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Monday, April 12, 2010

Do you have a sense of progress in your walk?

A path refers to a destination. (cc) Aidan
McManus (adeb?nd), 
For many of us, days pass by and we often find ourselves 'going with the flow'. Sure, we might make plans for the future. We might even have plans about where we want to be financially in five years, or plans about our hobbies, and so on. But how many of us have a sense of progress and planning when it comes to our spiritual/contemplative path - or, when it comes to our development as a person?

By a 'sense of progress' what I mean is a sense that we are working on something - a project. This would be a sense that where we are today is hopefully going to be different than where we are in the future. I mean this in terms of our habits, our character traits, our knowledge, our wisdom, our kindness, our compassion, and more.

How is such progress made? Learning may be an important first step. Reading worthy materials, joining in discussions (not debates), talking with and asking questions of wise people, and thinking about all of these ideas are essential. But all of that is merely 'data'. It is raw information resulting in nothing more than book knowledge, and as beneficial to your 'soul' as reading about exercise would be to your body. The real "project" is in what you do with that knowledge.

This is where practice comes in. Here we seek to apply those lessons in our lives. Practice doesn't just mean specific practices with names, like: meditation, negative visualization, existential deliberation, and so on. It also means mindfully putting into practice the mindsets and ideas we read about as we go about our daily activities. More importantly, that by doing so, those become habitual to our character and natural inclinations.

These are things with which I still very much struggle. When people refer to me as knowing a lot about some philosophy or being a 'something-ist', I feel rather silly - because I know that all of the reading and writing I do on these topics is worthless. Only the degree to which ancient and modern wisdom is applied in our lives, and the degree to which they shape our character, matter. The rest is vanity.

The following paragraph is specifically aimed at my naturalist/non-theist friends and readers:

It may seem odd to talk about one's walk, path, or spiritual practice in a secular context. But the recognition that there is a natural-based, rational, and beneficial function to development of character habits and application of contemplative practices is what The Humanist Contemplative is all about. Very often, we secular folks are among those who go through life day after day without that sense of progress in our character development, and I'd think therefore that my notes on this today would be especially applicable to us.

Comment, Brandon:
The couldn't be more timely for me. Lately I've come to realize that things have been 'just good enough' for a long time, and it's been a struggle to try and fit the idea of 'purpose' into a secular context.

"Only the degree to which ancient and modern wisdom is applied in our lives, and the degree to which they shape our character, matter. The rest is vanity."

That stung, but I needed it :)
Cheers to an excellent article.

Comment, DT Strain:
Thanks Brandon. I really appreciate comments like yours :)

Comment, tbrucia:
As I prepare for a 485-mile trek beginning in about a month, this article hits home.... The destination is there (like a beacon), but the discipline of preparing for and executing every exercise (walking, taking care of the feet, cooking, eating, setting up one's tent, observing one's surroundings, waiting, being rained on, and so on) are all the biggest part of the trek. In the process of preparing and executing, one changes... and in a sense, one becomes the preparing, one becomes the execution, and one becomes a reflection of the objective realities one meets 'on the trail'.... One of the realities one (I hope) I meet on the trail is another hiker: the one I am becoming....

Friday, April 2, 2010

David Brooks & Justin Bieber on "Happiness"

Justin Bieber arrives at Nickelodeon's 23rd
Annual Kids' Choice Awards, 2010. (c) AP.
Op-Ed columnist David Brooks wrote an article a few days ago called The Sandra Bullock Trade. In the article he writes about some of the interesting research being done about happiness, and about what I'd call the 'happiness exchange rate' between different things in our lives, many of them surprising.

Brooks at parts reminds me of the many instances where we are warned about the dangers of materialism. He writes:

"...most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most."

