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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Beyond Evil

We count as evils: terrorism (state sponsored and revolutionary); brutality and dehumanization (e.g. child slavery, racism, oppression of women) ; destroying the conditions for life (pollution, poverty); suppression of human drives to life, meaning, and respect. We are daily reminded of evil by the beheadings of ISIS and the reaction of drones, the 372 mass killings in 2015 (more than one a day), the senseless melting of the polar ice with resulting weather disasters, the refugees from Syria and Libya, the mass incarcerations and drug wars, the stultification of children by inadequate education, the fear and hate that dominate current politics.

Evil is a problem and a mystery. A problem to be solved. A mystery we cannot explain.  I prefer to treat evil not as a Manachean principle or a supernatural entity because it mitigates our own responsibility. Though I resonate with poets, myth makers, and religionists who use the metaphors of Original Sin, Satan, the Devil, and even the Negative to explore its mystery. I can connect with the language of possession by evil spirits when I confront racism as I have in Chicago, the denial of worker rights in California, colonialism in Hawaii, the war in Vietnam and Iraq, the mindless destruction of the earth by consumerism, and the fascism that is now rising in the US as it did in Nazi Germany.

"The devil made me do it," said the comedian who turned out to be quite a devil himself using his celebrity to exploit and abuse women. What possessed him, we ask. And Cheney, and Bush, and Oliver North, and Osama bin Laden, and Eichmann, and Clinton, and Cruz, and me? What possesses us? What makes our angels better or worse?

I read and watch stories, often mysteries, which deal with the good and evil in humans. Novels do so much better than theological treatises, or sermons, or blogs like mine. The most stark dealing with the mystery of evil I find in Cormac McCarthy's works. But then there is Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, Melville and Poe, Rushdie and Morrison.

Is there a Dark Side of the Force? An Evil Higher Power? A Fallen Angel, Satan?
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I have written a book of essays arguing that evil entered the world when humans began to think. And so good did as well. Morality arrives with the ability to foresee alternative modes of behavior. Only a being with a sense of time can discern, critique, and choose. Thinking is the pivot from reacting to responding.

I argue that evil is thinking turning against itself by neglect and by denial, by the refusal to think. By nature (genetic evolution) we acquired the ability to think and the ability to kill thinking. Human nature does not provide the reason to choose good over evil. The moral code is not written in our nature. Nature just is. And the ought does not come from the is (as David Hume said long ago).

I conjecture that good and evil are not natural--but neither are they supernatural. Good and evil belong not to human nature, but to human existence. Yes, Nature, the Universe, Evolution, the Force (if you want) gave us the power, the ability to humanely exist. Our genetic endowment includes the ability to think and act for good or for evil. And it is our existence--our tension to the world and each other--where we can discern good and evil. There is the seat of our better angels, and worse.

Together we create the world we want.  What we want we call good; what we don't want we call evil. But there is a standard we can use to discern the difference--should we choose. The standard comes from Nature, Evolution, the Force. But it is not nature; it is existence. The ability to think. But do we want it?

We cannot think in isolation but only in relation to others. We cannot think by ourselves but only with others. We inherit the products of the thinking of our ancestors. We refine, revise, renew, and render these products for our descendants. And above all we pass on the ability to think--to inquire, to wonder, to author--in collaboration with others. Or we inhibit that capacity by stirring up their fears and hates instead of their dreams and love.

Aren't we always at a crisis point? A point of choosing whether to exist or not exist. When I choose to act thoughtlessly, that is uncritically, unmindfully, and without compassion, confident in my righteousness, unquestioning my stance in absolute truth, am I not choosing to be a non-relational being in a world with torn relations. Am I not giving up the search and destroying its meaning? Am I not setting myself apart, cutting the connection that I am with others, the world, and myself.
Am I not making the Nature, Evolution, the Creator, an Evil Force? Hate. At least from the point of view of those of us who would choose to think critically and mindfully with all its uncertainty, ambiguity, tension, compassion, and responsibility and so make of Nature, Evolution, and the Creator a Good Force: Love.  
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"God is Love" said the Johannine Christian community (Ca 90AD). "We who abide in love, abide in God, and God in us."

