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Friday, February 20, 2009

Haze of Chemicals: Buddhism/Stoicism

Of course, as our moods change and we go through the ups and downs of anger and elation, certain choices seem more or less proper to us.

But normally, the rational person should imagine that we start with facts as best as we can determine them, then deduce and induce from those facts using logic. With that in mind, we approximate which actions will be most likely to achieve our goals, and then we proceed with those actions.

It is disturbing then, to realize that an action that seemed worthy to me one minute, may seem unwise a few minutes later after my mood has changed (or vice versa). This happens even though my understanding of the facts remains the same, I have found no errors in my logic, and all of my beliefs about the situation are unchanged. Angry-me sees situation x, and thinks action y is appropriate, but happy-me thinks action y inappropriate even though happy-me fully agrees that the situation is x.

What's interesting is that it is not that my understanding or opinion of the facts changes, but its simply that I weigh their significance in relation to one another differently. I also weigh the importance of different goals differently depending on mood.

So the question is: how do I go about seeing clearly through this hazy pool of chemicals in which my brain is swimming as it goes through its different moods? Why does the relative weight assigned to different facts and goals vary in accordance with these chemical fluctuations, and what is the "right weight" to give them? What means can I use to see through the fog and maintain the correct proportion of emphasis between different facts and goals despite those chemical upheavals?

My immediate response is that I have not fully internalized the essence of stoic teachings. The theory is that were I to do so, my responses would be automatically in tune with the "right weight" between different facts and goals.

However, what concerns me is, I believe I do fully accept and understand many things that are true throughout the experience. I really, deep down, believe that throwing a hammer across the room will not alleviate my throbbing thumb. I really believe it when I am calm, and I really believe it even as I throw the hammer. This is causing me to rethink (my application of) stoic teachings.

I am convinced that they are valuable and true, but I may be expecting their application in the wrong ways - at least at this time. For example, I think that long term despair and anger can certainly be drastically changed through stoic teachings - I have experienced this directly. But when it comes to immediate responses, the human being is dealing with a rush of chemical factors in the brain that are simply mechanically overwhelming to its normal function. It would be superhuman to resist the surge of stress and not react.

I think the stoic advocate would respond by saying that if I really thought an injured thumb or an injured ego were not an 'evil', that the body would not create those chemical rushes in the first place, and there would be nothing to have to resist.

I think that is a valid argument, and I have used it myself. Perhaps the process of internalizing stoic teaching fully involves moving that perception such that it applies in more and more immediate situations over time. So, the more deeply embedded the truths of stoic teaching, the more immediate a situation can be while maintaining the proper reaction. Thus, a new student of stoicism can understand and apply the teachings to alleviate long term troubles, while a more advanced practitioner of stoicism can remain in equilibrium through more immediate trying times, perhaps losing it under the most sudden and extreme moments. Then, the perfect hypothetical Sage would have the teachings so deeply ingrained in his perception and thoughts, that no moment, no matter how sudden or extreme, could generate pathos in him.

But it still brings me back to what to do in the meantime. This is where I think Buddhist mindfulness may help to provide a more practical, accessible, and immediate measure to fill in the gaps where our stoic practice is failing.

Unlike the stoic model, in which we work to adjust our perceptions of 'harm' such that the negative passion never even arises, Buddhist mindfulness takes place after and during the arising of the passion. Through mindfulness, we seek to stay aware of our passion as it arises, as though we were a third-person witness. Here we are able to both acknowledge and distance ourselves from the passion and thereby allow it to come and pass, without falling prey to it or mindlessly going along with it as a chemical-driven robot.

Of course, as with the internalization of stoic teaching, mindfulness is also a practice that requires effort to become more adept. I characterized mindfulness before as more accessible and practical; this, because my perception is that its somewhat easier to see results sooner with the more sudden and immediate challenges to our equilibrium. At the same time, mindfulness seems less capable of addressing long term despair that is based on larger scale perceptions of our condition. Here is where stoic teaching provides a more immediate benefit.

Buddhists would say that, through the teaching of detachment, we handle the longer-term matters. Yet, I have not found in Buddhism a specific means of achieving detachment that has been as powerful as stoic teachings.

