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Saturday, February 6, 2016

String Theory

I draw a circle.
I set my pen down on a point in the circle.
I draw a line to another point of the circle and then on to all points of the circle. [a to b to c to n]

Do the points exist? Yes, but only when I select them.

We conceive ourselves as points in the center of an expanding universe.
We conceive each other and all things from stars to particles as points in the universe, also at the center since the universe is expanding.
We conceive elastic strings tying together all the points of the universe.

Do the points exist? Do the strings exist?
Yes, when I conceive them as relationships of all to all.

Meaning and Happiness Part 2

In a previous reflection, we examined studies contrasting meaning and happiness as goals of the good life.  For Maurits GT Kwee, the interpretation of Buddhist teaching and practice in relationship with social psychology, shows the path to Meaning as Sustainable Happiness. He presents a contemporary positive psychology that builds on the insights of Buddhism.  It is an excellent presentation informed by years of study and practice.

In Buddhist terms, suffering is caused by the grasping for and clinging to permanence in an impermanent world. Happiness is achieved when we fully accept that all is impermanent; and we live a life without clinging of loving kindness, compassion, and shared joy. The way to achieve this is through a meditation in which we experience the becoming of things and thus acknowledge the emptiness of thoughts including self, world, god, and truth.

But that is a formulation of an insight that has no clear and distinct formulation. And therefore centuries of teachings by practitioners have accrued over the 2600 years since Prince Gautama had and began to teach his insight. Kwee's formulation using the thoughts of positive psychology and social construction epistemology is very useful in the transference of the Buddhist insight into contemporary secular and, I would add, postmodern culture.

Rather than summarize Kwee whom you can read here, let me instead present my own reflections in dialogue with him and the Buddhist tradition in which I too have had some training and then come back to a consideration of meaning and happiness in our postmodern times.

I recognize the concordance of Buddhism as a discipline in positive psychology with my study of thinking which draws on pragmatist, social constructionist, and symbolic interactionist theory and practice which  pushes us into the "postmodern" age as I am trying to describe in my writings. Indeed, I might argue that the "postmodern" insight that is evident in our contemporary art, religion, philosophy, and even now our science is a kind of retrieval of the insight of Buddha and many other great-minded souls throughout history. And I might argue that it is an insight to which we are all called in our own transient, contingent situations with their special languages, belief systems, institutions or habits of mind and behavior.

What Buddhists call meditation, what Christians call contemplation, what contemporary psychologists call mindfulness, I am calling "mindful thinking" trying to show both continuity and disruption in our characteristic way of coming to terms with our environment.

Thinking, i.e. social construction of our world through symbols, opens the door to illusions -- what Dewey call the objectivistic fallacy, what M-P called the illusion of the absolute, and what Francis Bacon called the idols of the mind. Those illusions come from the characteristic of thinking as positing objects through media to pattern the fluctuating, chaotic environment in order to remember, communicate, collaborate, and plan. Those mediated things or truths are useful to human evolution. But when we forget where they came from and consider them eternal, infallible, or permanent, which we are prone to do simply because the positing of truths is what we do, we suffer and cause suffering.

So thinking as Eve and Pandora discovered is the root of good and evil. While it causes suffering, it is also the way to meaning and happiness.

Suffering (pathos in Greek, passion in Latin) is physical and emotional. But as therapists, whether physicists dealing with bodily hurt or psychologists dealing with mental pain, realize, they go together and so holistic medicine, which treats the body/mind/spirit whole, is preferred. Suffering is also personal and social: existential angst and political oppression. While psychologists focus on relief of personal existential suffering, I believe it is important to deal at the same time with the suffering of those who have been made into things of manipulation, who are objectified, brutalized, dehumanized, and thus oppressed.

The practice of dispelling illusions and idols is contemplation in action. It is Buddhist meditation or mindfulness with which we see the "becoming of things," the pre-conceptual and intersubjective activity of structuring our world through media. I equate this with the "consolation of philosophy" and "existential phenomenology" properly understood not as an academic exercise, but as a personal exercise. Here we wrestle with our illusions and idols and deeply experience the interactivity of creating ourselves and our worlds. Here we grasp the relationality of all that there is and the fullness of contingency and impermanence.

But I would hold that contemplation in action means interacting with others to restore the relationality of the world by overcoming the illusions and idols that have been institutionalized in our social order. If we truly grasp that the self, all selves, all living beings, and all things in the Universe are not only in relation, but also are relationships, that is, constituted by relationships, we will decide to remove the obstacles to relationship, again, the institutions or habits of mind and behavior that deny and impede relations. This means mindful social action by which communities recognizing their shared suffering of oppression, that which holds them back from being innovating subjects interacting to create their world.

