Taleb established that the silver rule is more ethical than the golden rule, i.e.
“do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” rather than
“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
I think it is rather obvious that avoiding injustice is more robust than trying to pursue justice because not even the most well-intentioned and intelligent know what harm they could do as an n-th order consequence of their pursuits.
In opinion, it’s for the same reason why doctors try to do no harm rather than to make people healthy.
“Pseudoleftist caviar eaters”
Taleb has been on Twitter a lot, and by god, he didn’t just take the red pill, he took the whole box. He used the terms “social justice warrior”, “white knight”, etc to talk about people who signal their generosity of spirit without being exposed to the consequences of that which they advocate. Next, he will be on Alex Jones.
He implied that the very prominence of Bernie Sanders is a testament to how unequal the Unites States became under the preceding presidency. He also brought up some jaw-dropping statistics about the dynamics of (in)equality: a large portion of the US population will be among the richest at some point in their lives, unlike in Europe where, if you are rich, you’ve been rich since the middle ages.
Taleb exposed a very interesting feature of atheism while calling it a “monotheistic religion”. I think what he was getting at is that pagan religions are inherently pluralist. There is a kind of competition between the gods, whereas monotheistic religions involve an absolute as, one could argue, does atheism (but not agnosticism).
Taleb spoke about not being comfortable to get naturalised in France, as he was entitled, as he wasn’t part of the culture (but would have been on with a Greek or Cypriot passport). He admitted to wanting to accept the honorary degree from a Lebanese university as an exception.
He backed the United States’ policy of making its citizens pay tax on all their income obtained elsewhere, to the United States. He endorsed a certain amount of protectionism.
This is a stark change from his stance in the now 11 year old The Black Swan.
He spoke once again about the benefits of decentralisation, the damage caused by regulation, etc. He mentioned the paradox of tolerating intolerance under a democratic system, but, in my view, didn’t address it properly.
He compared entrepreneurs to wolves and employees to dogs and argued that freedom always involves risk.
In a strange, conflicted way, he portrayed autocrats as entrepreneurs: it is easier to deal with a business owner (autocrat) than an employee (elected representative held accountable by committees and the media) when trying to make a deal.
Genetics vs language
Taleb argues that when it comes to language, the one that suits the most intransigent group and doesn’t inconvenience the majority becomes the lingua franca. Another example of this process is that a lot of schools don’t allow peanuts, or why commonly available juice is being labeled as kosher. He calls this the minority rule.
His argument about genetics is the opposite, the majority rule, as in the genetics of certain populations remain the same despite invasions.
I am not so sure he is right because what you find studying non-autosomal genetics (Y chromosomes and mitochondria) is that a version of the minority rule applies. It’s the same mechanism as why surnames die out and in theory, as time goes to infinity, we will all end up with the same surname.
Does Taleb have skin in the game?
Taleb denounces as charlatans the people who give advice without being held accountable for it. He feels that a life coach can only teach you to be a life coach and a professor can only teach you to be a professor. Does it follow that Taleb can only impart the knowledge on how to be a contrarian writer?
What skin does he have in the game? Reputation? Family? So do politicians, who he argues aren’t exposed to the consequences of their actions. He has long left his area of risk management and moved on to cultural, political and economic issues. I guess he is a successful practitioner of risk, a man who lived an interesting life and an erudite. He doesn’t impose his policies and regulations onto people. He does seem to have soul in the game as there appears to be consistency and integrity in his writing. It seems that he is doing it for posterity. Through his f*** you money, as he calls it, I think he has to an extent isolated his skin from the game. He seems to think this is freedom.
The whole concept of wishing things for the New Year and resolving yourself to live differently once the clock strikes 12 is rather mystical, if not religious.
A lot of people, of course, have given up on New Year’s resolutions.
Year End Resolutions. Last year I only made 3 resolutions: 1) Visit Malta 2) Start learning Hindi/Sanscrit 3) Do not step once into New Jersey I failed on all 3. I did a lot a lot of things but failed on the resolution. So no resolutions for 2018.
For many Russians, it is a much much bigger deal that Christmas, for obvious reasons.
Initially, the Soviets tried to replace Christmas with a more appropriate komsomol (youth communist league) related holiday, but, shockingly, this did not take. And by 1928 they had banned Christmas entirely, and Dec. 25 was a normal working day.
Then, in 1935, Josef Stalin decided, between the great famine and the Great Terror, to return a celebratory tree to Soviet children. But Soviet leaders linked the tree not to religious Christmas celebrations, but to a secular new year, which, future-oriented as it was, matched up nicely with Soviet ideology.