These thoughts are perhaps starting to get into the real detail on how stoicism and Buddhism relate in their practice, and where and how they might compliment one another. It could be possible, that Buddhism and Stoicism start at opposite ends of the "short-term to long-term" spectrum of pathos, and through perfect practice in both, one comes to see their teachings as unified.

I will continue to study this and experiment.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The 20 Synthophic Precepts, Why?

Recently I received this letter from a reader regarding my 20 Synthophic Precepts:
Mr. Strain,
...I finally checked out your site/blog, and the thing that stuck out most was your Twenty Synthophic Precepts. I enjoyed the syncretic aspect alot, but what I liked most was the stark rationality and reason underlying it.
So my question and reason for emailing you was, for what reason in particular did you write these?
Thanks much for your interest in my writing! Most of the work on my sites and blogs is, first and foremost, for my own benefit. I have always been interested in philosophy, but actively exploring philosophy and applying it to my life has become somewhat of a spiritual practice for me. Rather than accept any one philosophy/religion/tradition as one insuperable whole, however, I prefer to examine each aspect of it, whether it makes sense, works, etc. As such, I have found that many streams of thought have approached the same overlapping concepts. So, figuring out how these might fit together into a cohesive and consistent framework is much of what I do. My blogs and sites serve as a journal of sorts, that I can refer back to later and that assist me in my studies. I'd recommend any explorer of philosophy keep a journal of some sort, whether it be online or not.

After a few years of study on the synchronicity between Stoicism, Buddhism, and modern Humanism (including scientific discoveries and naturalistic worldview), the 20 Synthophic Precepts was one of my first steps in outlining how the core concepts of each might work together cohesively, to lead from the ground up - starting with basic observations about the world, culminating in lifestyle and ethical prescriptives. I have found it was very useful to me in gelling my thoughts. From there, I have somewhat proceeded to "fill out" the precepts - meaning the rest is seen as elaboration on each of those to some degree - thus the 20 are like a skeleton.

In the meantime, if any of my work, including the 20 Synthophic Precepts, is found useful or even merely interesting by others - then so much the better. I also have gained from hearing the responses of others regarding them (and have modified them a bit in light of their input).

Hope that answers your question :)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Obama Mentions Humanists at Prayer Breakfast

Don't hold me to this, but this may be a first: A U.S. President has specifically mentioned humanists.

On February 5, 2009, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama stated:
"We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."
Another important part of that which is quoted above is how wonderful it is in general to hear this sort of message. It is right in line with Chapter 1 of The Noble Conspectus. It also references the universality of the Golden Rule, various versions of which I have listed in a post on a previous blog of mine HERE.

Link to the President's Entire Message



On the first day of this year, a Humanist in Florida named John sent me an email with a wealth of interesting information, and has sent more since then. Many thanks John! Among the things he's sent me has been a link to a fascinating Wikipedia article on Greco-Buddhism. I have been discovering the similarities in Greek Stoicism and Buddhism for a while now, so it was wonderful to find I'm not the only person out there thinking along these lines.

Click here for the Wikipedia article on Greco-Buddhism

In addition to the above, I should also note that in a previous philosophy site of mine I posted a rather lengthy discussion I had on the International Stoic Forum with several others regarding the differences and similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism: Click HERE for the article.

Speaking personally, I have found that Stoicism has been marvelous in terms of helping me to attain detachment and see the world more clearly. I think Buddhism could benefit from its teachings and practices. At the same time, I've found that Stoicism isn't as strong in the area of Compassion or active practices (over philosophic concepts) that raise mindfulness, and Buddhism has been wonderful for that.

After a period in which I, using Buddhism in part, actively sought to open up my compassion, I ended up experiencing a lot of pain as a result of the suffering of others and some treatment I received. So I asked other Buddhists how we can increase our compassion for others, without then suffering along with their own suffering? The answer was that it takes both compassion and wisdom. Stoicism has provided much of that wisdom, in which we see what is a true good and a true evil, and what are merely indifferents. Now, getting the fine details down of how these things balance and interact is likely the continual progressive search in which I'll find myself.

Dr. Randy Pausch

I would have liked to write this on the day that Dr. Randy Pausch passed away, July 25, 2008. However, I didn't have an active blog at the time. I would like to cover that period of time by posting this now...

A professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Pausch's mother would introduce him as "a doctor, but not the kind who helps people".

Dr. Pausch was asked to give a lecture at Carnegie. This particular lecture series had been called "the last lecture" and the idea was that, hypothetically, if you had one last lecture to give before you died, that's on what the lecturer should speak. Except, in Dr. Pausch's case it wasn't hypothetical. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and at the time of the lecture, was told he had about 2-5 months left before he died.

The lecture Dr. Pausch gave was called "Achieving Your Childhood Dreams". However, the title was deceptive, because there was a larger lesson. Dr. Pausch's lecture became an internet phenomenon and he appeared on several television talk show and news programs afterwards. Before continuing this reading, it would be best to take about an hour and 15 minutes to watch his original lecture below. It will be time well spent...

I assume you've watched the above at this point. The reason I chose to jump on the internet bandwagon and discuss Dr. Pausch's lecture here on The Humanist Contemplative Blog, is because his message so closely aligns with the material on which I have written. In one lecture, Dr. Pausch single handedly broached the wisdom of Socrates, Epictetus, Buddha, and Marcus Aurelius.

Of course, it goes without saying that compassion is woven throughout the entirety of the touching lecture. At every opportunity in life, Dr. Pausch stops to consider how he might use his abilities to help others and offer them opportunities. More than that, he recognizes and conveys the benefits to the giver. Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) couldn't have agreed more, and this is what is meant when I write in The Humanist Contemplative that compassion should be our foundation. In addition, Dr. Pausch points out the transitory nature of material things, as discussed in my 2nd Synthophic Precept, or in the second section on About Stoicism.

First Post: Why?

For four years, from 2004 to 2008, I maintained a blog at least weekly, sometimes more - the DT Strain Philosophy Blog. Those entries are a record of a wonderful philosophic explosion that took place in my life, and I still look back to them for study and reminders of my explorations. Archives of those posts can be found at

However, I decided to take a break from blogging after finally coming to an important realization. Having been interested in philosophy for many years, I had always read, thought, discussed, and written on philosophic topics. While I was never a hypocrite, I always had this nagging feeling that I was waiting for something - like I was learning and learning and would eventually get to this point where I would say, "ok, now that I have it all figured out, I can apply this." But what occurred to me was that one can learn, discuss, read, and write philosophy all the live long day - and it is meaningless without practice.

It is the practice that is the important part, and we cannot wait until we have it all figured out, because that day will never come. Therefore, I took a step back from my blog and other writing for a time - even much of the reading. I resigned from various email lists I was on, and decided to stop focusing so much on the academic, and more on practice. I started meditating more, trying to live by my values more, and so on. I still haven't fully reached my best practice, but I'm making progress. I've even started regularly attending the Buddhist temple I wrote about in my former blog, with intentions to take some classes and eventually take refuge (that's the Buddhist ceremony in which one formally becomes a Buddhist).

However, after a time I found that many fascinating ideas continued to pass my way, and I felt like they were slipping past me. Before, I would often go back to my earlier blog posts as a journal, where I could be sure I wouldn't lose these insights and lessons.

So now, after this break, I think it's time to return to blogging. This time, however, things will be a little different. For one, this blog will be mostly for me - as a learning journal which I can use to refer to later and provide a record of my thoughts. That means I won't be making efforts to make sure I have at least one post per month, or that I put them out on the same day. Nor will I be looking at visitor statistics and trying to spread notice of my blog as actively as before (except one initial announcement to friends and family).

Why not simply keep a private journal? For one, I want to be able to reach its content from any computer anywhere I happen to be. Secondly, there may often be times I want to let a friend or associate know about some concept or idea I've put into a post, and then can simply give him the link. Thirdly, if others are out there and do happen to gain anything from what I'm learning or thinking about, then that is a good thing. Lastly, I have often received good ideas and thoughts from readers' comments, and there's no reason I should refuse myself that opportunity again.

In this blog, I expect to further chronicle my explorations of Humanism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and other important philosophies - but this time hopefully with more focus on the experiential aspects of developing a better practice. Hopefully this journal will help those practices, rather than distract from them with. Through this, what it means to be a Humanist Contemplative, the notion on which this overall site is based, may continue to develop further.

So, without further ado, let the journal/blogging begin! :)