The Buddha pointed out that greed (the clinging to wealth), hatred (the clinging to self), and ignorance (the clinging to illusion) are the obstacles. They are countered by friendliness, compassion, and shared joy. To contemplate in action is to enter into and identify with the sufferings of others, sharing their sense of contingency, impermanence, and oppression. It is through empathy and compassion that we discover solidarity and the ability to act for relational interbeing and a relational world.

Thus I propose that sustainable happiness is in the continuing realization of meaning by collectively restoring a relational world out of one that is broken by our institutionalized illusions. Mindful thinking, contemplation in action, which is both personal civility and social action, consists in working with others to become more mindful by discovering and removing the obstacles of our illusions towards a more relational world.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Meaning and Happiness

An article in SA got me meditating about the difference between meaning and happiness which led me to research some articles starting with social scientist Roy Baumeister and colleagues.

Here is an abstract from one of their papers which is illustrative:

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness. We offer brief composite sketches of the unhappy but meaningful life and of the happy but meaningless life.

Some reflections:

Elsewhere I discovered/conjectured three basic desires in humankind:

  1. to life: satisfaction of organic needs--from food to sex to actualization (Mazlow)
  2. to recognition: belonging, love, respect
  3. to meaning: sense of purpose, value, efficacy,and self-worth
These correspond to the three realms of human being:

  1. economy or ecosystem
  2. polity or social system
  3. culture or belief system

Happiness seems to relate to #1 the ecosystem and satisfying the biological life drive.
Meaning seems to relate more to #3 the belief system and satisfying the need for purpose and value.
And #2 the social system cuts across the other 2 -- e.g. love/belonging and respect/worth.

Also happiness is more an immediate present gratification and meaning a more longer term temporal merging of past to future.

So according to these studies, while we can't have happiness without meaning or meaning without some happiness, we can sacrifice happiness for meaning or meaning for happiness in life style and behavior.

Then I read a wonderful piece by MGT Kwee on Relational Buddhism as Applied Psychology in which he better explains and integrates happiness and meaning.  (To be continued)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Stories and Compassion

From today's article in FP: "'Everything is held together with stories,' the writer Barry Lopez once said, 'that is all that is binding us together, stories and compassion.'"

That quote itself is the story that might hold us together.

The way to empathy and solidarity is not the Big Idea or Great Work or Grand Theory. The way past the bigotry of xenophobia that destroys us all, is revealing, listening to, and hearing our stories. Only then do we feel the sufferings, the joys, the aspirations that creates solidarity. Solidarity in the struggle for life, for meaning, and for respect.

I sometimes despair that I cannot communicate the Big Idea or do the Great Work or design the Grand Theory that will save our universe. But now I remember that salvation is simply a matter of sharing my story with the next person I meet and hearing hers. That's it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Get out and play!

Thinking is playing. Playing with words. Playing with ideas. Playing with others in the forum and with our selves in the study. So consider play!

We see the young of many animals playing usually with one another often in imitation of their elders. They run after one another, grab something the other wants and run off, hide, bite and fight, without hurting one another. Though if the play gets too rowdy, mother comes along and cuffs them. They play with balls, pounce on moving objects, swing on ropes, run and jump even by themselves. Sex play, including humping and rolling around, is a part of the fun. Play is the way of learning and growing strong. Then there comes a time when play is over and mother or father takes them on the hunt. Or they go out to find their mate.

Human children play games in which situations are imagined and different roles are assumed in the drama. Playing house sometimes switching roles of mother and father and baby, enjoying mud cake tea parties, enacting cops and robbers, setting up a neighborhood Olympics, creating a town in a sandbox, fighting a war with toy swords or guns are examples. Then they move to soccer, football, hockey and maybe a musical instrument. And board games and now video games. And if they are fortunate they have teachers who know how to have fun by making the classroom a game to extend into a lifetime of learning.

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” wrote the bard pretentiously.  Social psychologist Kurt Goldstein notes that we play our roles in relation to the various audiences which are given to us and/or which we choose. Which roles are more approved by people we most care about? Which roles get us the most recognition? Which roles do we like more? We find that some of the roles fit us better or we just decide they do. We use these roles more and more. We exercise and train in them. If we integrate them, they define our selves, our characters, our souls. 

Thinking is role-playing and role-playing is thinking.

