Monday, January 31, 2011

Right Speech: A Case Study Thanks to Bob Dylan, Time Magazine and D. A. Pennebaker

The video above is a clip from "Don't Look Back," D. A. Pennebaker's documentary on Bob Dylan. I found this clip when I was looking for a clip of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," but found this instead. The "Subterranean Homesick Blues" bit is one of the most iconic scenes ever filmed in a documentary; it's probably the only scene from a documentary ever to be parodied by Weird Al Yankovic (replacing Dylan's lyrics with nonsense palindromes).

But the above scene is far more compelling, and says volumes about human behavior, the American media, and the limits of human communication when deep mistrust is present.  Not to mention it well encapsulates the so-called "generaton gap" that was prevalent at the time.

Notice that neither the reporter from Time, nor Dylan actually is talking to each other.  Instead, they're talking at each other - they are talking to what each thinks the other is, based on their preconceived notions.  They're speaking without consideration that the other is another human being, in a similar but different situation.  Now it may be true that each person in this conversation really has no interest in speaking with the other, or with coming to an understanding with the other person, and the fact is, they don't.  Both of them do not - despite, if you watch closely, numerous opportunities to be able to sympathize and affirm where the other person is in life.  Maybe that was part of the times.  But it clearly is an object lesson for us.

What could each have said to have spoken beyond the position they were in, to actually meet  another person? 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Current Situation...and a Few Comments about Stuff I've seen on the 'net

So presently I'm rather, um...busy.   I could blog a whole lot about the American Western Buddhist take on Egypt (though the fascinating thing to me, as a guy who's in the demographic to which I belong, the fascinating  thing is "following the money" in that saga.)  I could  - and might - finish blogging the Lankavatara Sutra - I've not much more to go in it, and it would be good to finish it.  But ...I'm still rather busy.

While I might possibly find the "Holy cow I've got to blog this!" bit on the 'net, or some deep thing in life with which to write,  truth be told, there are too many things to do right now,  and likely will be for a couple of weeks or so.   My intention then is to cut back a bit on blogging, simply because of time constraints.  Likely you might not see posts from me regularly on Monday, Wednesday & Friday for the time being.  

But I do want to make some assorted comments about stuff I've seen on the 'net today:

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”
The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.
           It appears to me that this is typical Times-positioning: sounding like unconventional wisdom but
           really  reflecting middlebrow sensibilities here.  Look,  I'll admit it: I'm a guy in the 6th percentile
           of my age group in Body Mass Index. Yeah, you read that right.  94% of people my age have
           a higher BMI than I do.   And if one goes through BMI tables as a function of
           age,  there is an inescapable fact that emerges: obese people die earlier than the non-obese. 
          Also, I discovered I like swimming.    And I don't feel guilty about it; oh, sure I wish I could
          do more but that's not the point of doing it; it's a mindfulness practice that's fun.  And it keeps
           me  in shape. And I'm continuing to improve my foreign language and technical and other skills,
           thank you very much.

  • In terms of the coverage of the Egyptian situation, I'm looking for several things:
    • How American media compares with international media.  CNN has been particularly risible in this regard.
    • How the American government is discussing the situation publicly, and whether or not they have any idea of how their words are being interpreted by others, particularly in the Arab world..  It shocked me that Vice president Biden couldn't bring himself to say Mubarak is a dictator.  Joe: Mubarak is a dictator. We can't afford to prop up dictators these days. 
    • How the crisis is being translated into business propaganda.   Somebody's going to make tremendous amounts of money in this.  They already have.  There was a big drop in US markets on Friday because of "fears that the Egyptian crisis would result in the closure of the Suez canal," which would disrupt oil shipments.   Yeah, you got that right.  Now consider: do you honestly think that whoever replaces Mubarak, even the most lunatic raving America hating Islamic fundamentalist is going to shut down a chief source of funding for the country?   People who have money in Egypt will be happy to see Mubarak go, simply because the next guys might ask for less in the way of bribes and kickbacks.  You read it here first: life - and business - will go on after Mubarak.   In the US, there's an exchange trade fund related to Egyptian markets, helpfully using the symbol "EGPT."   I wouldn't buy it yet, but I might be tempted to buy it this week.  Yeah, yeah, this is a Buddhist blog, but it's a Buddhist blog of a guy who has to plan his retirement two decades in advance.
  • This article by Alex Mar in Salon captures something that I thought was true for years, but never wrote or spoke of: Exorcism movies are conservative propaganda.  You want your demons to leave? Well, if you're a Buddhist, you might eventually take the position of Rilke; exorcism would cast out your angels as well as your demons.. Or, you might not think so much about angels and demons at all.  I generally don't.  As I wrote above, I'm busy.

I've got really Buddhist-y things to do, such as sit, and family practice.   I wish that your day be filled with harmony.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Weird Times in Early 2010 2011

The weather is completely topsy-turvy; the Eastern part of the US is being pounded by snow while here in the Pacific Northwest, it appears to be an early Spring.  (Every now and then the weather pattern gets like this; it's why I moved out to the Northwest, in fact; when I first came out here it was 3 degrees Fahrenheit in NY with 2 feet of snow on the ground and in Oregon I was working outside in my shirtsleeves on a field test. I said to myself, "I could live here.")

But other things are topsy-turvy, too: Egypt is in the middle of revolution, and despite the near-blackout of news of this in the US broadcast media (including, evidently, the tepid and reactive responses of the US State Department and the huge role social media is playing in this)  the revolution, at least today, continues.  Being that it's a mostly Muslim country though, Friday is Anything Can Happen Day.

Maybe it's the time of year or maybe it's the time of humanity; or maybe it's just what I'm noticing at this point in my life.   There are still transient effects of jet lag going on here that are allowing me to wake up at very early times (even for me).   There are "interesting times" in my professional life - and not in a bad way.  At least I'm starting to slightly get the hang  aspects of certain family practice.

Which is all, I suppose, to say, it's all here.  It's one more day on the road to our inevitable fate; it's one more smidgen of motion and energy in the universe that will bring us all to certain annihilation.  Let's appreciate it while it's here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Attention Is Not Separate From Mind-Heart

So says the last line of the "10 Phrase Life Prolonging Kannon Sutra":

延 命 十 句 觀 音 經 (Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo)

觀世音 南無佛


與佛有因 與佛有緣
佛法僧緣 常樂我淨
朝念觀世音 暮念觀世音
念念從心起 念念不離心

Where is your attention? That is where your mind and heart are: that's what you're caring  about at the moment.

And one of the points of that sutra, by the way, is to heighten one's degree of attention.

Geez,  I could almost have Tweeted that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

One of a number of schemes I'm way too naive and good natured to have invented...

The Davos World Economic Forum...I wish I'd  thought of that...