There are many definitions and levels of love. But, in general, love is relationship. We could use the four levels of consciousness that Michio Kaku teaches: 1) the loopback to light and temperature as in a plant's attention to the sun, 2) the loopback in space as in a reptile's sense of proximity to prey, 3) the loopback to others as in a mammal's recognition of relatives and helpers, and 4) the loopback of time as in a human's incorporation of memories and intentions. Each of these internal senses are integrated in human consciousness. Each can be extended indefinitely. Energy to omnipotence; space to infinity; otherness to universality; time to eternity. And so, as long as we keep thinking, we are tending to omnipotent, infinite, universal, eternal love.

One idea that I like is that the whole Universe or Multiverse is relational--nothing but relationships. Things like planets, black holes, molecules, and organisms are relationships of or within relationships. When we name something or apply a formula or theory to it, we are pointing out a relationship. When we think, we explore our relationships with each other, with things in the world, with what we and the universe have become and where we are going together. We affirm those relationships and our relationships towards omnipotence, infinity, universality, and eternity. We, the whole of humanity in connection, past, present, and future, are we not then in relation to our higher power?

Hate tears the fabric and breaks the bonds of relationships which constitute our universe, our world, our community, us. Love reweaves the fabric and mends the bonds of relationships. With each other, our world, and our selves. What do we want? Which is evil, which is good? Do we spread fear and hate of "the other" or do we encourage trust and love?  It is our collective decision that we are making right now and here at this time in this space with those with whom we are in contact.

If we choose to abide in love and see ourselves as even now abiding in love, we turn ourselves and our universe towards love over fear and hate.

"God is Love. We who abide in love, abide in God, and God in us."

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Cusp of Humankind

In mountain climbing, I have often hiked on narrow ledges that fell rapidly on both sides to a great depth. I walked so very carefully and deliberately because I knew that one misstep would fell me to oblivion.

Recent readings have me feeling this way but for all humankind. One reading was a projection of the future of the earth if we do not curb carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Another was about Sweden as the most open and generous nation on earth receiving hundreds of thousands of Mid-East refugees because Europe, the Union, and the rest of the world is coming up short

Every moment of human life is a crisis personally and socially. That merely means we always stand at the beginning of the future and must decide here and now who we will be. But some points are more significant than others because of the depth and breadth of their consequences. Climate change, extreme inequality, tribal warfare, and uncritical beliefs have brought us to such a point.

Do we choose to endure shorter term inconvenience for longer term benefits? Do we decide against immediate self interests for the sake of the common good. Do we choose to actualize our relationship with all, even the least regarded in our society, even though some may disapprove? Do we choose to be a humankind with empathy over a humankind of greed, fear, and hate?

I experience humankind and me personally at this point of choice. I want to do what the human existence I do experience directs me to do. I want to choose universal empathy and solidarity, I want to choose a wholly relational world, I want to choose a future for my descendents, I want to choose hope and transcendence. But I need you to make that decision with me.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Values and Marco Rubio

"In the 21st Century, it's become harder than ever to instill in your children the values they teach in our homes and in our church, instead of the values that they try to ram down our throats in the movies, in music and in popular culture." Marco Rubio.


Here is the "values gap" as expressed by a US presidential candidate. He thinks home/church values are true and popular culture values are false. But within home, church, and culture are conflicts in values. Consider three kinds of values that cut across home, church, and culture.

1. Conservative and liberal values. In biological life there is a continuing tension between how much to open up to try out new approaches and take in new information and how much to close down to build boundaries and keep out toxicities. A health cell does this; so does an organism, and even a community. There is a self regulating process that is part of a healthy life.


2. Immature to mature values. In development, persons and societies move from immature stages of uncritical beliefs, fear of the unknown, and dislike of others to a more mature stage of questioning one's beliefs, curiosity that risks the unknown, to universal empathy. There is a growth process in which we leave the fears of loss and the clinging to childish ideas behind.


3. Absolute vs. relational values. (Here is where I have been doing a lot of work in the transition from modernity to the transmodern.)  Here it is not just a matter of growing up and getting a better education as in #2. It's a matter of willful ignorance. It is a matter of the difference between dogma and transcendence. Or the difference between belief and faith. 


Home, church, and culture can be conservative or liberal in relation to different places and times. We all need be as prudent as we can in ranging between behaviors that are more attune with past experience and those that are more creative of future experience.


But we all have to grow up and transform what we learned as a child, and especially our dislikes and fears of other ways of living, associating, and thinking, to become more mature in our tastes and in our judgments of others and of ourselves.

