Friday, January 30, 2009

A Look at Perspective, Part I

This excerpt from A Pale Blue Dot was inspired by an image taken, at [Carl] Sagan's suggestion, by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system, engineers turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, and approximately 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane, when it captured this portrait of our world. Caught in the center of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), Earth appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size.

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
-- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

I tried several times to write an introduction for this, but Carl Sagan's words speak too beautifully by themselves; there's nothing I can add. Except to echo, Look again at that dot.

(Picture and quotes copied from The Planetary Soceity)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

There is no self...

I want to muse a little about the doctrine of no self, since it's a central theme of Buddhism and what got me interested in the philosophy in the first place.

"I think, therefore, I am" is a well known quote; even the average layman will quote this famous line from Descartes without realizing the profound philosophical statement they are making. Called "Cartesian" philosophy, this idea that there is a centralized "I" somewhere deep within the brain, some sort of "ghost in the machine," is a foundational tenant of almost all Western thought. Certainly the idea of an indivisible soul is central to all Western religions.

The argument sounds convincing enough, on the surface. I thought it was quite brilliant, when I first studied Descartes. The idea is that, if one doubts one's own existence, the very fact that there is an "I" doing the doubting proves that "I" therefor exists. And I will grant that, in the conventional, everyday speech kind of way, it is true. If I don't exist, who's typing this right now? So there seems to be a built-in argument--a kind of obvious rebuttal--of the notion that the self is an illusion.

The Buddhist, however, would not argue against this subjective sense of self, though (nor would a naturalist, for that matter). The sense that there is an "I" sitting in the pilot's seat behind our eyes, thinking, pondering, making decisions, is very real. But it's a trick, an illusion.

The trick is what Douglas Hofstadter, in his book I Am a Strange Loop, compares to a feedback loop (hence the title); what happens when you point a camera at the TV it is feeding into. As the many sections of our brain register other sections registering stimuli (whether external or internal), there is this illusion created of self-awareness. Some of those portions of the registering are "visible" to us; they occur within our conscious awareness. But what we don't even realize is that some--or perhaps most--of those portions are unconscious; they happen too fast for us to "see," and they feed information directly into the conscious parts that do the "registering." (Don't believe me? Check out this fascinating article that shows how casually we rationalize reasons for actions that were unconsciously motivated)

The implications are troubling for anyone who clings to the notion of Free Will, but are quite profoundly empowering for someone who has moved beyond such Cartesian notions. The doctrine of no self is central to Buddhism because it is a powerful motivator of compassion and a reducer of suffering.

When we believe that every man is a Free Agent, that he has the power to make any choice he wants, it becomes easy--perhaps necessary--to condemn those who make "evil" decisions. "If the terrorist has Free Will, why didn't he just choose not to hurt anyone? I never choose to hurt anybody!" we tell ourselves.
But if we stop to consider that the terrorist is a product of his surroundings, his upbringing, his genetic dispositions, and so many millions of other influences, it is easy to realize "there but for circumstances I go."

When we believe that we are Free Agents, the ultimate cause in our line of causation, and we make choices that create suffering (in ourselves or others), we beat ourselves up, we become self-loathing.
But if we are able to consider the chain of causation (as much as we can see) that led to that decision, it does not absolve us of responsibility, but it empowers us to then influence that chain to create the influences we want--a feedback loop that we can direct. And the same goes for the above case of the terrorist--when we look at the causes, we find that you cannot beat someone into changing with violence; that path is ultimately self-defeating. We have to change the factors.

Our consciousness is a funny, paradoxical thing, and hopefully I'll blog more about it in the future. It's a huge subject and I find it intensely fascinating. In the meantime, here are some more fascinating articles on the strangeness of this ghost of a ghost in our machine:
Mindtricks: six ways to explore your brain
How your friends affect more than just your mood

Sunday, January 25, 2009

My first Buddhist meetup

I attended my first Buddhist meetup this afternoon. I've been reading up on Buddhism for a while, listening to hours and hours of lectures on podcasts; but I'd never actually met other Buddhists before. I was a little nervous, wasn't really sure what to expect.

I was pleasantly surprised. There was no spiritual mumbo jumbo, no new agey talk of karma or nirvana or any such (which is as it should be, but I was a unsure, since they were meeting in a Universal Unitarian church).

Aside from the meditation--which was good, because, surrounded by other people, I couldn't fall asleep or get frustrated and walk away when I couldn't instantly still my mind--the group leader read some quotes from Thich Nat Hahn about anger, and we did a little meditation on anger (which just means introspection--nothing fancy).

It reaffirmed to me the purpose of my exploring Buddhism--it's about introspection. So much of what we do, what we feel, goes unexamined in our lives. If we stopped to really think, take a good hard look at ourselves and ask "why am I doing this? why am I feeling this?", we'd see how often our thoughts and actions are childish. And, by childish, I mean they're instinctual; they're unintellectual. Buddhists often call it our "monkey mind," and if you've ever spent any time watching monkeys, you'd know how apt a description it is. We are really not all that different from our cousins, the non-human primates; a lot of the difference, really, is more nurture than nature (and here is a beautiful [if somewhat poor quality] video illustrating that point). It's easy, sometimes, to slip back into that frame of mind; it takes no effort. Don't consider that the car in front of you may have a sick grandma, or a sleeping child, they're going too slow, dammit! Don't worry that the project you worked on so hard at your job got scrapped because of monetary issues, you're upset so you're going to take it personal and get pissed off!