Just to have the opportunity to be invited to Davos, you must be invited to be a member of the World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit that was founded by Klaus Schwab, a German-born academic who managed to build a global conference in the snow.
There are several levels of membership: the basic level, which will get you one invitation to Davos, costs 50,000 Swiss francs, or about $52,000. The ticket itself is another 18,000 Swiss francs ($19,000), plus tax, bringing the total cost of membership and entrance fee to $71,000.
But that fee just gets you in the door with the masses at Davos, with entry to all the general sessions. If you want to be invited behind the velvet rope to participate in private sessions among your industry’s peers, you need to step up to the “Industry Associate” level. That costs $137,000, plus the price of the ticket, bringing the total to about $156,000.
Of course, most C.E.O.’s don’t like going anywhere alone, so they might ask a colleague along. Well, the World Economic Forum doesn’t just let you buy an additional ticket for $19,000. Instead, you need to upgrade your annual membership to the “Industry Partner” level. That will set you back about $263,000, plus the cost of two tickets, bringing the total to $301,000...
Then again, somebody else thought of Ted.

Impermanence and Travel Reading: Japan's invasion of China as seen in 1937

I was able, since I subscribe to Harper's, to download an article on Japan's invasion of China that was rather prophetic when it was published in January, 1937. It was, as would be expected from the time, rather racist and blithely unaware of the extent of Japan's war crime terrorism in China. It was probably the latter effect that united the country...

China remained the same for so long because her civilization was superior. No one, Mongol or Manchu, Moslem or Muscovite, least of all the Western barbarian, could offer her anything better. It is only recently that the West has developed anything worth teaching to the wise old East..

Then it took time to break down Eastern complacence, to teach the old dog new tricks. But at last China is in the mood for change-in fact the seeds of change are already deep planted. According to Lin Yutang, Chinese literature has undergone a more profound change during the past thirty years than during the preceding two thousand. Material and scientific change has been even more sweeping. If all this has been accomplished by mere suggestion and example, what may be done by compulsion exercised deliberately and on a great scale? It is hard to suggest anything to a Chinese; but he yields easily to force. Japan will use force. For the first time in China's history a people with better ways of getting things done are about to invade and impregnate China, open up its natural resources, build factories that require technical workers, start schools, teach modern industrialism, and drive home the teaching if necessary at the point of the bayonet.  Outwardly (and we are not speaking now of the eternal verities) life will be transformed in China during the next century.

Revolution among a quarter of the human race-it is now more than a fifth and Chinese fecundity is rapidly bringing it to the quarter mark-cannot but have sharp repercussions upon the other three quarters. The chief repercussion will be upon Japan. It will not be surprising if Japan's first statesman of a century from this morning may sit, moodily staring at the floor, bitterly regretting that Japan ever put foot in China.

Not that the Japanese campaign in China will not be successful-temporarily. It promises to be a magnificent success. But there is just as clear promise that this success will be followed by colossal, world-shaking failure. And from that failure
the nations may see the China that enrolls one human being out of every four emerge as the world's greatest Power...

When China thus outstrips Japan and resumes her ancient position of leadership, Japan will have only herself to thank. For she is to-day assiduously laying the foundations of China's future greatness. Japan is carrying over into China the conception of government by law in place of government by whim. China's only common-sense government has been that of the village. Each village was a petty republic. Above it, remotely, was the Emperor; but he interfered so little and was so far away that he could be reverenced and dismissed as the Son of Heaven. What rule he did exercise was apt to be whimsical. But whim had not yet descended to badger the village and the family. Then China became a so-called republic. All that really happened was that the monarchy fell to break up into many small monarchies, as a great spider's pouch bursts to spill a horde of little spiders, each scurrying off with sure instinct in search of prey. The warlords, each carving out for himself a petty kingdom, have brought government by whim within the mud wall of every village and into the home of every family. The American tendency to over-optimize any good news from China may have led us recently to suppose that General Chiang has eliminated the warlords and unified the nation. That has not happened and there are forces at work that will prevent it from happening. China does not change so fast...

It was amazing to me how prescient this article was, despite the fact that the article had not one mention of Mao Zedong in it.  It's easy to see in retrospect, despite the fact that Mao was a cruel tyrant under whose regime millions died unnecessarily, why the Chinese hold him in esteem even today, and why, no matter how many calls for "democracy" are aimed at China, they just will not countenance a weaker central government - though even today there are said to be huge issues with corruption at local governmental levels.  Mao "made the nation strong" so it could not be colonized.

Did I mention this has deep implications for the United States?  What  are we doing having people running things who are hell-bent on dismantling our central government?  It would be nice to think that Facebook will solve all the problems we have, organizing people in ways that will re-establish a government for the people, but I'm not encouraged. The electoral scheme and political system we have now is arranged for the continued looting, albeit by private means, of most Americans, as chronicled in Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking AmericaWoody Allen wrote, "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."  

The wisdom - that's something you don't hear from any politicians these days. Who will have the wise words that will save Nansen's cat?  Who will serve the people? Well, anyway, sometime soon (tonight? tomorrow night?) Barack Obama's going to make a speech.  I hope we won't be embarrassed.

I do wish though that the up-and-coming world's preeminent power  plays nicer with its people despite the fact that it has a strong tradition of Buddhism, which is actively being encouraged by the government.  Then again, they too have their own host of problems, and predicting the future is by nature an activity that can only be error-prone in the extreme.  Why not see if American Idol is on tonight?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I'm back...

But at the moment, I've nothing I feel is worth a blog post about.

I could go on about politics, or some such thing. But I have other things to do still.

Hope everyone out there is safe and facing life with a decent measure of equanimity.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Travel Practice

I'm on my way home. It's time to practice, uh, loving kindness amidist the jostle and rushing. Kyle wrote:

What is important is that a genuine effort is put forth to see why virtue is crucial, and to truly understand firsthand what wisdom the Buddha was trying to transmit. Overcoming dukkha and understanding the true nature of reality, the reason for this ancient tradition, many times goes forgotten in pursuit of other individual desires in the name of being a Buddhist, including judging and labeling others.

I think that in usages like the above, "sincere" and "genuine" efforts are not something one should question very much. I can only try to be mindful of what I'm doing, and to put in an effort at doing it.

It is a "challenge that is hopelessly hard," to put forth the practice, but frankly, I don't see any alternative.

How is "genuine" practice related to travel practice? Travel, especially as folks like me do nowadays, is rather difficult. It's important to continue to practice amidst this difficulty.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Right Speech: Carefully Choose Words When Speaking for a Group

There's a confluence of experiences I'm having, which are seasoned slightly with the recent posts of Nathan on Ayn Rand and Brad Warner on folks who write to him asking him to be their "teacher."

First, I never liked Ayn Rand; I never could get past the first few pages of her agit-prop simply because I'm not much of a fiction reader, but also because the more I learned of her life the more I came to see her philosophy as a spectacular failure. If the proclaimer of a philosophy can't seem to get it to work in their own life what good is it outside of one's self?