…The blue, seven-pointed star that sat atop the imperial trees was replaced with a red, five-pointed star, like the one on Soviet insignia. It became a civic, celebratory holiday, one that was ritually emphasized by the ticking of the clock, champagne, the hymn of the Soviet Union, the exchange of gifts, and big parties. Source
For the New Years celebrations, most Russians will clean their house like their hosting judgment day. They will cook up so much food as if it’s their last meal on this earth. They will call their frenemies as if they are making peace before they die…
I still think that there is no such thing as a truly non-religious mindset. A religion will creep in, whether you call it a religion or not. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, at all.
You’re about to open results of psychological tests comparing atheists and agnostics. What do you expect to find?
I wonder if agnostics are more conflict averse, better at abstract thinking and have a sense of humour.
Also, how do atheists who have children deal with the concept of Santa? Santa is a real world conspiracy theory – and possibly a much more pagan one than a Christian one. I imagine that there has to be a “herd immunity” for the concept of Santa to survive in creches and primary schools. Do religious parents arrive at the door step of atheists and be like, stop your child from spreading heresy!..
P.S. It is snowing in Ireland. I was in the Midlands today and it’s a Winter Wonderland.
Continuing the discussion of ideologies that silently grow into our lives and take hold, I will admit to my own.
I was brought up in a culture where education was the centre piece of the altar. I think this is still the case for a lot of people. In theory, education is the answer to a lot of problems, but difficulties come to the fore when you realise that there is big difference between education and formal education. I suppose the difference is analogous to the difference between morality and organised religion. Even when you go to educate yourself, the authority-loving methods learnt during formal education betray us. It took me a long time to start reading books without looking for ready-made answers to life’s problems.
When I got a little older, I went on a major health kick, only to realise that humans did not evolve to be orthorexic with a regular HIIT exercise schedule. I rejoice at articles like this.
In my late twenties, my ideological difficulties centre around the subjects of family and meaningful work. Family has always been a confusing subject for me. I think that families are fascinatingly different. Second wave feminism was going strong as well when I was a child and I am sure it affected me. I was recently reading a memoir of a woman who lived in the Ukraine during the October Revolution. It seemed that nothing really mattered to her so long as she had her family. I also read a lot of essays by secondary school (high school) students and interestingly the film Juno is on the curriculum. Most students conclude that your friends are your real family, not your biological relatives – and not just from Juno, but in their personal essays as well. Is that just a sign of the times?
One thing I learnt is that it’s dangerous to become too focused on just one aspect of life, even if it is the most virtuous thing you can think of.
Anyway, I am more interested in hearing about ideologies that you lived through and debunked.
I’ve recently attended a Catholic funeral. At one stage the priest said that the deceased wasn’t really dead. That was the point at which my suspension of disbelief painfully broke down.
I have respect for both religious people and atheists. The likes of Ricky Gervais with their cutting comments aimed at the religious folk are really cutting at people’s refusal to think critically, not their faith.
Your God is the best God.
In fact, he’s the only God.
All other Gods are ridiculous, made up rubbish.
Not yours though. Yours is real.
If it were any other way, there would be no such thing as fanatical atheists. Or reasonable religious people. Most of all I think that people who claim that they are atheist do have a religion, they just don’t call it a religion.
Some have turned to science. Science has the answers, they say. Not really. Science is all about questions. “But science has proven…” Science has never proven anything. It has only ever said that within this narrow range of values and under these ten unrealistic assumptions, a relationship between two variables doesn’t break down. That’s science.
And don’t get me started on social science. Anyone who has handled data and statistical packages will know how to ask the right questions to get the right answers. That too is called science these days.
Then there is yoga, fitness, self-help, vitamins and mindfulness and all that other stuff that is basically a pagan pantheon in the context of weakened organised religion. Its importance ebbs and flows and whenever it’s not doing well, people find new unofficial deities. These things answer the same need that religion does: what to do when you don’t know what to do.
I’ve yet to meet a person who has the tolerance of uncertainty strong enough to not have a religion, whether it is officially called one or not.
David Foster Wallace comes to mind yet again:
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
P.S. I am aware that many of my readers aren’t Irish, so for anyone who has even a remote interest in Ireland/ rural life/ religion/ comedy, you need to watch a few Father Ted episodes. Daily Motion seems to have all of them.
The Russians have a law against offending the feelings of religious followers.