But transcendence (or spirituality) is letting go the illusions of absolutes in things, doctrines, ideas. It realizes the relationally of all of us and of all things in the universe, and in solidarity with others acts to become relational beings in a relational world. 

I do not deny the problems of popular culture. When I watched the first half of the Super Bowl (that's all I could take), I also experienced a values gap. But a bit different from what Rubio is talking about. Most of the values that were being pushed there, wealth, dominance, consumption, nationalism, and the material measures of success, are also being pushed in home and church. 

I think Mr. Rubio's values are abhorrent whether he got them from his home, his church, or his American culture. I don't quibble with his conservatism. I do criticize his immaturity. But most of all I condemn his idolatry, his promotion of fear, his willful ignorance of other ways to live, to believe, to be civil, and to be American. I condemn his values of intolerance and exclusion of all who are different--and, indeed, that is all of us.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Meaning and Happiness Part 4

Two big questions confront us if we are to have a life worth living:

What is human nature?  What is human existence?

The first is asking who am I or who are we. What is our human being?
The second is asking who am I /we to be. What is human becoming?

When we consider our nature, we are considering the past to now. What have we become? What is our genetic structure? We analyze the human organism as it has evolved; it behavior in its environment; the various systems (digestive, blood, energy, nervous); our capacities and drives as they have evolved; our products, our culture including social memories and knowledge. This is the realm of science and art and critical thinking. The realm of facts.

When we consider our existence, we are considering our now to the future. What will we become. What are our possibilities; our intentionalities. What do we want to be, choose to be? What world and culture do we want to inhabit? This is the realm of ethics and politics and deliberative thinking.  The realm of values.

But while we distinguish these questions, moments, and realms, we know they are not separated because we are a dynamic-being between past and future. Our being is to become. And thanks to our evolved ability to use symbols and in so doing create culture, what we know as fact is always shaped by value; and our values are always limited by facts. That is why we must ask these questions together. Even asking the questions implies a value; and answering them assumes and intends facts.

Meaning and happiness are wrapped up in this tension between past and future, which is also a tension between the personal self and social others; which is also a tension between inner consciousness and outer things or spirit and body; which is also a tension between the ideal and the real; which is also a tension between the holy and the profane; and so on ad infinitum.

The tension of human nature/existence is what is. The terms or poles of that tension are constructs of that tension. They do not exist except as terms of the tension. If we were to attain them (or when we do), human existence ceases.

But it is a tension--which in modern parlance often connotes stress and uncertainty. And if we do not accept this tension as who we are and are to become, we feel the dis-ease of the stress and uncertainty. No permanence in life, no timeless truths, no unchangeable beliefs, no perfection, no enduring body or absolute spirit, no uninterpreted history and no eternal future, no nothing and no being, even no pure no.

Realizing that can be stressful and painful--but only if we are not accepting ourselves as tension, i.e. not entities or essences, and are gasping for and clinging to the terms or poles of the tension as though they are not constructs or realizations of the tension. but independent things out-there.  But if we immerse ourselves in our tension, if see our selves and our world as relations, if we accept the dynamism, relationally, impermanence of existence and our own imperfection, we will encounter meaning and happiness.

The more we let go of things, of thoughts, of beliefs, seeing them as mere tools along the way, the more happy and meaningful we will be. The more we glory in our tension, relationships, and in-betweenness, the more we exist. But I know this is a life's project, that I will always be on the way, never quite there. But then that's the point, isn't it?

Some signs of being on the way that I can think of include:

  • humility--being on the ground, absence of righteousness, identifying with the "losers," the "little ones," being a perpetual learner knowing that we do not know.
  • inclusiveness--open to strangers, welcoming others, inviting the new; absence of fear and never appealing to fear or demonization.
  • irony--sense of humor regarding self, others, the world, and our products, culture, nation, beliefs including religion, philosophy, and science.
  • relationally--changing viewpoints, empathetic, trying not see things from all sides, not having sides except in a game; recognizing that we are all playing games and roles.
  • transcendence--risking new adventures in thought and behavior; criticizing our beliefs and stances; ready to pass on intellectual, emotionally, spiritually, and corporeally.

One dying thought: As I age I realize more and more that I am approaching death. I think that is why aging is an opportunity for wisdom. (But of course even the young are aging if they think about it and thus have this opportunity for wisdom.)