Ayn Rand was so obsessed with the individual and the oh-so-great things that only they bring into the world that her writing never seemed to convey the gravity, splendor, and power that groups of people have. Individuals do things, for sure, but to say the individual is somehow superior to the group is to be out of whack with whether the master is holding a shippei or not.

To speak and act on behalf of another is something that seems so foreign to Rand that there's good reason I think her writings, to me, seem completely irrelevant, or orthogonal to how real people must really act in this real world. In the real world, the correct action may do more than save a cat that Nansen is holding hostage, and requires one to take risks that pale in comparison to whether or not one is producing the right turning words, or so it might seem.

To act so effectively means for us to step outside ourselves, even though we cannot know for certainty how our words and actions will be perceived. Is Brad Warner's non-teaching on-line ethical or not? It's not for me to answer, and frankly the ways in which I have to speak and act on behalf of groups of people in my own life weigh far more heavy to me than that; though I'd not be surprised if what Warner is writing/doing weighs on him.

This I know: if one is not mindful, one can fall into the mud. If one is mindful, one may still fall into the mud.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If you haven't seen it, it's on Youtube: watch bits of Gwynne Dyer's "War: A Commentary"

Kyle, reminding me (inadvertently) how 80s TV sucked even back then, also inadvertently reminds me to say if you haven't seen Gwynne Dyer's War: A Commentary, at least parts of it are available you Youtube. Here's some bits of one episode.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What chanting sutras based on Asian languages can feel like...

Really...anyone else ever had that experience?

HT: PZ Myers, who used this video in an entirely unrelated direction.

Why do I link to certan blogs? Like The Zennist

That's the thought I've had lately, especially since reading his post on the "taboo against the transcendent."

Looking at the slick Buddhist magazines in the bookstore a couple of blocks away from where I live I am inclined to believe that a dumbed down, mediocritized version of Buddhism is winning the day, versus Buddhism according to the Buddha.  
Granted, that looking at some aspects of Buddhism intellectually is difficult even for trained academicians, there should not be so much dumbed down and mediocritized Buddhism circulating in the market place.  (People are not that stupid!)
I confess, that I don’t have a good answer to explain this phenomenon.  The only thing that has recently crossed my mind as a likely explanation is that, somehow, marketing the transcendent is a taboo.  It would be like going back in a time machine to the Victorian era trying to sell Playboy magazines, hoping to make a fortune.  
Along with the particular taboo just mentioned, I would include the example of publications and research about people who have been abducted by interdimensional or extraterrestrial beings, psychedelic drug culture, shamanism, gnosticism, out of body and near death experiences, past lives, alternative healing strategies, etc.  I realize that this is an odd assortment of subjects but I believe that while these subjects have their followers, they are treated, more or less, as taboos in the public market place of ideas and by the mainstream media (MSM).  Therefore, I should not be surprised (but I am!) that Buddhism sold in the slick magazines, with a corporate look, have been significantly bowdlerized in which the element of the transcendent has been either expunged or altered.

But why the taboo against the transcendent which I believe to be the case with Buddhism today?  This is a tough nut to crack.  The problem certainly has its origin in the common, everyday collective psyche this much is obvious.  Looking into the collective psyche it is not without fear, and accompanying this fear, a drive to keep everything simple, safe, and controllable, above all ‘human’.  This is the view of anthropocentrism, that man is the measure of all things—there is nothing higher.  In other words, transcendence is impossible because there is nothing higher than man.  But Buddhism denies this.  The Buddha never claims to be a human—he is higher than even a god (A. ii. 37).
People who have been abducted by interdimensional or extraterrestrial beings, psychedelic drug culture, shamanism, gnosticism, out of body and near death experiences, past lives, alternative healing strategies, etc.?

Is he kidding? There's a good reason these things as "transcendent" are taboo in many publications: because there's quite good non-transcendent explanations for all of them!  And perhaps the reason the historical Buddha "never claimed to be a human" was a simple fact: it was, uh, obvious.

One may still intellectually have a position bearing on the transcendent that passes the giggle test.  But one may equally have a position lacking belief in the transcendent as well, since both positions are metaphysical positions which can neither be decisively demonstrated in the realm of the physical.  How many times must I write something to that effect?

But I do wonder about the question above.  Am I showing I'm a smarter Buddhist? I mean, there's always something to refute that's as easy to do as shooting fish in a barrel.   But if I said nothing would that hinder my obligation to help people?

So I'm thinking about that.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sanity, 見性, responsibility

On travel I usually bring as many back issues of Harper's that I haven't yet read.  And so I was fascinated to read in the December issue an article on the possible prevention of psychosis (subscription required).  This article bears upon not only whatever responsibility we may have for the recent violence in Tuscon Arizona, and yet another reason why "he was insane, and there was nothing we could have done" was an inadequate response, but also the nature of mind and consciousness  and sanity, and its relation to kensho (見性 ), satori (悟り ) and other meditative states.

If you can get a copy of this article, I strongly suggest you read the whole thing, because I'm touching on only a tiny part of this article:

It is impossible to predict the precise moment when a person has embarked on a path toward madness, since there is no quantifiable point at which healthy thoughts become insane. It is only in retrospect that the prelude to psychosis can be diagnosed with certainty. Yet in the past decade, doctors have begun to trace the illness back to its earliest signs. [T]he First Episode Psychosis Clinic at the University of Illinois Medical Center ... is one of about sixty clinics in the United States that work to help people experiencing early psychotic symptoms maintain a grasp on reality. About a third of these programs focus exclusively on patients who appear to be in what is known as the prodrome, the aura that precedes a psychotic break by up to two or three years. During this phase, people often have mild hallucinations—they might spot a nonexistent cat out of the corner of their eye or hear their name in the sound of the wind—yet they doubt that these sensations are real. They still have “insight”—a pivotal word in psychiatric literature, indicating that a patient can recognize an altered worldview as a sign of illness, not a revelation. 

By working with people when they are still skeptical of their own delusions, doctors hope to stop the disease before it has really begun. Three years ago, the results of a study of nearly 300 patients who sought treatment because of “recurring unusual thoughts,” “unusual sensory experiences,” or “increased suspiciousness” were published by the North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study, a collaboration of eight prodromal outpatient clinics. The researchers found that 35 percent of patients had a psychotic break within two and a half years of enrolling at a clinic...

Although the DSM [(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders )] is written by the country’s leading psychiatrists, the neurological mechanisms behind mental disorders are too poorly understood to have much bearing on the way the manual separates health from pathology. Instead, the fifty-eight-year-old book guides psychiatrists toward diagnoses with checklists of behavioral signs that require a “minimal amount of inference on the part of the observer” (according to the 1987 edition). The outer limits of normality are decided by committee, with definitions of illness deferring to consensus opinion. A “delusion,” one of the five key symptoms listed for schizophrenia, is a “false belief . . . firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes.” A “bizarre delusion,” a more severe symptom, has gone through numerous revisions. In one edition of the manual, it had to have “patently absurd” content with “no possible basis in fact”; in the next, it involved “a phenomenon that the person’s culture would regard as totally implausible.” After the revision, 10 percent of patients who were previously deemed schizophrenic were given a new diagnosis, the majority of them because their delusions were no longer bizarre.