It came up again today because a magazine did a (somewhat) explicit photoshoot in a church they considered abandoned:
It turns out the church wasn’t entirely abandoned and was occasionally used. This may result in a court case against the model/photographer/publication involved: not because they perpetrated land belonging to the church, but because they offended people’s religious beliefs.
A man recently received a suspended sentence for catching Pokemon in another church for this reason.
Is the fact that the Russians want to protect the religious any different to the snowflakery millennials are getting accused of?
In West it is kind of the opposite, but the same principle applies. We’re most worried about offending those who fight for more modern things, e.g. non-traditional genders.
It’s a past time of mine to observe the parallels between two places that most people consider as different as night and day. And it allows me to ask: why is there such a global cross-cultural tendency to protect the feelings of minorities through law?
In a recent case, a woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because of what she said. Of course, her words were evil. It was emotional abuse taken to the limit.
But can words really be equated to violence?
I think that this would only encourage physical violence by closing a steam valve. It makes little of victims of real violence. There’s something wrong with putting genuinely violent people in the same category with someone who likes to rant.
Incitement to hatred? Obviously it would be ideal if we all agreed and lived in peace and love. But assuming that we’re not moving to a utopia any time soon, isn’t it better to allow people to peacefully rant and speak freely than to encourage them to band into groups and get violent against the establishment which is what we achieve by marginalising them? In fact, ranters of a denomination could verbally spar with other types of ranters. Might it even be a healthy debate?
Perhaps non-violent hating is like a small forest fire:
“Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.” – Nassim Taleb. Antifragile : things that gain from disorder.
Similarly, marginalising the “haters” just leads to real violence.
Having said that, I can relate. I have often felt like I needed trigger warnings. I get very upset at certain images in films and documentaries. But I would never feel that someone owes it to me to prevent me from them: if I made a choice to watch a film, that’s just part of the consequences. Being honest, I don’t watch that many films for this precise reason.
Virtually every book or film I process results in an overwhelming spillage of thoughts and emotions (hence, this blog). In fact, I am still haunted by a number of books I read.
When I was in school, we were always given a book list for the summer. Part of me wishes I’d never read Three Comradesand The Collector. Part of me is enraged that there wasn’t a trigger warning on those books. But by reading these books I learnt what I do and don’t like – and why.
But let’s just imagine that words aren’t violence and flip the question: should it be a crime to offend people’s feelings?
P. S. I am meant to be working on Philip Larkin‘s poetry, but I’m not a fan, hence, all this 🙂
I have to be honest: my interest in mindfulness started off, and still is, almost completely secular. I do not aspire to awakening and all those other big things that spiritual teachers preach (market). For me, it is more about resting the brain so as to allow it to function at its peak. This may sound cold and clinical, but all it is really is that I don’t have massive expectations.
All the same, I figured that if I am to get good at mindfulness, I need to explore it properly. The language used to explain mindfulness: non-attachment, non-judgement, acceptance – seemed very confusing to me. Confusing to the point of seeming to defy basic human nature.
The best way I can phrase it now is that the practice of mindfulness requires us to treat thoughts and emotions as if we are just watching them.
But it did beg the question: how do you make sense of acceptance and non-judgement? How does that gel with constant resistance and overpowering ourselves that we are all so familiar with? How, and why, do we set and strive for goals if we are meant to be just accepting? I did wonder if there is a certain nihilism to the teachings behind mindfulness.
So who better to ask than Professor Nietzsche, nihilism-connoisseur in chief?
Nietzsche misunderstood the concepts of Buddhism by mistaking interdependence for emptiness, probably due to lack of context and good translations
He defined Buddhism as a “true-world theory”, meaning that Buddhism claims there is another, superior form of existence (Buddho, Nirvana, etc) and that inherently defies the value of our common, normal, unawakened life, hence it is nihilistic
Despite Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, his own philosophy is, in places, remarkably similar to it.
Nihilism? Decadence? Will to power? Superman? True World? Eternal Recurrence? Nietzsche was a complex guy. Read this to learn more about how his ideas stood in comparison to those commonly put forward by Buddhist traditions.
I am mesmerised by the robust evidence for the neurological, biochemical and behavioural benefits of mindfulness. I am working hard to figure out the philosophy behind it, that seems very foreign to me with its “acceptance” and “emptiness”.