We all know better, really. So it helps to have someone remind you, sometimes (at the right time--a sage lesson while you're pissed off probably won't be received too well!). At the sangha earlier this evening, we were reminded to look at the roots of what makes us angry, what makes other people angry; we were reminded that anger tears down relationships, it destroys happiness. And then we were asked to meditate on it; which simply means to think about it, ponder it, roll it over and over in your mind until it sticks a little better. Our brains are used to absorbing so much useless information throughout the day, it becomes a survival mechanism to let things flow in one ear and out the other. By choosing to focus on certain concepts, certain modes of thought, I'm in the process of training my brain to not discard these kinds of thoughts. Next time I get angry and I suffer the temptation to let my monkey mind take over, I've got a slightly better chance of stopping, taking a look, introspecting. 
That's all I can ever really hope for, I guess: increasing the odds. My brain is flesh; it's monkey flesh and its reptile flesh and even older stuff all coded in over billions of years... all competing with just a few thousand years of culture. And most of the culture is crappy, too.

I better keep practicing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Why Natural Buddhism?

Ok, so, it's taken me a ridiculously long time to write the first post for this blog. Beginnings are always the hardest for me... Do I start with a little personal history? Do I need to explain what Buddhism is in layman's terms? Should I explain why I'm starting this blog, as though I'm writing a thesis? I have a lot I want to talk about, and all my thoughts are damming up at my fingertips. So, I'm going to try to unstop the dam very slowly and carefully... Have your lifevests ready.

I'm a naturalist. I've not always been one, but reason and logic (as well as a healthy interest in science) have led me to a naturalistic conclusion about life. This means that I see no evidence or reason to believe in anything supernatural, that our world is goverened by natural laws, and that we humans are not seperate from this world. That is, there's no ghost in the machine.

I discovered Buddhism two years after I became a naturalist. I've always been fascinated by the East; it's such an alien culture to the Western one in which I grew up. But Buddhism really caught my interest when I started learning about it. Here was a religion, a paradigm, that dominated Eastern culture; yet, at it's core, there was nothing inherintly supernatural about Buddhism. Oh, sure, it has gods and demons, souls and wheels of rebirth... But these things are all extraneous to the philosophy. You can peel every last supernatural belief away and Buddhism is still there; try the same trick with any of the "Big Three" monotheistic religions and you're left with nothing.
This fascinated me, so I studied Buddhism some more. I found that its core teachings--the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path--are simply, what I would call, common sense. The only problem is, it's the kind of common sense that we all know--or, at least, should know--but it's filed away in our brain as an intellectual fact; it's never applied in our lives. You know what I mean--pretty much any stupid decision we make, we know we shouldn't make it, but we do it anyway.
So I started asking myself, What's the point? I know I should look at things from the right perspective, I know I shouldn't get my 'wants' confused with my 'needs' and shouldn't cling so strongly to the desire to get that next Xbox game that it causes me anxiety... I already know those things, so why do I need Buddhism?

And that's when an interesting thing happened. I looked at the Why behind Buddhism, and I found a very rational, logical answer.
You see, it's well known by psychologists (and by salesmen and conmen, too) that we construct a very strong mental identity of Who We Are. Most of the time, this construction is unconscious.
Our brains will go to great lengths to reinforce that mental identity--again, usually unconsciously--to such an extent that people can actually take advantage of this tendency (it's called the foot-in-the-door technique, very fascinating, you should check it out).
I realized that I could use this technique to my own advantage. By calling myself a Natural Buddhist, by self-identifying with Buddhism, I am constructing a self-concept which my unconscious mind will then help reinforce.

So far, it's working. When my temper gets out of control (a common enough occurence, believe me) and I want to yell at my wife, my unconscious brain fires up to say, "Hey, aren't you supposed to be a Buddhist? Examine your intention". Conscious brain then says, "Ah, yes, I would like to mend the relationship with my wife, but this action will only serve to make things worse." When my kids act out and I want to get angry at them, unconscious brain brings up Right Perception, and I'm able to take a step back and remember that I shouldn't take their acting out personally... they're just kids!

Now, of course, that doesn't happen all the time; I'm still human, after all. And it doesn't only happen with Buddhists; I've been able to examine my intentions and look at things from the right perspective plenty of times before I discovered Buddhism. The point is, I'm using my knowledge of psychology to my advantage; I'm setting myself up for more moral behavior and less suffering. By marrying science and Buddhism, I'm stacking the deck in favor of rational thinking over instinctual, animal impulses.

So that's why I'm making this blog. I'm crowdsourcing my journey, putting my thoughts on display for debate and input; internet peer review, if you will. I also want to journal my own thoughts and discoveries; it reinforces my self-concept even more, but journaling is also a form of introspection--even when open for all to see--and hopefully, by putting my thoughts and experiences into words, I'll see things that I hadn't before.
So, while I intend this blog to be fairly personal, I insist on discussion. Do you agree? Disagree? Have some parallel or tangential thoughts? Please, share them.