The DSM is designed to avoid the slippery spaces between disorders, the complaints not easily named or seen. Perhaps more than any other disorder, the psychosis risk syndrome puts pressure on the logic of the entire enterprise, as it forces doctors to break down the process of losing one’s mind. They have to identify delusions before the patient really believes in them. When does a strong idea take on a pathological flavor? How does a metaphysical crisis morph into a medical one? At what point does our interpretation of the world become so fixed that it no longer matters “what almost everyone else believes”? Even William James admitted that he struggled to distinguish a schizophrenic break from a mystical experience.

 There are, as I've said, many "take-aways" in this artcle, among them:

  • There is, evidently, some kind of a continuum between total full-fledged psychotic break from reality and "normal" behavior and...
  • Those that experience it often, if not inevitably are aware that their beliefs aren't necessarily normal
  • And they are often suffering from the delusions they are having
  • And we have a responsibility, I think, to try to understand this process, 
  • But since we stigmatize the ill and the mentally ill, that's problematic.
More to the point of what I want to say, is I was somewhat struck by what the sufferers of prodrome (pre-psychotic break syndrome) were expressing and my own Zen practice as well as tiny tiny bit I know about neurology; you can't help but be.

Our "self" is something our brain creates for us, and there isn't "one" place in the brain this "self" can be said to reside.  And yet it is just this "self" that apparently suffers in a psychotic break.  The questions that one clinic asks possible prodrome patients include:

Do you daydream a lot or find yourself preoccupied with stories, fantasies, or ideas?
Do you think others ever say that your interests are unusual or that you are eccentric?
Do familiar people or surroundings ever seem strange? Confusing? Unreal? Not a part of the living world? Alien? Inhuman?
Have you ever felt that you might not actually exist? Do you ever think that the world might not exist?

 There are, it seems to me, a number of koans embedded in each of those questions.  Do you daydream a lot? What is a lot? What is a daydream? What is the living world? What is alien? What is inhuman? What does it mean to exist?  How do we know the world exists?

The other question, "Do you think others ever say that your interests are unusual or that you are eccentric?" is even more interesting: I suppose (I hope) the answer to this question doesn't allow the imaginative to be swept into a psychotic diagnosis.

The fact that in  kensho (見性 ), "seeing into one's nature,"  one sees that one's nature is sunyata, is clearly not to say that one's nature is one rock solid unchanging essence. (Or not.)  Is this the same as a psychotic break? Different? 

I think the difference between a Zen practice, including 見性 and a psychotic break is several:
  • We generally aren't suffering because we are questioning everything.
  • We aren't usually existentially disturbed at the consideration, and acting within, the premise that the self is a construct of the mind; rather, we are for whatever reason, reassured by it, because we understand this is the nature of all beings.
  • We try  not to be attached to beliefs and delusions, including the belief in non-attachment.
Also, there is a strong link between the incidences of psychosis and deprivation - whether it's a deprivation caused by being a minority, or by being economically disadvantaged, the incidence of psychosis seems to increase.

We have a responsibility to find out these issues to their core, and to try to help those who need it.  I would also venture - again as a rank nonspecialist who is clearly writing from the most his most ignorant parts - I would venture that the use of mindfulness based methods might be applied to these prodrome people with interesting results.  It's a study that begs to be done, if it's not already being done, simply because the links between the mystical states and the psychotic break are striking.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Buddhist perspective on "A Buddhist Perspective on Access to Guns"

Via Reverend Fisher, I came across an article by that name by one James Baraz of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre CA.  Mr. Baraz is a board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an organization I generally admire.  Let's do some right speech here...

Our country spends 60 percent of its budget on the military and more than the next dozen nations combined. Is it just a coincidence that we have so many civilian gun killings? Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik sarcastically commenting on the easy access to guns said, "What will be next -- Uzis in kids' cribs?" Yet, we were still shocked.

 I sort of agree: the military budget crowds out things that would be vastly cheaper if they were made part of the commons, including but not limited to universal access to health care, including mental health care., as well as means to help people avoid dire straits.  Moreover, the stigmatization of the "other" including the mentally ill is the stigmatization of the "other" that leads to war: it is maintaining a deadly illusion of separateness.   But the Uzis in kids' cribs line, that might be an Arizona issue, where it seems the common assumption is anyone can carry guns anywhere.  That's not a good recipe, I'd opine.

Every human being wants to feel safe and have peace. That's a tall order in a culture that glorifies violence.

Culture is not separate from one. This, too, is a stigmatization of "the other."

The Buddha ...taught, "Hatred never ceases by hatred. Hatred only ceases by love. This is an ancient and eternal law."


When the news about the shootings first came out, many assumed that right wing conspirators were behind it. That conclusion led to outrage. Later, when it became obvious that the killer was mentally unstable, the outrage lessened a bit, at least toward the suspect, because he was clearly confused. Even though what he was doing made sense to him, he was ignorant of his actions on some level because he was out of touch with reality.  

It is not at all clear to me that those who exhibited the most outrage in the media weren't faking it.  Some of them, such as Glenn Beck, have been known to feign emotion in the past, even doing the onion-to-make-you-cry thing.  Too,  I think even now it's a bit early to tell how ignorant Mr. Loughner was of his actions.  And, as I've stated in the past, it's a bit early to tell how willfully blind or not his immediate friends and loved ones were to his behavior.  It's more complex than Mr. Baraz lets on here, to say the least.

The real villain is in this story is not Jared Loughner. It's not the media. And it's not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies -- both in their minds and in actuality...

Recognizing separation is, as I've shown, very tricky business.   In fact, even putting this in the framework of "A Buddhist Perspective" is itself a kind of separation. I  have found over and over and over and over again that it is imperative that when a Buddhist wants to use Buddhist practices to make peace with non-Buddhists,  it's a good idea to speak past the psychologizing and philosphizing and stick to the observable and agreeable.

Right now, this tragedy is capturing our attention. Can anything good come from it? Unfortunately, Columbine and the shooting spree at Virginia Tech had little effect on the access to guns by anyone including the mentally unstable. The NRA is stronger than ever. And the cowboy mindset in this country, from our military budget to Second Amendment advocates, is still entrenched in our psyche...

And those words ain't helping, in my experience, as I've explained above. 
Each of us has love and hatred within us. The more we can be aware of how our own anger and ill will colors our thoughts, words and actions, the greater the chance for real transformation within ourselves. That transformation can lead to genuinely understanding how the confusion of an individual or a group could create greater pain and sorrow for themselves and others. When we can see the real villain as ignorance, we can stop demonizing "the other side." Then our words and actions, based in clarity and compassion, minus the hate, will be more effective and be part of a larger transformation in human consciousness.