For this I interviewed Bob Stahl, PhD. He is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher with over 25 years of experience. His PhD is in philosophy and religion. How exciting is that?! Bob sheds light on some of the philosophical conundrums of mindfulness that have preoccupied me here. He knows what he’s talking about, having founded 7 mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in medical centres in California and having written a number of books on mindfulness. In addition, Bob runs insight meditation and convergence retreats too. Clearly, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to him. [If, for whatever reason, you’re wondering, this is not a sponsored post.]
You are an expert at mindfulness-based stress reduction. How has it evolved since its inception by Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn?
I began teaching in 1991, a bit before the big wave of interest in mindfulness that predominantly sparked by Bill Moyer’s series Healing and the Mindand Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. The mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme hasn’t really changed much over the years. The core principles remain. The training of the mindfulness teachers has grown and advanced tremendously, however.
MBSR is secular. Do you think this is more of a benefit or a hindrance to most people starting it?
MBSR is sacred rather than secular. The sole purpose of MBSR is to alleviate suffering.
MBSR is not religious, but it is spiritual.
Secular implies a cold kind of separation. Having said that, MBSR can be delivered in a hospital, which is obviously non-sectarian and open to people of different religious traditions and views. It is indeed not associated with any one organised religion, but it has many underpinnings that MBSR. There are the teachings in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. There are also the underpinnings of the wisdom traditions of non-duality, stress physiology, neuroscience and group experiential education. The underpinnings come from the wisdom found cross-culturally.
MBSR was designed to help with specific issues. What are the most common problems that people come to you with?
There are 3 main interrelated categories: stress, physical pain and illness. This can be related to a chronic or terminal disease, stress at work, or a desire to improve one’s wellbeing.
You teach mindfulness to physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. What are some of the main challenges and lessons in mindfulness for this group?
First of all, they are not immune to the human condition that includes ageing, illness, death and separation.
Compassion fatigue, processing the pain of those whom they serve, burnout, anxiety, addiction, depression and insomnia are the most specific problem that affect the people belonging to healthcare professions.
There is strong culture of success in our world. We spend our lives striving for accomplishment in a goal-directed manner. It is quite counterintuitive, if not scary, for a person conditioned like this to engage in a practice of non-striving, non-reactivity, non-attachment and non-judgment. “If I stop striving, will I still be able to accomplish?” Could you comment on this apparent contradiction?
Mindfulness often gets confused with non-striving, non-attachment and non-judgment. People think they are not supposed to feel or have those feelings – and this is actually a misnomer that causes confusion.
Mindfulness is about being present and aware of what’s actually happening and acknowledging it. It is best to leave out words like “without attachment or striving” because many people actually discover how filled they are those feelings.
Could this confusion be arising from our interpretation of Buddhism?
I’ve been a student of Buddhism for many years and lived in a Buddhist monastery for over 8 years. The word for mindfulness is sati.
There’s nothing in the definition that talks about being non-judgmental or non-striving. It’s all about being present, being aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Perhaps, we could say though that non-striving and non-attachment are attitudes that can be brought into mindfulness practice that serve to help us to see more clearly where we are stuck with either grasping or aversion. Let us remember that the sole goal of the mindfulness practice is freedom.
What is the most common misconception about MBSR?
I am very excited about the exponential growth of mindfulness. As with all things that are popular, there are some fads. There is some commercialisation of mindfulness.
There’s also confusion between mindfulness and positive thinking: “You’re saying negative things, you’re not being mindful.” We should be mindful of rage, sadness, anger and fear. That’s just part of the practice. Mindfulness does not mean being positive. It means being aware, present and acknowledge it.
There’s also another apparent contradiction.
Mindfulness is both very personal and completely impersonal.
On one level, mindfulness is incredibly personal. We are really getting into our loves, joys, fears, hates, etc.
We cannot psychologically or spiritually bypass our personality.
Our personality is what we need to work with to grow. We need to understand where it is that we get caught and cannot see clearly, what stories do we tell ourselves, etc. It is incredibly personal. On the other hand, mindfulness is incredibly impersonal. The body is doing its thing, it doesn’t ask us. Mind states come and go out. Whose mind is it anyway?
In Buddhist psychology, there are 6 sense organs: the mind is the sixth.
What does it do? It experiences thoughts and emotions. Just like the nose experiences smells and the ears experience sounds, the mind experiences thoughts and feelings.
In your experience, are there any therapies that MBSR is most synergistic with?
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy was developed out of MBSR. It has been shown to be very effective, especially in treating relapses of depression. Furthermore, a variety of programmes, such as mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting, were developed based on mindfulness.
