change. One of many reasons why it's good to bring outsiders into major government positions. Our preferences are driven by immediate gratification. Looming pain or pleasure clouds our thinking process. The average government official is not immune to this, especially in a climate where viral communication can mobilize thousands of people in mere seconds to rally against them. Our choices are heavily influenced by peers that are physically or socially nearby. We are biased to make a good impression on other people and sometimes trying to look intelligent and confident leads to poor decisions. But this can also work in a positive direction. Consider this fact- more than 50% of American Nobel Prize winners were taught by prior Nobel Prize winners. We need people who are mindfully aware that their choices, and the certainty and satisfaction in them, are guided by comparisons made to others. Lack of awareness of this bias will lead to another Tuskegee syphilis study or Bay of Pigs invasion.

All specialized knowledge is by definition, antiquated. There are no maps for being a creative, effective government. There are no rules for how to maintain healthy relationships with countries such as China, Iran, and Russia because leadership continually changes. Different people with different personalities and different styles of leadership face unique pressures from present day constituents. If we want to increase the likelihood of obtaining the best possible outcome for all parties, we are going to need people in government that are experts in human behavior.

Want more information? Know somebody in government who might listen? Please do me a favor and pass this on. The time has come to change how government operates. This is just a very, very humble starting point.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his books and research, go to or Research Laboratory.

Greater Good - The Social Brain

Cool - and yet another reason why good talk therapy works. And, maybe more importantly, evidence that humans are hard-wired to feel and express empathy and compassion.

The Social Brain

March 10th, 2010

Is it really possibly to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

Though this may seem like an old adage that’s easier said than done, a wave of new research suggests that our brains are actually wired to help us take the perspective of other people, a basic form of empathy. This research has zeroed in on “mirror neurons”; when we watch other people perform an action, these neurons fire as if we were performing that action ourselves. But are some of us better empathizers than others?

In a recent study, published in Psychological Science, psychologist Kimberly Montgomery and colleagues tried to determine why we sometimes see more neuron activity in certain people’s brains: Are some people’s brains better equipped to take the perspective of others, or are mirror neurons more likely to fire when we observe social actions as opposed to non-social ones?

In the study, first participants were given a survey to gauge their perspective-taking abilities. Then they viewed video clips of social facial expressions like happiness or anger or non-social facial movements like sneezing or blinking; after that, they had to imitate the expression they saw in the video clips. Finally, they had to act out a word or phrase describing an expression. While they did all this, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track their brain activity.

The results suggested that people with an average or above average ability to take the perspective of others show significantly more mirror neuron activity when they passively viewed social facial expressions than when they viewed nonsocial facial movements. On the other hand, people with low perspective-taking scores didn’t show more mirror neuron activity when they viewed social facial movements.

What this means, the researchers propose, is that the ability to empathize with others is linked to a mirror neuron system that’s finely tuned to respond to the social information we get from others. Interestingly, they note that mirror neurons responded like this only when the participants observed socially informative actions in others, not when they produced these actions themselves.

Based on these findings, Montgomery and her colleagues suggest that our brains are really social brains, wired to help us empathize with other people. Mirror neurons, they write, are “engaged selectively to simulate actions that are most informative for understanding the mental states of others.”

Effort to Map Human Brain Faces Complex Challenges

As long as they remember that the map is not the territory, they'll probably be OK. Oh, wait, yeah, never mind.

Effort to Map Human Brain Faces Complex Challenges

The wiring diagram of connections between neurons and the interscutularis muscle of a mouse ear. Credit: Lu et al., 2009 PLoS Biology: The Interscutularis Connectome
The wiring diagram of connections between neurons
and the interscutularis muscle of a mouse ear.
Credit: Lu et al., 2009 PLoS Biology: The Interscutularis Connectome

By Jeremy Hsu, Livescience Contributor

posted: 10 March 2010 08:13 am ET

Mapping the connections among brain cells could someday prove as revolutionary as mapping the human genome. But tracing each synaptic connection between neurons — essentially a manual effort so far — has proven painstakingly slow. To approach a thorough mapping, researchers will have to develop a computer-automated process.