This kind of common lesson on happiness about focusing on 'what matters most' is part of our culture, and part of our pop culture. It is a common theme in many movies and television show episodes that attempt to have a moral. In the end, Brooks' message is not much more sophisticated than teen-idol-of-the-moment, Justin Bieber. One of his big hits has been the song, "One Time". As Beiber sings:

Me plus you, I'ma tell you one time
When I met you girl my heart went knock knock
Now them butterflies in my stomach won't stop stop
And even though it's a struggle love is all we got
And we gon' keep keep climbing to the mountain top
Your world is my world
And my fight is your fight
My breath is your breath
And your heart
And girl you're my one love, my one heart
My one life for sure
Let me tell you one time
(Girl, I love, girl I love you)

So Beiber isn't singing here about cars or money, but about "love". In another of his songs considered by his young fans to be among the "meaningful", a song called Down to Earth, is about missing a girl because he had to move due to his parents divorcing. As the lyrics go:

I never thought that it'd be easy,
Cause we're both so distant now,
And the walls are closing in on us and we're wondering how,
No one has a solid answer,
But we're just walking in the dark,
And you can see the look on my face, it just tears me apart.
So we fight
Through the hurt
And we cry and cry and cry and cry
And we live
And we learn
And we try and try and try and try

Of course, such angst is par for the course among melodramatic youths, but this is an example of pathos - a sickness of the mind. Which is why Beiber 'cries and cries'. Here someone is certainly focused on 'the things that matter most' according to David Brooks. Why, then, is he not happy?

To be sure, it is folly to be focused on wealth, career, and possessions as one's source of happiness. It is also true that the people in our lives, and love, should come before those things - but this is only chapter one of the lesson. Sadly, that's as far as our culture often gets, and as a result, there is a lot of suffering going on, even amongst people who are peaceful and not what you'd call materialistic.

I certainly don't intend undue criticism for young Bieber, or even older Brooks. They're words are not unusual. I present them only as examples of how askew is our larger culture - and this has real effects on suffering. One poor girl, Phoebe Prince, recently committed suicide after being tormented and teased by several others at her school. Before I continue, let me be clear: we certainly cannot shave even an ounce of responsibility from those who mistreated her, or the adults who were supposed to be more attentive to the situation. Furthermore, it should be noted that whenever one discusses ways a person can empower themselves against some pitfall, it often can sound as if those victims who have not done so are being blamed. But how much might girls like Phoebe Prince benefit by some more thorough understanding of how to deal with their feelings? All such things as reputation and what others think of us are ultimately not of importance. We cannot have expected this poor girl to have known any better, but even with the best enforcement, there will be cases of harassment and our culture does a poor job of armoring children against it.

When Brooks talks about "happiness" in these studies, he's talking about something very different from the kind of happiness that philosophies like Buddhism and Stoicism aim to increase. This is because, even when it seems he's talking about more enlightened things, he's still caught within the realm of external circumstance.

Brooks reports a study that shows joining a group that meets once a month produces the same happiness as doubling your income. Yet, the Stoics would point out that the ability to be a part of a monthly group depends on one's external conditions: where you live, are you disabled, will others comply by showing up, will they happen to be the kind of people you enjoy being with, will your schedule allow for consistent attendance, and so on. As such, why would it be "more enlightened" to desire a monthly group than it is to desire a higher income? To the Stoics, these things are equally indifferent and the Buddhists would say that attachment to either creates the potential for suffering.

Believe it or not, the same goes even for friends and family. While these certainly come before material possessions, they likewise are externals beyond our control. Our families may be taken from us through tragedy or conflict, friends may betray us, and so on. Attachment to any of these externals is making our ultimate happiness dependent upon the unpredictable tides of events around us, and an unsteady rock upon which to rely.

The Buddhists are very good at delineating the difference between love and attachment - between compassion and compulsion. Therefore, it is possible to be a loving kind person who puts family before fame and fortune, yet understand internally, that our happiness must ultimately be grounded in something larger than ourselves and our attachments to transient things - even when they are other people. The Stoics too, despite their admonitions against such pathos, address the notion of showing love to others and fulfilling our duties to family, friends, and society. In fact, I will soon be releasing an essay on what I would call Stoic Compassion and how it works.

