Review: Why Buddhism is True

Review: Why Buddhism is True

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and EnlightenmentWhy Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A far more accurate title for this book would be Why Mindfulness Meditation is Good. For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.

Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that shaped the human brain did not adequately program us for life in the modern world; and that mindfulness meditation can help to correct this bad programming.

The first of these claims is fairly uncontroversial. To give an obvious example, our love of salt, beneficial when sodium was hard to come by in natural products, has become maladaptive in the modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful. Our emotions, too, can misfire nowadays. Caring deeply that people have a high opinion of you makes sense when you are, say, living in a small village full of people you know and interact with daily; but it makes little sense when you are surrounded by strangers on a bus.

This mismatch between our emotional setup and the newly complex social world is one reason for rampant stress and anxiety. Something like a job interview—trying to impress a perfect stranger to earn a livelihood—simply didn’t exist for our ancestors. This can also explain of tribalism, which Wright sees as the most pressing danger of the modern world. It makes evolutionary sense to care deeply for oneself and one’s kin, with some close friends thrown in; and those who fall outside of this circle should, following evolutionary logic, be treated with suspicion—which explains why humans are so prone to dividing themselves into mutually antagonistic groups.

But how can mindfulness meditation help? Most obviously, it is a practice designed to give us some distance from our emotions. This is done by separating the feeling from its narrative. In daily life, for example, anger is never experienced “purely”; we always get angry about something; and the thought of this event is a huge component of its experience. But the meditator does her best to focus on the feeling itself, to examine its manifestation in her body and brain, while letting go of the corresponding narrative. Stripped of the provoking incident, the feeling itself ceases to be provocative; and the anger may even disappear completely.

Explained in this way, mindfulness meditation is the mirror image of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT the anger is attacked from the opposite side: by focusing on the narrative and subjecting it to logical criticism. In my experience, at least, the things one tells oneself while angry rarely stand up to cool analysis. And when one ceases to believe in the thought, the feeling disappears. The efficacy of both mindfulness meditation and CBT, then, is based on the interdependence of feeling and thought. If separated—either by focusing on the feeling during meditation, or the thought through analysis—the emotion disappears.

This, in a nutshell, is how mindfulness meditation can be therapeutic. But Wright wants to make a far more grandiose claim: that mindfulness meditation can reveal truths about the nature of mind, the world, and morality.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that of “emptiness”: that the enlightened meditator sees the world as empty of essential form. The first time I encountered this idea in a Buddhist text it made no sense to me; but Wright gives it an intriguing interpretation. Our brain, designed to survive, naturally assigns value to things in our environment based on how useful or harmful they are to us. These evaluations are, according to Wright’s theory, experienced as emotional reactions. I have quite warm and fuzzy feelings about my laptop, for example; and even the communal computers where I work evoke in me a comforting sense of familiarity and utility.

These emotions, which are sometimes very tiny indeed, are what give experiential reality a sense of essence. The emotions, in other words, help us to quickly identify and use objects: I don’t have to think too much about the computers, for example, since the micro-emotion brings its instrumental qualities quickly to my attention. The advantages of this are obvious to anyone in a hurry. Likewise, this emotional registering is equally advantageous in avoiding danger, since taking time to ponder a rattlesnake isn’t advisable.

But the downside is that we can look at the world quite narrowly, ignoring the sensuous qualities of objects in favor of an instrumental view. Visual art actively works against this tendency, I think, by creating images that thwart our normal registering system, thus prompting us into a sensuous examination of the work. Good paintings make us into children again, exploring the world without worrying about making use of things. Mindfulness meditation is supposed to engender this same attitude, not just with regards to a painting, but to everything. Stripped of these identifying emotional reactions, the world might indeed seem “empty”—empty of distinctions, though full of rich sensation.

With objects, it is hard to see why this state of emptiness would be very desirable. (Also it should be said that this idea of micro-emotions serving as registers of essential distinctions is Wright’s interpretation of the psychological data, and is rather speculative.) But with regards to humans, this mindset might have its advantages. Instead of attributing essential qualities of good and bad to somebody we might see that their behavior can vary quite a bit depending on circumstances, and this can make us less judgmental and more forgiving.

Wright also has a go at the traditional Buddhist idea that the self is a delusion. According to what we know about the brain, he says, there is no executive seat of consciousness. He cites the famous split-brain experiments, and others like it, to argue that consciousness is not the powerful decision-maker we once assumed, but is more like a publicity agent: making our actions seem more cogent to others.