Even the relatively simple "wiring diagram" for the tiny C. elegans worm took more than a dozen years to complete, and that involved just 302 nerve cells. The human brain presents a far greater challenge with about 100 billion neurons, and tens of trillions of synapses that represent millions of miles of wiring between neurons. (Information in the brain travels from one neuron to another across a synapse.)

"In the cerebral cortex, it's believed that one neuron is connected to 10,000 others," said Sebastian Seung, a computational neuroscientist at MIT.

Now Seung is heading a collaborative effort to speed up the mapping of the wiring diagrams, known as connectomes. He and other researchers want to train computers to imitate human tracing, so that computers can eventually create their own neuron-tracing algorithms and tackle any image of neuronal wiring, no matter how tangled or complex.

Untangling the wires

The main challenge involves analyzing huge numbers of electron microscopic images of brain slices, and tracing the tangled connections that can extend up to several inches between neurons.

One team of neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, wants to manually trace connections between neurons in the retina, or the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. But as many as 10 people must trace each neuron to catch errors, out of a team of several dozen.

That manual approach would take tens of thousands of work-years to finish the connectome for just one cubic millimeter of brain, according to Viren Jain, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist who recently finished his Ph.D. under Seung.

Another group has managed to trace the neuronal wiring that connects the brains of mice to the two small muscles that control mice ears. That involved mapping the connections from just 15 neurons branching out to reach 200 target muscle cells, but still involved a "technical tour de force to get all the wires sorted," according to Jeff Lichtman, a neuroscientist at Harvard University in Boston.

"Even though it was a very trivial exercise, it showed us something remarkable and potentially problematic," Lichtman told LiveScience.

Lichtman's success revealed a daunting reality — no single wiring diagram looked the same for any animal. The wiring diagrams for the left and right ear muscles of the same animal also looked different, despite the muscles having an identical purpose. Even a direct comparison of parallel neurons on the left and right side showed completely different branching patterns of connections.

What a brain map can tell us

Researchers have started out with mapping connections among retinas and muscles, because they represent simple challenges compared to the brain. They also know the exact purpose of the neurons and their connections in those cases.

"These things are somewhat easier to understand than if you pick randomly some place in the brain where you don't know where connections are coming from or where they're going, or what they're doing," Lichtman noted.

Neuroscientists still continue to push the boundaries of understanding without having a full wiring diagram of human or animal brains and nervous systems. But Lichtman compared having a connectome to having the human genome mapped out — each a rich data set that scientists can mine for more information.

Having a wiring diagram of the human brain might eventually help answer some fundamentalquestions in neuroscience, such as how information is organized in the mind. Neuroscientists might also get a better sense of how neuronal connections change over time as people age.

"Where the memory of your grandmother is stored, and in what form it is stored, is almost certainly related to how the brain cells are connected," Lichtman said.

Slicing for science

The National Institutes of Health has launched its own five-year, $30 million Human Connectome Project that starts out simple by aiming to trace the higher-level connections among brain regions, rather than every single connection. Just a few labs around the world have also begun doing their own connectome projects.

That might all change if Seung and his colleagues can truly speed up the mapping with automated computer learning.

"We will be able to test the theory — dating back to the 19th century — that memories are written in connectomes," Seung explained. "We may also be able to find connectopathies, or miswirings of the brain that cause mental disorders."

Lichtman's Harvard lab has already been working with Seung's MIT group on applying new technologies to the task. The researchers have already developed a method of slicing brains thinner than ever before, so that automated microscopes can capture images of the neuronal wiring with unprecedented high resolution.

"Every one of these technological issues is a big challenge, and especially for biologists who are more comfortable with squishy things," Lichtman said.