 To whom is Mr. Baraz speaking? Is he speaking to an NRA member? Is this what he would say? What does he think the NRA member's response would be? I have an idea, based on right-wingers I have known and know.  It wouldn't be "You feel you need your guns because you're ignorant and need to replace your anger with love."  These words, or more to the point Mr. Baraz' words are highly ineffective in changing society, because society will not be changed by a "Buddhist" analysis that still separates "us" from "them,"  but rather meets people where they are and challenges them to go beyond the politics and rhetoric, not with a quietist acquiescence,  but with an engagement that doesn't point out the flaw in the other but rather makes pointing out such differences unnecessary in the first place.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Guess where I'm going? Plus: re: Brad Warner, like everyone else, like me, caveat emptor

It's not to Nevada, but rather the other country to which Paul Krugman makes an economic comparison here.  So I'm not likely to get much into this blog until Saturday.

There are many things I'd like to do in the week ahead, but there are many things I have to do. Hopefully those things that have to be done I will do, and those that I want to do, for which I have time, will be helpful.

For whatever reason - maybe because it's in response to an equally jumbled post from Brad Warner I'm adding the following to this post:

I wish I could have an in-depth response to Brad Warner's post here, as well as his post on depression here. However, to summarize, I was taken aback by both of them. In the first blog post about AA, if you've read the Stinkin' Thinkin blog, well, enough said, I hope. But in case it isn't enough, let me point out that Zen practice requires about as much faith, I'd say, as getting in the pool to swim when one is completely out of practice, or for that matter, taking up 書道 when one's writing has been decried as chicken scratch*. Twelve step groups do not function that way.  Zen wasn't predicated or founded on quack science.  Zen Buddhist tradition and practice does not have what can in any way be called an undercurrent of narcissism. And the founder of AA's "root heritage" predecessor teacher wasn't any better

In the second case, I'm taken aback because Warner can't bring himself to say simple words here: if you are deeply troubled by depression, get help.  In fact, if you have a substance abuse issue get help.  Just like with anything else caveat emptor.

* Note that one might be out of practice to the point where one has forgotten they can do basic swimming activity, as was my case.  Furthermore, those with bad writing have been said - I forgot where - to have more talent at  書道  than those who have very very neat penmanship.  That says something.    I think what it says is that one should not be nailed to the mast of one's preconceptions.  So do your own homework about everything, including what's written in this post.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

色不異空:How to speak with extremists. And you must.

Shinzen Young, who I normally don't follow, has some profound things to say here (HT: C4Chaos).  And I think they kind of relate to the whole issue of right speech and the recent violence in Tuscon.

Of course everything's interrelated, and - to reiterate - to pretend that they are all isolated is to oppose reality.

So when Barbara says, "So, from a Buddhist perspective, we are all responsible. There is no one on the planet who is not responsible"  that does indeed mean all - it doesn't mean we're all guilty of murder, but we might be guilty of being overly dogmatic in our speech to the point where the speech becomes incendiary.

The process that Shinzen describes in the video link above I think applies to the issue of right speech and dealing with incendiary speech: if our speech is at first divisive exclusionary we will create more division and exclusion; if we accept an other person's divisive and exclusionary speech as though the division exists, then we further that division.

These divisions transcend left/right politics; "a pox on both your houses" is still missing the mark by a light year.

There's a way to speak past the division.

This is what it means to "practice Zen off the cushion." It means to speak with a fundamentalist extremist from a place where the ideological gulf may be transcended.  And no, this is not airy-fairy crap.  This is how we're going to survive as a species until the sun starts to give out, if we have any chance at all.

Let's play...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More on the interplay between the resevoir of memes in society and disordered behavior

Regarding the ongoing discussions of what motivates people to do violent acts, and where responsibility lies (see NellaLou's excellent post today) perhaps a more clear-cut, and less controversial example - unless, ah, you're a Mormon - can be found in the case of Elizabeth Smart.  Now one cannot tar all Mormons by the behavior of  Glenn Beck,  and it is certainly folly to blame the Mountain Meadows massacre on any Mormon alive today.  But it is hard to deny that Mormon theology and practices, and memes are somehow intertwined with the Elizabeth Smart case, and in particular, were used by Brian David Mitchell to perpetrate his crimes.

This may sound like a strange story to people who are not from around here, but everything that happened in Mitchell's life, at least up to where he kidnapped Elizabeth, is not that unusual within the Mormon community. Most Mormons do not have visitations and revelations, but some still do, and when it happens, there tend to be dramatic consequences.
For example: In 1993, while LDS Apostle Howard Hunter was addressing 15,000 BYU students in their basketball arena, a young man named Cody Judy appeared on stage and stood behind Hunter with a briefcase he said contained a bomb. He gave Hunter a three-page letter describing how God had made him, Cody Judy, the new prophet of the Church. He told Hunter to read it or he would blow everybody up. There was no bomb in the briefcase, only a Book of Mormon. Judy was taken to the state mental hospital, where he jumped from his third-story window and escaped into the mountains. For three weeks he traveled "like a deer," fearing a massive manhunt. Then, suddenly, he showed up at the Church-owned television station and asked for some airtime on the news. Then he spent eight years in prison, and when he got out he worked in a video store and ran for public office. Now he has a Facebook site.
Prophesy and polygamy often go together. One of the responsibilities of being the new prophet is to spread "the seed of David" and produce the new chosen people. This takes a lot of women and a lot of effort.
I had a friend in high school who was a gifted athlete and a charming young man. His family lived down the street from mine, next to the Salt Lake Country Club. Late one summer night, he burst into my bedroom, very frightened. He said he'd been making out with his girlfriend on the ninth green and his guardian angel appeared in a glowing light above a sand trap. The angel told him to take his hand out of his girlfriend's pants and not to put it back, ever again. At the time, no one mentioned schizophrenia. We all thought it was just part of being a Mormon—even when he attacked his father because he thought he was the Devil, even when he would go down to Temple Square and walk up to young women and tell them that God had just told him they were to be married in the Celestial Kingdom. We thought this was strange, but not necessarily out of the ordinary. His family sent him on a mission, thinking it would be good for him, but it only made him more crazy. He came back and went into the psych ward at the University hospital, where they put him on heavy medication. He struggled with a marriage and numerous low-paying jobs and volunteered as a live actor in the temple, portraying "Heavenly Father Behind the Veil," but his health went downhill fast and he died at age 29 due to organ failure from all the medication he was taking.
Then there was the group of polygamists in central Utah who claimed to be receiving "unanimous revelations," where not one but all ten men would receive the same revelation at the same time. Angels and apostles and resurrected beings had appeared to them, and they had seen and heard many wonderful things. For instance, they were told they were all new prophets and they should start a new church called "the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Last Days," which they did. Then God told them that they should become polygamists, which they did. Then, unfortunately, God told only some of them that they should sleep with more than one wife in the bed at a time, which they did, and this caused their quorum of 10 apostles to break apart, as some considered the practice to be an abomination unto the Lord.
Prophesy and polygamy often go together. When God speaks to a man and tells him he is the new prophet and must now take charge of the only true church, the next thing He often tells the man is to become a polygamist. This is because one of the responsibilities of being the new prophet is to spread "the seed of David" and produce the new chosen people. This takes a lot of women and a lot of effort.
Many people in Salt Lake City, Mormon and non-Mormon, are opposed to polygamy, but very few are in favor of prosecuting and punishing the crime. This is because there are a lot of polygamists in these parts, and it would be very expensive and socially chaotic to go after them. Polygamy is a long-established part of the local culture, and, then, we all live in something that resembles a polygamous culture, where affairs and serial monogamy are common. So who will be the first to throw a stone? And what will become of it?
In this way, we tolerate polygamy, apparently even among crazy homeless people dressed as characters out of the New Testament...