What stops most people from practicing mindfulness every day, given that it can time as little as a few minutes a day?
This is something that comes up a lot. We encourage people to sit with the resistance: what’s there? It could be a number of things. We have such a longing to feel good, but doing preventative things requires a deep commitment.
If you’re really committed to knowing the truth about where you’re stuck, practice becomes a way of life.
Your whole orientation turns towards freedom. It helps people to get inspired.
Sitting and meditating isn’t as important as whether you’re aware of what’s going on inside you, is it coming from some old conditioning, etc.
Could you explain what is involved in a mindfulness retreat?
Retreats are very important.
How can we be with others if we haven’t been with ourselves?
A silent retreat is the time to dive deep into our own life, our own story, where we’re holding on and where we’re pushing away. Retreats can be in the insight meditation tradition, Zen tradition or Tibetan tradition. In the insight tradition, we teach the four foundations of mindfulness, the three marks of existence, the four noble truths.
MBSR stemmed from a retreat. Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea while on an insight meditation retreat. He left the meditation centre, applied to start a programme – and the rest is history.
I do a lot of retreats on how Dharma informs mindfulness-based approaches. Many people entering into mindfulness don’t have a lot of experience with meditation. We help people to have the experience of the practice and to understand what informs mindfulness approaches.
You sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes, sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes… It starts at 6 in the morning and stops at 9 at night. Instruction is given once a day to clarify the teaching. There’s usually a talk in the evening to help guide the meditations. It’s a progression through the four foundation of mindfulness. We also offer group and individual practice discussions to check in with the students.
Bob suggested that I go on a retreat. I am very tempted. He travels all over the world, though he is usually found in sunny California. You can find out more about his centre here.
On my quest to figure out the philosophy behind mindfulness, something that I came to be interested in through a neuroscience/psychiatry angle, I came across an intriguing presence here among the philosophically inclined bloggers: Nguyên Giác. It is my pleasure to share his views on some difficult questions that have been on my mind. As this topic concerns religion, some readers may get sensitive. Please remember Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Enter Steven.. (I try to stay silent for most of it, but alas…)
Who am I?
I’m Steven J Barker Jr., or Nguyên Giác. I share my insights at gnotruth.com. I’m always reluctant to put forward any view, but for the sake of the people like me who benefit from the formless teachings, I type words and share them on the internet. For the sake of people like me, who have been burned by modern Christian dogma, I share alternative early Christian views. For the sake of the little ones arising in this Saha Realm, I gently shine my light so that others may see.
Not forcing any particular view, but smashing all views with Nietzsche’s hammer – I am that kind of philosopher. The anti-philosopher.
A journey through religion towards mindfulness
I was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing when I was 12. My mom saw that I was struggling with big questions. She bought me a book: “Living Buddha, Living Christ”. I had already become quite absorbed in Christian thinking, but it was starting to bring huge conflict as my intellect was developing and Christian theology makes n0 sense. It is anti-intellectual.
Thich Nhat Hanh introduced me to a new way of thinking about the teaching of Jesus. He helped me to understand my own spiritual tradition. Understanding my own spiritual tradition, I also began to understand the words of Buddha. As a child, I began to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life.
I began to understand that mundane daily lifeis the chess board – it’s the actual playing field – the meditation cushion is nice, but, eventually, we have to actually stand up and face the real world.
I am Buddhist. I am engaged in the practice of continual mindfulness. In Christian terms, this practice can be called ‘walking in the Kingdom as a Child’. Before I start rambling, I want to share this beautiful description of Mindfulness by Sadasiva Saccidananda (my Dhamma friend and internet ally):
Simple practice of mindfulness, awareness of anything external or internal passing before your mind-camera, culminates in awareness of awareness itself. Naturally you shall rest in the common factor of all observations: awareness itself and seeing all as awareness, as mind in mind.
Seeing all things as equal data, even your “ego” as another observable actor among others, leads to equality & equanimity.
A mindful Jesus and a non-religious Buddha
A Buddhist is one who works toward Buddho. Buddho is unfiltered, explosive and serene awareness. Awakeness. Enlightenment. A Buddhist is one who practices mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to equate mindfulness with the Holy Spirit.
In another of my spiritual traditions. the teachings of Yeshua, or “Christianity”, this energy or experience is called Gnosis. Perfect Gnosis is Buddho. This might sound far flung, wild and/or weird, but the path to PrajnaParamita (perfection of wisdom) is as simple as following one’s own breath.