Special thanks to Jimmy Dunne, who alerted me to Brooks' article.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Humanists embracing secular meditation

Rick Heller, of the Humanist Contemplatives
Group at Harvard. Photo: (c) HarvardHumanist.
Rick Heller at the Humanist Contemplative Group at Harvard, has just made a ten minute video on secular meditation. By secular meditation, he means meditation without any supernatural concepts. Indeed, the types of meditation he describes are precisely what is practiced by many Buddhists already, but Heller may feel the added term is necessary to distinguish it from other kinds of meditation that naturalists or those of other religions may not find relevant.

The Harvard Humanist Contemplative group was inspired by my own Humanist Contemplative group here in Houston, and I was honored and pleased when that group started. My hope is that more Humanist Contemplatives begin appearing in other areas because these are elements I think could only improve the Humanist movement. So, I applaud Rick Heller for his recent overview of basic meditation!

Rick Heller goes over some basics on 'how to' do breathing meditation. There are many other tips on posture, relaxing before a meditation session, and more which one could also learn. He talks about how meditation is helpful when we are experiencing nagging ruminations over various thoughts, concerns, and worries plaguing us, and how meditation helps to clear our minds and relieve stress. This is certainly true, but I would call this 'acute meditation practice'. Meditation can mean so much more, even for secularists.

Rick Heller also mentions scientific studies that have been conducted, and are being conducted on the effects of meditation on the brain. A top-down functional analysis is interesting, but the real treasure in meditation is being a first-person participant in it over a long-term practice.

In addition to simple momentary stress reduction and calming ruminations, meditation makes long lasting changes in the way our brains (and therefore minds) function. For one, it improves our focus. The purpose of focusing on one thing (such as our breath or a mantra) for extended periods isn't merely to calm our minds in that moment. When the practice is honed over time, it seems to improve our ability to focus on the things we want and need to focus on in a more disciplined manner.

In the calmness of that focus, we become more aware of what's happening around us. Our mental waters are still, and so anything happening around us makes noticeable ripples. Meditation practitioners tell us that quiet sitting meditation is but practice. It is in our everyday lives, as we go about our business, that we can learn to be as calm, as focused, and as mindful - in effect, a sort of meditation at all times.

But the usefulness of meditation doesn't stop there.

I quite often see secularists, or even Zen practitioners assuming the above is where practical meditation ends, and that the rest are simply religious, superstitious, or cultural trappings. But there is more material in between that is still yet salvageable for the modern naturalist, and equally important - that is, at least some of the core philosophical underpinnings of meditative practice. If we attempt to completely divorce meditative practice from that philosophical basis, we are cutting ourselves short.

For example, the basis of Buddhist ethics, the Eightfold Path, is quite different from Western ethics. They tell us that ethics help guide us toward contentment and freedom from suffering, and aid in our practice. When we sit to engage in meditation, if we are beset by the disturbances of the mind caused by our own direct misdeeds, as well as turbulence happening in our lives which were responses to those misdeeds (cause and effect, or karma), this will necessarily disrupt our internal economy. Therefore, ethics and virtue are an integral part of our contemplative practice and our walk toward the good life - for very pragmatic reasons.

Meditation can even change the way we look at our natural universe. There are many ways in which language and our tendency to label and categorize things gets in the way of our perceptions and understanding. Meditation is a time of silent awareness, without verbal thought and without judgment. During these times, we can learn to experience the world in a more phenomenological sense. This means we see the flow of events around us in a bit more detached way, from a more existential perspective. Meditation helps with this, but it takes some understanding and realizations about the world, about change, and impermanence that are not obvious from a strictly bare bones approach to meditation.

Lastly, meditation can help us improve aspects of our character, including increasing of our tendency toward loving kindness or compassion. These forms of mediation are forms of which I'm aware, but have not yet even begun to master. Obviously, one needs some sort of philosophical perspective on why increasing compassion is necessary in the first place in order to reap these meditative benefits.

Of course, Heller only had ten minutes in this video and the intent was a very introductory overview. So, my additional comments are only meant as additional considerations, not as a criticism of the video, which by the way, you can watch here!