 It was perhaps the pervasiveness of Mormon ideology and thought that helped keep Mitchell at large as long as he was; he did not appear out of the ordinary (indeed for a while, before he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart he did ceremonies at the LDS temple itself!), though in media portrayals he appears completely loony.

We don't have - yet - the luxury of really knowing the social nexus of Jared Lee Loughner, but one thing is clear, though it is also clear already some of his behavior was already thought to be bizarre before he ever committed a violent act.  There is no point in pointing fingers at those who knew Loughner, but as I see it, there is also no point in condoning  those who have been putting hate and vitriol into the discourse either.  Were those with whom he was acquainted too blinded by the pervasiveness of violent ideas and discourse to be unaware of how really dangerous Loughner was becoming?

This is more intricate than you're reading about, even here.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

More on the interplay of mental disturbance, culpability, and interdependence

In thinking more about the Giffords incident, for some reason I was reminded by Case 43 of the Mumonkan; wern't you?  Ah, I jest.

Shuzan Oshõ held up his shippei [staff of office] before his disciples and said, "You monks! If you call this a shippei, you oppose its reality.
If you do not call it a shippei, you ignore the fact.
Tell me, you monks, what will you call it?"

Mumon's Comment
If you call it a shippei, you oppose its reality.
If you do not call it a shippei, you ignore the fact.
Words are not available; silence is not available.
Now, tell me quickly, what is it?

Mumon's Verse 頌曰
拈起竹篦      Holding up the shippei,
行殺活令      He takes life, he gives life.
背觸交馳      Opposing and ignoring interweave.
佛祖乞命      Even Buddhas and patriarchs beg for their lives.

I had been thinking about the shippei as a metaphor for Loughner's mental condition, which, if true, opposes the reality of the interdependence of his condition and those around him and the sources that triggered his ideation.

But Mumon's verse ... well that astounded me.  But that's it.

(Update: Or perhaps a better metaphor is the political vitriol, which opposes the interweaving of action and thought.  Which makes the last verse that much more meaningful.)

Those responsible for violent political rhetoric DO have to bear responsibility for their words

Kyle says:

There is no political party to blame for the horrible shooting that took place outside Tuscon, Arizona yesterday. The man, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, was by all accounts a very disturbed person, with a history of bizarre theories and schizophrenic like paranoia. Not more than an hour after the sad event took place, the social media sites such as twitter and Facebook ran ramped with rumors that he was a leftist or that he was a extreme conservative. Both sides hurled unfounded rumors on top of outright lies, to support their case that it was the other side which was the voice of violence and derangement that caused this man to do what he did...

The only difference between those disturbed and twisted individuals, whose only goal was to make political gains out of this sad situation and Jared Lee Loughner is that he acted out his insanity with a gun. And yes, those on the right, or a least those trolling as if they were on the political right grew more callous, more twisted and more pathetic as the whole thing unraveled. People died at the hands of a disturbed man, and this wonderful social media thing that we have now, gave a forum for people to say things that they wouldn't have the guts to say to someone in real life....or has it?

Yet, let us not forget in any way that Jared Lee Loughner wasn't the first crazed person in recent memory to express violent insanity in the memes of right wing ideology. Most recently, before Loughner there was Byron Williams, Jerry Kane, and Richard Poplawski. So I'm not willing in any way to let the right wing off the hook for this; it is true that Loughner's insanity is his own, but the fact of the matter is, Adolf Hitler is still responsible for Mein Kampf. And he's also responsible for the other Nazi horrors, even if others pulled the trigger.

So as John Cole says:

Want to watch a Republican freak out? Utter the following statement:

“This shooting demonstrates that we really need to tone down the violent political rhetoric.”

Then watch the freakout begin, even though there is nothing partisan or pointed about that statement. “Why are you pointing fingers? Both sides do it! Why are you blaming Sarah Palin?”

And then my personal favorite: “He was just crazy!”

No shit. You have to be crazy to walk into a crowd of people and start spraying bullets, killing a bunch of elderly people and a little kid. That is crazy.

The point we have been trying to make for the last couple of years is that Republicans need to stop whipping up crazy people with violent political rhetoric. This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are crazy people out there. Stop egging them on.

Right wing media discourse in this country is in the hands of a few, and they can pretty much drive the direction of the current Republican Party.  They have been putting way too much vitriol into the political discourse; their currency is resentment and anger.   It is not surprising then to see resonances of this in the actions of the alienated and insane.   And those responsible for creating that which resonated in these alienated and insane folks should be held accountable.


I saw – god, on Twitter! – the most apt responses to this position I’ve seen yet, from some sociologist in Madison WI, no less: blaming this on insanity is a form of “ableism,” which I take to mean the implicit denigration of those with disabilities. Furthermore, it occludes the fact that violence in America IS a social problem, and, I would also add, a public health problem (obviously Ms Giffords’ health has been greatly compromised by this violence).

It's an interesting conundrum: psychosis and responsibility, but yes, putting this on "insanity" is a compartmentalization that does not do justice  to the reality.

In a time of ugliness, the true protest is beauty - Phil Ochs

U2+ Brusce  Springsteen + Patti Smith

Saturday, January 08, 2011

On the other hand, why the heck not adopt Eastern things?