If your leaders tell you, “Look, the kingdom is in heaven,”
then the birds of heaven will precede you.
If they say to you, “It’s in the sea,”
then the fish will precede you.
But the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known,
and you will understand that you are children of the living One.
But if you do not know yourselves,
then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.
The above quote, from a text which is as “authentic” as any in the New Testament, has Jesus telling us to ignore televangelists with their promises of heaven.
Instead, we find him encouraging us to practice mindfulness. The simple process of Gnoing ourselves is healing: this is mindfulness.
And, this rebellious Jesus, where did he come from!? Well, obviously, the early Church wouldn’t have survived into the present if it had openly rebuked its own leaders and encouraged people on their own spiritual journey instead of conforming to its dogma. The Gospel of Thomas’ position was thoroughly attacked by the author of the Gospel of John (check out the work of Elaine Pagels). Sadly, today’s Church is founded on the belief that Jesus is totally unique – the only son of God – this is John’s position.
John abhorred Thomas’ message that we are all children and the kingdom is already here.
Gospel of Thomas, 108:
Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.
As you can tell, I’m not very stoked on John’s message. And, I am very stoked on Thomas’ (Thomas means “twin”). I understand the message.
I could try to outline the process; I could try to describe the mind’s journey from ignorance and suffering to awareness, understanding and love – but this has already been done before me. There are many, many maps already – the problem is not that there aren’t enough maps, the problem is that the territory is real, alive, and changing. Old maps quickly become useless.
The ancient “map-makers” of the territory of the mind are not at fault for our foolish clinging to dead doctrine. The fault is ours.
With our fear, greed, laziness, addiction and delusion we have developed all sorts of wrong views that propagate through the mind system and create the painful errors of war, famine, disease, etc.
Gospel of Thomas, 52:
His [Yeshua’s] students said to him,
Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel
and they all spoke of you.
He said to them,
You have disregarded the living one among you
and have spoken of the dead.
There must be a way forward that honors the past, but also releases its grip upon our minds. We would all do well to learn to ‘philosophise with hammers’.
History of religion: a case of oversimplifying the (very) complex
History is a nice and tidy story.
History is, necessarily, always an oversimplification.
We don’t have the capacity to know this present moment in totality, so how can we hope to know the twists and turns of ephemeral ideas through rough and bloody history? I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for historical accuracy. I’m saying we should always be skeptical of this or that narrative.
The Christian church’s “history” has been revealed to be a fabrication.
The idea that Early Christianity was one cohesive movement has been thoroughly discredited and replaced with the understanding that it was a very diverse movement with many ideas about who Jesus was and why he was important.
The same must be true about Buddhism. The West has a nice story about it’s development, but that story is just a nice summary that is most likely missing some huge pieces. I read a passage from the Encyclopedia of Religion (article by Frank Reynolds and Charles Hallisey) the other day. It boggled my mind for a bit:
“The concept of Buddhism was created about three centuries ago to identify what we now know to be a pan-Asian religious tradition that dates back some twenty-five hundred years. Although the concept, rather recent and European in origin, had gradually, if sometimes begrudgingly, received global acceptance, there is still no consensus about its definition.”
“Buddhism” is, in many ways, a European idea! Interacting with the actual cultures that practice Buddhism, you quickly find that their practice is not what you expected- it is not what you read about. Sure, there are lots of familiar things that we Europeans have accurately portrayed, but the pulsing reality of Buddhism in practice is always different from anyexplanation of it. It is the practice that goes beyond, beyond all thought, beyond all concepts – this practice simply cannot be made into a system. All such systems are merely hindrances.
In short, Buddhism’s history is complex and frequently oversimplified.
In the West, we have this idea of a singular Buddhism that puts forth one coherent message. However, in truth, there are many Buddhist schools and traditions with various stances on all sorts of weird issues.
This is why I have to stand back and redefine my Buddhism. I chase Buddho. I chase Gnosis. Wherever it arises, with whatever name, wearing whatever clothing – I chase Buddha. The big Buddha. The ineffable Buddha.
At the same time, I don’t want to disrespect the religious traditions that have nurtured my growth. I’ve benefited from the support of a Vietnamese Buddhist community. Taking the five precepts, becoming an “official lay Buddhist”, I received the name “Nguyên Giác”. It means something like, “awakened source” or “source of awakening”. If you like labels, you could say that I practice a mixture of Zen, Pureland and Yeshua Buddhism.
