Human beings live in ideas

From Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora:

Human beings live in ideas. That they were condemning their descendants to death and extinction did not occur to them, or if it did they repressed the thought, ignored it, and forged on anyway. They did not care as much about their descendants as they did about their ideas, their enthusiasms.

Is this narcissism? Solipsism? Idiocy (from the Greek word idios, for self)? Would Turing acknowledge it as a proof of human behavior?

Well, perhaps. They drove Turing to suicide too.

Depressing, perhaps, but also useful to reflect on the ills of clinging to self and its ideations. And context is important, as is the identity of the speaker, but I won’t ruin it for you.

I like the part about “from the Greek word idios.” Wiktionary says, ‘(ídios, “one’s own, pertaining to oneself, private”); ἰδιώτης (idiṓtēs) was used derisively in ancient Athens to refer to one who declined to take part in public life’—which is also an interesting/amusing connection…

What Is Happiness? Is It Important?

As I’m reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, I’m struck by two things:

  1. I’m not a fan of his writing style. Something about his “voice” is too stiltedly adamant in that way I find common in the writings of staunch atheists (and staunch libertarians!) It is the voice of over-confident, somewhat blinkered white male privilege. I’ve embodied it myself at times and I probably will continue to, but it grates me.
  2. Happiness is a weak concept.

This post is about #2, but #1 plays a part.

The book, so far, is interesting, but not the effort I was hoping it would be. I haven’t read anything by Harris before, but a friend tells me he’s a divisive capital-A Atheist who angers some people. I’m not surprised. Unfortunately I was hoping for an intelligent, cleanly written discussion of what spirituality even is in the first place, what it can mean to agnostics and atheists, and the utility of it for “everyday people.” So far, it is not that book (though I must admit, I’m only a little way into it).

I guess it’s not really bad, per se, but I’m not his usual audience.

One of the problems with writing about spirituality, meditation, and related issues is that people often employ a language of “happiness.” Harris does this as well, early on adopting the premise that all people seek happiness, while describing something a little different. The confusion becomes clear when he attempts to address how different people may seek happiness in different ways, quoting Genghis Khan:

Of course, some people claim to love stress and appear eager to live by its logic. Some even derive pleasure from imposing stress on others. Genghis Khan is reported to have said, “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.” People attach many meanings to terms like happiness, and not all of them are compatible with one another.

The problem, addressed much better by philosopher Owen Flanagan in his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, is partly that different people and cultures have different ideas.

This also points to a need for attention to some things we might call “wisdom” and “virtue,” as well, but let’s just deal with “happiness.”

The “Genghis Khan happiness” strikes me immediately as a form of “satisfaction,” that pleasant feeling of control and achievement one gets upon completing a project and seeing its fruits put to use, for example. But are there other forms of happiness? Relief? Peace? Serenity?

Flanagan tries to resurrect the Aristotlean concept of eudaimonia to clarify things, trying to place that as a stand-in for “a flourishing, fulfilling human life,” thus suggesting that when we talk about happiness, we’re not really talking about “being happy,” but something more like “what does a given human think is the best way to live in order to feel they are flourishing and fulfilled.”

As much as I am personally attracted to the Buddhist suggestion that the best human living involves “a sense of serenity and contentment, along wisdom and some kind of virtue/goodness,” I fully recognize that isn’t everyone’s idea of the best way to live. The hedonist is not going to agree. The Buddhist might say the hedonist is caught in illusion and the wheel of craving and aversion, but if the hedonist feels they are flourishing and fulfilled in their ups and downs, there is nothing to be done, and one wishes them the best.

But if one does want some peace, some relief, then there are some practices, which can be entirely secular, which can nurture that form of happiness. Meditation is one. Which is the sort of approach I was hoping Waking Up would adopt, but Harris seems to be more concerned with activating states of mind he once experienced while young and on shrooms, and discussing neurology and semi-sophomoric discussions of consciousness — which is interesting, as far as it goes, but not very helpful in offering something useful to the average secular seeker, I feel.

(As an aside, Flanagan’s book is not without its flaws. I feel it’s a much better look at a secular, naturalized Buddhism, but it’s academic (though extremely readable), while being a little to simplistic or generalized in its take on Buddhism. For example, one of his biggest issues with the Buddhism he knows is his perception of a claim that if one comes to deeply understand there is no self, one will naturally become more compassionate and ethical. He doesn’t think so. I’m not sure I do, either, but from my experience, there are many specific practices in Buddhism to exercise the muscles of compassion and virtue along with those of wisdom and self-knowledge, and one imagines they exist because Buddhists have long recognized that the latter alone are not enough.)

Spirituality For Atheists (And Everyone Else)

As the “About” page says, I thought about naming (or subtitling) this blog “Spirituality for Atheists,” but I’m not exactly an atheist, and anyway, this blog’s for everyone, and about more than spirituality, and besides, just what is “spirituality” anyway?