Via Reverend Fisher's blog I came across this piece in the Guardian announcing that you don't need the "right" kind of zafu to be a Buddhist.  That in turn lead to Fisher's interview with one Miles Neale on "McMindfulness."  The author of the Guardian piece writes:

Unlike many western Buddhists, I don't feel a strong connection with the East. I've never been to India or Tibet, don't get excited about Japanese tea ceremonies, and am usually filled with irritation and embarrassment when fellow westerners greet me by saying "Namaste" or in some other way acting as if they're from Bodhgaya rather than Brent Cross or Bangor. While deeply grateful to the lineages through which Buddhist practices are taking root in the west, my attraction to them is primarily their clear and direct transmission of insights and instructions that speak to me practically, ethically and spiritually. The fact that they came from Asia seems unimportant.
So reading Dzogchen Ponlop's new book Rebel Buddha gave me heart. Ponlop is a well-respected Tibetan teacher, steeped in the cultural heritage of his tradition, and yet his central premise is that western Buddhists risk making fools of themselves if their practice is based on attachment to foreign rituals that were adopted wholesale by spiritual seekers in the 60s. "If the Buddha's teaching is to remain relevant," says Ponlop, "we can't hold on to our hippie-era presentation of it... it is senseless to hang on to the forms of a traditional, Asian Buddhist culture and pretend we can fully inhabit that experience in a meaningful way."
Ponlop notes wryly that he has encountered students who think they can't meditate properly unless they're sitting on precisely the "right" kind of zafu – they moan if asked to go out into the fresh air and practise sitting on a park bench, as if that experience wasn't enlightened enough. If the cause of suffering is fixation, as the second noble truth declares, then that must apply to fixation on Buddhism as much as anything else. It seems the human psyche, with its habitual patterns of grasping, avoidance and delusion, is highly skilled at turning gold into manure...

Ponlop isn't saying that the traditions themselves should be jettisoned, or that westerners can just go ahead and create their own version of Buddhism according to what suits – the danger there is the creation of a hollow shell that reflects spiritual immaturity rather than real understanding (see the recent discussion here on Hinduism and yoga, and the trend towards what Miles Neale has smartly called McMindfulness. Instead Ponlop is pointing us to the use of the meditative method as a way to forge a fresh embodiment of genuine wisdom for our culture and age.

Neale says:

Meditation is undergoing a similar surge of interest, albeit twenty years younger then the yoga boom. Everyone seems to want to learn and practice mindfulness. There are mindfulness workshops everywhere, mindfulness techniques for this condition and mindfulness for that condition, every other book is on mindfulness, and every third therapist wants to study mindfulness and use it with their patients. And like I’ve already said, that’s great—the more mindfulness the better—I stand by it and want to encourage it.
But I also see a kind of compartmentalized, secularized, watered-down version of mindfulness being offered, which I call “McMindfulness” in a forthcoming article of mine. Meditation for the masses, drive-through style, stripped of its essential ingredients, prepackaged and neatly stocked on the shelves of the commercial self-help supermarkets. From my perspective, McMindfulness lacks the integrity of the tradition and lineage from which it originates. My fear is that in wanting to procure meditation from Buddhism and the postures (asana) from yoga, we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
You see the Buddha didn’t just teach mindfulness, and Patanjali didn’t just teach postures. These great, enlightened sages taught the power tools within a psychological context, sandwiched neatly like the cream of an Oreo between ethics and wisdom. You can just have the cream—it’s lovely—but its more delicious as a cookie. People teaching and studying mindfulness these days typically focus exclusively on awareness training—you know, calming down, focusing on the breath, relating to thoughts and emotions with impartiality. This is incredible, and, as the research indicates, it does help to reduce symptoms and offer relief. But what happens when the high of the yoga class ends and the calm of the meditation session is over? You have to go back to the ordinary suffering of your life. Its like leaving your house a mess when you leave for a vacation—sitting on the beach for seven days is great, you feel rejuvenated, but you have to come home to the mess.

Neale is right in that there's more to Buddhism than meditation - much more, and the folks from the East taught that.   He's spot on that "McMindfulness" lacks the integrity of the tradition and lineage from which mindfulness originates.   On the other hand, it's not bad to point out that the tradition evolved as it passed from India to China by way of contact with Taoism.  But I say his point's right in another way: the integrity of the tradition and lineage through which this stuff passed suffers most in the watering down of skill required to put the ethics and other aspects of Buddhism into practice off the cushion.
Then there's the issue of, for want of a better term, globalization, which might, in this case, be the flip side of Orientalism.  There are folks like me that stand between (or among?) West(s) and Easts(s): my wife is Chinese;  many of my colleagues are from Asia; I'm conversant in Japanese (except to the Yakuza).  I train with Eastern and Western folk, both professionally and in the Zendo.  It was through a Japanese master calligrapher that fired my interest in the subject. (This was admittedly, long after exposure to the art at Mount Tremper, where someone asked that I suspend my judgments about whether I could do such things.)

In the course of my very short, very unskilled  practice of 書道 I learned many things can make something go wrong: the orientation of the paper, the layout of the tools for doing the writing, the amount of ink on the brush; in short, there's many variables that have to come together just so in order to have any kind of skilled work result.   If I was to dismiss this whole practice as "too Eastern" for a Long Island kid of Eastern European descent, there's mountains of things I could never begin to learn.
Practice is where you find it.  Maybe some of those folks who buy into "McMindfulness" will find the real deal, just as some of those kids who saw Bruce Lee movies were inspired to train with real martial arts masters.  If my son gets an inkling of the value of disciplined practice from a Jackie Chan movie, I won't complain.  Attachment is a two way street.

I do find it slightly ironic though that Shambhala Sun Space, of all places, is discussing "McMindfulness." If "McMindfulness" will come from anywhere, it might come from "mainstream" "Western Buddhist" media, which to this guy standing in the middle, looks a tad Orientalist to me.

Then again, I was like that once myself.  Japan was the place from where my father went on his business trips.  It was special in the 1960s. So people grow and evolve and change.

Friday, January 07, 2011

FINALLY! I can learn 草書 (そうしょ)

 草書 (そうしょ) (sōsho) or "Grass Script" is the style of calligraphy one often sees in "art" calligraphy.  As Wikipedia explains, folks (like me) with knowledge of how to read and write "standard" kanji might not be able to read 草書. 

On a quick perusal of the book I've acquired  it's clear that the forms  of 草書 I already have some degree of familiarity with based on my knowledge of kana.

But it's going to take some time to learn this, to make a gross understatement.

Exposure to luxury items is found to be related to narcissism

According to these guys:

Harvard professor Roy Y.J Chua and London Business School assistant professor Xi Zou found that people who live luxuriously may be psychologically different than everyone else. 
More specifically, people who drive around in town cars and zip across the country in private jets make selfish decisions that enable them to do so.  They make decisions that best benefit themselves and don't consider others as much. Chua says this could be the reason so many high-paid executives, like those on Wall Street, act irresponsibly.
"People who were made to think about luxury prior to a decision-making task have a higher tendency to endorse self-interested decisions that might potentially harm others," Chua and Zou wrote in their February 2010 paper, "The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making."

Or, in Chua and Zou's words:

This paper demonstrates that mere exposure to luxury goods increases individuals’ propensity to prioritize self-interests over others’ interests, influencing the decisions they make. Experiment 1 found that participants primed with luxury goods were more likely than those primed with non-luxury goods to endorse business decisions that benefit themselves but could potentially harm others. Using a word recognition task, Experiment 2 further demonstrates that exposure to luxury is likely to activate self-interest but not necessarily the
tendency to harm others. Implications of these findings were discussed.