I ask myself as I consider my passing on: "Can I, on my death bed or at the moment of a death dealing impact, laugh at my situation and my self with genuine mirth, with satisfaction in my power, my love, and my meaning in all its temporality. Can I here and now imagine that moment and say Amen--so be it."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Meaning and Happiness Part 3

Here is the quandary between meaning and happiness:

If I accept the postmodern insight (which I have said in Part 2 is a retrieval of the Buddhist insight), that there is no final meaning, e.g. no ultimate truth outside the transient process of life, can I be happy? Can I be happy without meaning? Can I have meaning without happiness?

Let me summarize my argument for postmodernism:

1) In the premodern age, at the cognitive turn, homo sapiens began to use media (artificial, corporeal symbols) to deal with the environment. This was the beginning of language and culture, history and planning. This led to agriculture, civilization, religion, philosophy, and political economic order.

2) In modernity, humans realized that their symbols were artificial and transitory. But assuming the light of reason and timeless truths, they verified their symbols (models, ideas, propositions) through experiment and peer review. This culminated in the scientific and industrial revolution.

3) In postmodernity*, we are waking up to the notion that there are no timeless truths or really-real out there beyond our concepts. All reality is mediated and constructed and so we are having profound impact on our environment and each other. There are no entities, things, persons except those which we select. All is relational.

Using the language game of epistemology, homo sapiens goes from 1) naive realism or the look-see theory of knowledge where the thing is out there to be discovered, to 2) the mirror theory of knowledge which corresponds mind to reality, to 3) the social constructionist theory of knowledge where reality and mind appear in the dialogue of the human organism and its environment within a social context.

Or in other words, we 1) know through media, 2) we know we know through media, 3) we know that all we know is mediated and that there is nothing more to be known that is unmediated. No fixed, timeless truths, no certainty, no absolute unified theory, nothing permanent. Nothing is absolute, nothing is even relative. All is relational and every thing is a relation, should we choose to realize it.

This sense of contingency and transiency can be disconcerting, painful, intolerable, downright depressing. We can deny, fight, or flee this often informal sense of contingency by holding on to an absolute, a forever truth in a grand theory, a divine revelation, or a metaphysical essence. But even in flight we are forever reminded down deep in consciousness, that these are not so. The denial, flight, or fight leads to existential angst and, I would add, political oppression.

Back to the question: if there is no meaning outside the transient process of life, can we be happy? Yes, if we choose to realize (discover and construct) meaning within the transient process of life.

The mindful positive psychologist attempts to alleviate personal, existential suffering by 1) accepting the emptiness and impermanence of the self, things, and world and 2) letting go the expectation of final truth or the clinging to permanence by 3) personal and social practice, e.g. mindfulness meditation and therapy including kindness, compassion, and shared joy.

The social justice activist attempts to alleviate this suffering by 1) engaging with people in the situation, 2) helping people see the institutional habits of mind and behavior that are keeping them down and 3) acting together to change them.

These are two interwoven strategies for personal and public happiness in which we become InterBeing and build a Relational World. (So I translate Neitsche's Superman and Will to Power.) We take responsibility for drawing the lines between the points we select. We take responsibility for creating relationships and mending those that have been broken by our own illusory behavior, which Buddhists describe as greed, hatred, and ignorance, by fostering a world of kindness, compassion, and shared joy.

My Buddhist Sensei once uttered this simple thought to show me the relationship between these two strategies: "Reduce the ego to nothingness," he said indicating the practice of mindfulness that unveils the emptiness of the self. "Or expand it to embrace the universe," indicating action with others to mend and build relationships. "They are the same."


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*"postmodernity" is the word of contemporary culture. To differentiate itself from modernity, it often connotes relativity in morality, nihilism in philosophy, deception in politics, the abnegation of relationships, distrust of science, dogmatic atheism in religion. So I would prefer to use the term "transmodernity" to demonstrate a transformation without rejection of the modern and premodern. Yes, there is a facing of absurdity without ultimate truth, of a plurality of valid viewpoints, of the transience of all human products, and of a faith that holds to no beliefs. But at the same time we realize meaning in the human prospect and a calling to create a relational world which affirms the power of relationships, a balance in tension, the value of trust, the quest for knowledge, the fruitful life and sustainable happiness.

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)