The topic of spirituality is interesting to me because exploring it has enriched my life, and yet I recoil at the supernatural and even the word “spiritual.” My experience suggests to me that most people benefit from having some of it in their lives, but as basically an agnostic/atheist/materialist, what do I even mean by that?

Wiktionary says, “of or pertaining to the spirit or the soul,” and the other definitions are variations on that theme. “Spiritual” points to the old world separation of “body,” the material, and “spirit,” the immaterial. It’s an unwelcome dualism, I feel. But I still think there’s something of value in the concept, so then what?

It seems to me that most people use “spiritual” as a sort of signpost, an umbrella term for a set of feelings and experiences, and practices relating to them. So here are a bunch of things that come to my mind when I think of “what it means to feel or be spiritual:”

It has been something I have at times found lacking, and when I’ve felt something that could be termed “spiritual,” there’s been much variety. I’ve felt spiritual:

  • Love, of the selfless, unconditional variety; love of one’s fellows
  • Humbleness
  • Compassion
  • Gratitude
  • Devotion
  • Regular (or ritual) action/practice
  • Surrender, letting go of clinging to preferred results
  • Acceptance
  • Forgiveness
  • Connection. Bonding. Vulnerability. Togetherness.
  • Feeling “a part of:” of a group, of the world, of the universe.

I would say that almost all of these have something in common: they involve in some way a humble reduction of self and a sense of greater connection to ourselves, others, and/or our world. That one-two punch of ego-reduction and connectedness is — and, here, let’s drop “spiritual” — an important part of being human. We are social animals who need a sense of belonging and acceptance, and when we have that, it can give us peace. When we are beset by judgement, rejection, abandonment, we feel separate and less-than; when our own egos build us up to be apart from others, we feel separate and less-than; when we carry with us our own ceaseless, anxious habits of thought that are our own self-judgement, self-rejection, self-abandonment, we feel separate and less-than.

If we’re unlucky enough to have been rejected, to have an ego that pushes others away, and habits of self-rejection, we’re really lost. There are such unfortunates.

But even if you’re lucky enough to just be mildly anxious and mildly alienated from others, and generally are a pretty happy, successful human being, you still may find you sometimes have a sense that something is lacking. At those times you may be needing a deeper connectedness to yourself, to others, to the world. That can come from turning your thoughts to those of gratitude, humbleness, acceptance, and to the present moment.

It isn’t much. But on one level I don’t think the “spirituality” that is spoken of by humans the world over is much more complicated than this. The underlying neurology and body-states, — the way the mind gets into these states of being — sure, that may be tremendously complex, as are the underpinnings of most of what we humans experience.

But on the level of experience, it might be as simple as presence and a humble connectedness. I feel most at ease, at peace, serene, when I set myself on that course, and as an atheist, those feelings and the thoughts and actions (for spirituality requires action) that nurture them are what I mean if I speak of spirituality.

And the utility, as far as I’ve heard and experienced, is that pursuing some amount of “spirituality” can lead to less fear, less worry, more peace, and no small sense of liberation.

Review: The Bodhisattva’s Brain : Buddhism Naturalized

The Bodhisattva's Brain : Buddhism Naturalized
The Bodhisattva’s Brain : Buddhism Naturalized by Owen Flanagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found Flanagan’s writing clear and enjoyable, and his exploration of Buddhism from a naturalist philosopher’s perspective rather elucidating. I particularly found it enlightening to find that I did not like when he calls to question whether Buddhist epistemology necessarily leads to Buddhist-style ethics, because I want to believe they do, but that’s not very Buddhist of me, to be so attached to the believe that there can and should be an “ought” that everyone can find their way to. It’s also not very “me,” in that I actually believe people can be such different phenomena in the world that not everyone *can* “find their way” to the same solutions — for example, the Buddhist “solution” to living is going to work better for someone of average mental health than for someone who struggles with the sort of chemically/physically-based depression or other psychological situations that some people struggle with.

I still feel that there’s something missing in Flanagan’s work, something I can’t put my finger on about a “correct” view of anatman/no-self and its link with compassion. He does allow for the possibility that compassion should come up just because we happen to be the sort of beings for whom compassion and social engagement makes us flourish better — and I think that’s true (anthropology and psychology seem to corroborate it) — but he’s correct to point out that isn’t part of the Buddhist argument. It should be added to the Buddhist worldview, but it isn’t classically part of it. I guess I think part of the reason a “correct perception” of impermanence and no-self should generally lead to compassion is that, usually, human beings who seek enlightenment are, to some degree, interested in alleviating some suffering, or dealing with some pain, and a certain understanding of impermanence and no-self can (should?) engender self-compassion, self-forgiveness, self-kindness and gratitude which can then be easily directed outward to others. One should, theoretically, not jump to sadness and nihilism because, I think, the idea of impermanence and an understanding of the origins and causes of “dukkha” is intended to be a *relief.* This relief allows us to be kinder to ourselves, and then to others.

In any case, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Buddhism and philosophy, especially those who lean “agnostic or atheist or naturalist” or what-have-you when it comes to spirituality or religion.

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