So,  one might wonder why and how folk exposed to the lap of luxury develop compassion, because clearly some do.  It's the whole Buddha narrative you know.  Perhaps exposure to the inevitability of suffering and death is indeed the trigger.  It'd be an interesting follow-up experiment, no? That would be what I would call doing research into the link between Buddhism and human behavior.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

More on that Bem article about "psi" woo and science in general.

The story makes the NY Times.

In recent weeks science bloggers, researchers and assorted skeptics have challenged Dr. Bem’s methods and his statistics, with many critiques digging deep into the arcane but important fine points of crunching numbers. (Others question his intentions. “He’s got a great sense of humor,” said Dr. Hyman, of Oregon. “I wouldn’t rule out that this is an elaborate joke.”)
Dr. Bem has generally responded in kind, sometimes accusing critics of misunderstanding his paper, others times of building a strong bias into their own re-evaluations of his data.
In one sense, it is a historically familiar pattern. For more than a century, researchers have conducted hundreds of tests to detect ESP, telekinesis and other such things, and when such studies have surfaced, skeptics have been quick to shoot holes in them.
But in another way, Dr. Bem is far from typical. He is widely respected for his clear, original thinking in social psychology, and some people familiar with the case say his reputation may have played a role in the paper’s acceptance.

Peer review is usually an anonymous process, with authors and reviewers unknown to one another. But all four reviewers of this paper were social psychologists, and all would have known whose work they were checking and would have been responsive to the way it was reasoned.
Perhaps more important, none were topflight statisticians. “The problem was that this paper was treated like any other,” said an editor at the journal, Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri. “And it wasn’t.”
Many statisticians say that conventional social-science techniques for analyzing data make an assumption that is disingenuous and ultimately self-deceiving: that researchers know nothing about the probability of the so-called null hypothesis.
In this case, the null hypothesis would be that ESP does not exist. Refusing to give that hypothesis weight makes no sense, these experts say; if ESP exists, why aren’t people getting rich by reliably predicting the movement of the stock market or the outcome of football games?
Instead, these statisticians prefer a technique called Bayesian analysis, which seeks to determine whether the outcome of a particular experiment “changes the odds that a hypothesis is true,” in the words of Jeffrey N. Rouder, a psychologist at the University of Missouri who, with Richard D. Morey of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has also submitted a critique of Dr. Bem’s paper to the journal. 
 Recently I have also read a bit of critique on a poorly written article in the New Yorker which points to some valid concerns in science,  but does so in a way that seems to question the scientific method itself.  In particular,  it conflates a bias that researchers might have for unconsciously wanting particular outcomes of experiments with problems with the scientific method itself.  (See here and here for good critiques of the article.)  

It is possible that Bem wanted very much the results he got, perhaps too much.    But I also know that the point of the use of Bayesian analysis might have a point as well (plus there's that infinite energy issue I alluded to earlier).  I will be reading the Rouder and Morey article to determine the extent of their critique of Bem.  As I noted earlier,  the wording of the Bem paper itself was problematic to me; it seemed hard to verify that all possible contributors to the outcome of experiments might not have been isolated. After scanning the critique, though they clearly have a point: Bem's statistical analysis does indeed appear problematic.

Even in science, attachments to outcomes have consequences.  Good science can only be practiced with non-attachment; otherwise one is likely to run into trouble.

Update: I see that Dr. Cassandra Vieten is defending the Bem article.

But I’ll put my cards on the table – given all that I’ve read – scientific studies yielding evidence both for and against, theories for and against, and data from the thousands of people I’ve surveyed and interviewed about their noetic (subjective) and psi experiences, combined with recent discoveries in serious physics that provide possible underlying theories - there are enough data to warrant a much closer look at experiences that seem to transcend the currently understood boundaries of time and space.
I think I agree with what English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington said (in reference to the uncertainty principle in physics) in 1927: “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” And whatever it is, I think like the Facebook relationship status: "it's complicated." My proposition here is that we work to figure out what. Let’s take the lid off of the box and use the power of science, reasoning and systematic observation to explore this realm of our human experience. Why? Because experiences of “psi,” real or imagined, have profound influences on people’s lives. Because it’s possible, in fact quite probable, that our current ideas about the structure and function of reality are probably not complete. And, because it’s totally fascinating – at least to me and, it appears, many others.

It is absolute nonsense a) to claim that recent discoveries in physics provide underlying theories to this stuff, and b) that the Uncertainty Principle is in any way a useful way to appeal to ignorance.  Of course our theories about the physical world are incomplete.  But that doesn't mean any old thing goes; it doesn't mean that there's any increased likelihood that the law of gravity as seen on the scale of human perception is going to be repealed tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It's been a couple of very busy days... AND YES, IT WAS PRACTICE!

I have had an especially busy return to work after my vacation, with an even busier home life at the same time.  So I found it strangely comforting - and helpful - to read the criticism of Brad Warner by that guy Muho from Antaji.   While I don't want to really get into the spat of Warner versus Muho, I did make a comment on Warner's blog post to the effect that 切磋琢磨 (せっさたくま) - being polished by others -  is important.   It is sooo true. 

On the other hand,  I also generally agree with Nathan's response, which says we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that everything we do we can't label practice if we haven't been, you know, practicing.

However, I do have to disagree with both Nathan and Muho a bit. As for Muho, I think he's off the mark when he says:

If you live with a family or work with others, that is also practice, but if those that you live and work with do not share the perspective that the whole day is practice, it will be very difficult to uphold your practice during the 24 hours of the day.

And with Nathan's response:

However, the way Muho's statement seems off to me is in its assumptions about the external environment people live in, and how that might affect practice and insight. 
 The reason I disagree with both  of them has to do with the past few days I've had: absurd business and stress corresponding to various getting back to the routine. In such a time the only sane response is practice, mindfulness, compassion, graciousness and humility.   There simply has not been time for anything else.  And yes, others karma does inter-relate and affect my experience. I'm not dead.

Has my practice been perfect? Definitely it has been pitiful.  But there is no alternative but to keep trying.

It's a bit like the enso I did here (right below this post). Does it compare well with any great master's enso? No, it's garbage by comparision.  But it's a sincere effort on my part, and if you think it's trivial to do it, I invite you to try to do it.  To do the practice sometimes you have to do the practice where you find yourself, with the level of skill and ability you have at the time. 

 It also reflects the environment in which I created the enso; so it is with the other beings around us.  Muho might say, "Oh, it's difficult to work with people who are not consciously praticing," but to me that sounds almost patronizing; he's not living the life where one is stuck in THIS bag of skin.

I have more polishing to do. Others will polish me. They might not have the advantage of being declared Buddhists, but this is the life in which we are together.  It's time to get through the day.