I was not raised in a “religious household”, but for whatever reason, even in my earliest memories, “religious” issues have always been extremely important to me. I did attend a Lutheran Church when I was young. I’ve read the Bible many times over and have dug through all sorts of academic papers that analyse the larger cultural context of early Christianity. I’ve spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the texts that arose over the course of Christianity’s evolution. It has been fun and challenging. As a child of the West, the figure of Jesus has played a huge role in my development. Jesus has been with me – as both irritant and as comforter.
Gospel of Thomas:
Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled,
you will marvel and rule over all.
Marvelling is a wonderful practice. I think marvelling could be classified as a type of mindfulness meditation.
There have been experiences that have revealed ‘deep’ things that are difficult to put into words. Putting words to these types of experiences, if not done with extreme care, can be harmful to oneself and to those who hear. So, instead of pointing at the goal of supreme Gnosis, I try to point at the path of mindfulness. It is something everyone can see and touch. The biggest truths cannot be conveyed with words: mind-to-mind is the only way. Set on the path of marvelling, an individual will find their own way by following beacons of joy.
Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they […] simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish.
What is nihilism?
Nihilism is a confusing term. It can mean rejection of societal norms (political nihilism). This is not what I am going to discuss here.
I will talk about Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: the radical rejection of value, meaning* and desirability.
I think this communicates the most important concepts. Of course, there are more specific definitions, so I will get them out of the way here. There is moral nihilism that says that there is no right and wrong. Epistomological nihilism says there is no universal truth or meaning. Existential nihilism rejects meaning in life.
Stoicism vs nihilism
Stoicism is really en vogue these days. Seneca’s writings have grabbed my attention early last year and haven’t really let go. First, his Moral Letters are incredibly easy to read – compared to most undigested original philosophical texts (e.g. A. Schopenhauer). Second, they make one feel good, a bit like after watching Pulp Fiction. I was starting to wonder – what’s the catch? My “too good to be true” radar was going off.
Here’s a short summary of Seneca’s views:
life is set in circumstances that we’ve no control over;
it is possible to get through life by working on our response – not on the circumstances;
there is no need to fear death because
it is just like the blissful nothingness that came before we were born;
it would, so to speak, “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”;
we didn’t earn life – it was given to us by circumstance. Hence, we cannot expect to hang on to it.
This doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it is quite resonant with the ultimate optimist Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and more or less the basis of modern day talking therapies like CBT and REBT.However, Seneca is quite pessimistic. Having re-read his letters a number of times, I picture him as a man who barely endured his life.
Any modern psychiatrist would say Seneca had a passive death wish.
It’s also interesting to remember that he was one of the wealthiest people of all time. Here’s a telling quotation from Letter 65:
“The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.”
Nietzsche famously pointed out that Christianity is nihilistic in the sense that it is denying the value of one’s current existence and instead placing it on a dream of a better afterlife.
By that same logic, Seneca too seems nihilistic. One might argue that in the context of Seneca thinking of death – it is kind of hopeful.
Nonetheless, Seneca belittles the value of the current life, encourages escapism and hope for, essentially, life in heaven after death.
At the same time, Seneca repeats that we have limited time on Earth and we better use it wisely. Just like Christianity, this philosophy appealed to all strata in society. Using either philosophy, anyone could be a hero by thinking themselves so. In a sense, one is less responsible for their actions as this world doesn’t really matter. Certainly, making the right choices matters – as it will be assessed for the purposes of a heaven vs hell decision, but it presents life as something that happens to a person – and the person has little agency. Having said that, much of what Seneca demands of Lucilius could safely be called overcoming-oneself, a cardinal virtue according to Nietzsche.
Meaning by school of thought
Unbound by any aspiration to philosophical scholarship, I have taken the liberty of making these one liners on how different schools/philosophers viewed meaning:
Stoics: there is meaning, it is to be wise and kind;
Schopenhauer: there is meaning; awareness of suffering and death create the need for meaning;
Buddhists: there is meaning, but it is ambiguous;
Hinduism: there is meaning; it is to shed the illusion and realise the unity of the universe;
Christianity: there is meaning; the meaning is to live so as to attain entry into a superior world;
Nietzsche: there is meaning; meaningful suffering is sought after, meaningless suffering is a curse – more on this later;
Nihilists: there is no meaning.
A nihilist’s escape routes
Being a bone fide nihilist is intolerable: there’s nothing to wish for, nothing makes a difference – like the tribes that encountered Western culture described by E. Becker in the epigraph, one may as well lie down and die. It’s a state fundamentally indistinguishable from severe and enduring depression.