But like the Star Trek Enterprise’s holodeck (and some scientists claim the whole universe is a hologram), 1) we bring our evolved organism to the game. And 2) there are many already coded programs we can run or adapt.  And 3) we decide the program we want to run or the games to play. 

We are a nexus of our genes, our memes, and our dreams. All thinking is corporeal, cultural, and intentional. The game of life is sexual, playful, and wishful.

So let’s go out and play!

Monday, January 25, 2016

So which came first?

Do we think ourselves into a way of acting or do we act ourselves into a way of thinking?

The right answer is "yes." At least I think so--or do I act so?

With Flannery O'Connor I write to know what I am thinking. So do I think first and then write or do I carry out the activity of writing in order to think?

Think before you act! is good advice. Unless there is an immediate danger like a car swerving in front of you. Then just act and think later. Right?

Kahneman wrote that there is thinking fast and thinking slow. Thinking fast is acting out of habit (like driving a car) which could be called intuition. Thinking slow is acting after deliberation, checking the evidence and other viewpoints. Need both, he says.

Here is a case for acting first: If you get people to change their behavior (e.g. by making it more in their interest to do so), they then might think this behavior is better which will reinforce their behavior. Sometimes to stop an addiction--smoking, drinking, cheating--we just do it or are forced to, then we realize that its much better not to smoke, drink, cheat. So we act our way into a way of thinking.

Many people vote against their best interests all the time. Then they marshall the evidence to prove they are right and only read and watch those pundits who confirm them in their choices. If they finally change their mind and vote differently, is it because they were pushed into acting first and changed their mind to fit their actions? Or were they converted by preachers who got to their minds and hearts to get them to change their behavior? So they think their way into a way of acting.

As community organizers we were taught not to worry about changing the opponents' (e.g. segregating realtors') minds, just their behaviors. Their minds may or may not follow.

Some of us see thinking and acting as two behaviors reenforcing each other. Scientists think out a solution often because of some action or event which caused a problem. Then they act out an experiment to see if it works. Based on the results of that experiment, they refine the question and think up better solutions. So do successful business persons, political actors, and parents.

Others see thinking and acting as the difference between mind and matter, i.e. action is outside in the world, thinking is inside in consciousness. Some of us are betters contemplators, others better doers. Or we need to do both in their own times and spaces.

I consider human thinking and acting the same behavior. Thinking is always action of the human organism to its environment--or maybe better an interaction between the organism and its environment. Action is always conscious; it is a thinking--whether fast or slow. The inside/outside, mind/matter, consciousness/world, self/body distinction we make is an illusion and fabrication--though often a useful illusion and fabrication.

So who cares? I do because I believe that it is important to recognize our illusions and fabrications lest we take ourselves and our opinions and our reality and all our other fabrications too seriously.

I see our present political discussion doing just that. It is fostering anti-intellectualism by denouncing people who are more educated to think for being members of some impractical, uncommitted elite. It is fostering anti-pragmatism by denouncing people willing to listen, change, and compromise by insisting on unquestioned beliefs and religiously held principles.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Truth is Out There

The entertainment sections of the news channels are awash with the new X-Files TV series. What makes this one different, so they say, is the context of the post 9-11, homeland security, climate change hoax, barbarians at the gate paranoia so evident in the political campaigns.

It would be comforting to think that all our problems were linked in some alien-big-government-big- corporation-socialist conspiracy, e.g. Men in Black + Enemy of the State. It's the modern dream that with the observational skills of good science and correct religious or "spiritual" beliefs and values, we can get to the truth of things. It's out there!

We love mysteries especially when they are solved by industrious, smart, and sexy detectives.

The problem with the postmodern turn (whether in art, religion, science, or conventional wisdom) is that it holds out the possibility that mysteries may not be able to be solved either by reason or by the gods. Randomness and uncertainty are built into the universe. That's why Cormack McCarthy's and Salman Rushdie's works are so troubling. (Not to mention Neitsche and Derrida).

It will be interesting to see if the new X-Files are a resurgence of realistic modernism ("Just the fact's, Ma'am") or tip into postmodern absurdity and ambiguity. Of course, we postmodernists know that all categories are simply made-up devices to call attention to certain traits and qualities in our chaotic experience. Including the categories of "modern" and "postmodern." Distinctions are arbitrary and have limited use--but are helpful in so far as they are helpful.

Nevertheless, I think it is helpful to remind ourselves of our contingency, to recognize the role of our imagination in relating to the universe and each other, and to give up some of our silly expectations that destroy those relations. Expectations like we can know things as they really are, that my questions and worldview are more important than yours, and that "the truth is out there."

Happy viewing.