Those who proclaim they are nihilistic and still go on about their lives as if nothing’s wrong are probably hedonistic, or have some kind of meaning they simply don’t call meaning. Or, they are like Anony Mole who appears to think that meaning is a psychological hack to staying motivated to live on, but ultimately hypothesising that there is no meaning at all.
For someone who doesn’t see meaning in life there’s another option, however. It is to defer meaning to one’s next life. In this sense, Christianity is a form of escapism away from nihilism.
In Christianity, the purpose of life is to live one’s current life in a certain way and attain entry into an alternate, “real and true” world – heaven. At first glance, it would seem that Nietzsche is overreacting by accusing Christianity of being nihilist. Christianity is full of ways that make this life meaningful. On closer reflection, the motivation behind acting according to the tenets of Christianity is that someone, from a place that we all really belong in, said that it is the right thing to do. This life is only a smoke and mirrors version of the blissful life in heaven. Nietzsche rejected true world theories as nonsense. He demonstrated that it was an assumption of his – and ultimately unknowable. Richard Dawkins says it’s intellectual cowardice to not come down on one side or the other. I think it is intellectual cowardice to not admit that there are certain things that we just don’t have a way of knowing.
Despite his rejection of true world theories, Nietzsche understood that they are the fabric that holds people’s lives together.
Of course, there are many more true world theories than Christianity, but it is the one that dominates the Wester world today. For example, Marxism is a true world theory – yearning for a future utopia. Nietzsche also argued that a Christian heaven helps the human sense of self: it is kind of validating to know that, really, one belongs in a special true world – not here.
Pema Chodron wrote about the psychology of our need for such a world in an accessible way. [There’s a funny story to go with that. I was sitting on the beach right after reading Chodron, reflecting on the ways in which we’re conditioned to want a fatherly God. An elderly man approached me and wondered if I was OK – I guess I must have looked distraught. It’s rather unusual for a man in his 80s to approach a random person on a beach, so I was wondering what’s going on. He didn’t say much, just asked again if I was ok and if I like reading. He reached to hand me a brochure – looking directly at me – and said only this one thing: “Oh, and there is a God”. I thanked him, mind-boggled. After he walked away, I looked at the brochure – turns out he was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn’t know they mind read.]
Besides turning to true world theories, there is another way to avert the pain of nihilism.
Science slowly becomes scientism and provides explanations for things it can and cannot explain. Following a political movement gives a sense of belonging. Our culture is a kaleidoscope of options for all tastes.
Searching for meaning is nihilistic
Nietzsche argued that asking the question “What is the meaning of life” and demanding an external answer by some superhuman authority diminished the value of the person asking – as if it comes from a lack one’s faith in their own ability to figure it out.
Nietzsche argued that nihilism arises when people get disillusioned with their default set of beliefs – let’s say beliefs that are inherent in one’s cultures – and take this disillusionment to more generally mean that no beliefs could ever be satisfactory.
This view of nihilism is once again almost indistinguishable from depression. Nietzsche expressed it best here:
“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.”
Prof. Nietzsche’s meaning of life
So what did Nietzsche himself think the meaning of life was? It was to realise one’s inner potential.
Nietzsche believed in radical responsibility: it is only ourselves who we have to blame if we miss our life’s calling.
To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”. Fear and laziness are our ultimate enemies. Incidentally, this sounds like it is straight out of Seneca’s writings. Nietzsche claimed there was a higher self, a kind of will that dragged us to become who we are. To me this is terribly reminiscent of a true world theory albeit one confined to the self and to this life. His method was through setting difficult goals pursuing which elevates the soul. Congruent with the traditions of Buddhism, Nietzsche argued that suffering isn’t inherently bad – and one doesn’t need to immediately try and fix it or worse, distract oneself away from it. It is an opportunity for growth and wisdom, according to Nietzsche.
I guess it comes down to awareness, adaptability and agency again. This whole piece makes me sound like a Nietzsche fan girl. In a sense, it’s true, but he was a bit too anti-social, self-contradicting and melancholic for my liking. I will put that in more analytical terms at a later stage.
*[To be clear, we’re talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it, or a projection thereof. This is one of the reasons humans are so naturally self-centred. David Foster Wallace describes it well here. As seen above, none of the major philosophies really even try to answer what the ultimate meaning of the universe is. This is probably because the question isn’t asked very often. This author is more interested in the tangible psychology of it – than the unknowable philosophy].