This is necessary because, underneath the apparent unity of conscious experience, there are several domain-specific “modules”—such as for sexual jealousy, romantic wooing, and so on—that fight amongst themselves in the brain for power and attention. Each module governs our behavior in different ways; and environmental stimuli determine which module is in control. Our consciousness gives a sense of continuity and coherence to this shifting control, which makes us look better in the eyes of our peers—or that’s how the theory goes, which Wright says is well-supported.

In any case, the upshot of this theory still would not be that the self doesn’t exist; only that the self is more fragmented and less executive than we once supposed. Unfortunately, the book steeply declines in quality in the last few chapters—where Wright tackles the most mystical propositions of Buddhism—when the final stage of the no-self argument is given. This leads him into the following speculations:

If our thoughts are generated by a variety of modules, which use emotion to get our attention; and if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from these emotions and see the world as “empty”; if, in short, we can reach a certain level of detachment from our thoughts and emotions: then, perhaps, we can see sensations arising in our body as equivalent to sensations arising from without. And maybe, too, this state of detachment will allow us to experience other people’s emotions as equivalent to our own, like how we feel pain from seeing a loved one in pain. In this case, can we not be said to have seen the true oneness of reality and the corresponding unreality of personal identity?

These lofty considerations aside, when I am struck by a car they better not take the driver to the emergency room; and when Robert Wright gets a book deal he would be upset if they gave me the money. My point is that this experience of oneness in no way undermines the reality of distinct personal identity, without which we could hardly go a day. And this state of perfect detachment is arguably, contra Wright, a far less realistic way of seeing things, since being genuinely unconcerned as to whom a pain belonged, for example, would make us unable to help. (Also in this way, contra Wight, it would make us obviously less moral.)

More generally, I think Wright is wrong in insisting that meditation can help us to experience reality more “truly.” Admittedly, I know from experience that meditation can be a great aid to introspection and can allow us to deal with our emotions more effectively. But the notion that a meditative experience can allow us to see a metaphysical truth—the unreality of self or the oneness of the cosmos—I reject completely. An essentially private experience cannot confirm or deny anything, as Wright himself says earlier on.

I also reject Wright’s claim that meditation can help us to see moral reality more clearly. By this he means that the detachment engendered by meditation can allow us to see every person as equally valuable rather than selfishly considering one’s own desires more important.

Now, I do not doubt that meditation can make people calmer and even nicer. But detachment does not lead logically to any moral clarity. Detachment is just that—detachment, which means unconcern; and morality is impossible without concern. Indeed, it seems to me that an enlightened person would be even less likely to improve the world, since they can accept any situation with perfect equanimity. Granted, if everyone were perfectly enlightened there would be no reason to improve anything—but I believe the expression about hell freezing over applies here.

Aside from the intellectual weakness of these later chapters, full as they are of vague hand-waving, the book has other flaws. I often got the sense that Wright was presenting the psychological evidence very selectively, emphasizing the studies and theories that accorded with his interpretations of Buddhism, without taking nearly enough time to give the contrasting views. On the other hand, he interprets the Buddhist doctrines quite freely—so in the end, when he says that modern science is confirming Buddhism, I wonder what is confirming what, exactly. The writing, while quite clear, was too hokey and jokey for me.

Last, I found his framing of meditation as a way to save humanity from destructive tribalism as both naïve and misguided. In brief, I think that we ought to try to create a society in which the selfish interests of the greatest number of people are aligned. Selfish attachment, while potentially narrow, need not be if these selves are in enmeshed in mutually beneficial relationships; and some amount of attachment, with its concomitant dissatisfactions, seems necessary for people to exert great effort in improving their station and thus changing our world.

Encouraging people to become selflessly detached, on the other hand, besides being unrealistic, also strikes me as generally undesirable. For all the suffering caused by attachment—of which I am well aware—I am not convinced that life is better without it. As Orwell said: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

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Review: The Guide of the Perplexed

Review: The Guide of the Perplexed

The Guide of the PerplexedThe Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This treatise has as its principal object to clarify the meaning of certain terms in the Bible.

Moses Maimonides, born in 1135, was and remains the most famous Jewish theologian in history, and this is his most influential book. Well, this is a part of his most influential book; more specifically, this is about a quarter of the whole work, the other three quarters having been pruned away by the editors of this volume. This was ideal for me, dabbler that I am, especially considering that the abridgement, so far as I can tell, was made with taste and skill.

The first striking aspect of this book is its accessibility. Maimonides writes simply and directly; indeed, sometimes I found the tone a bit pedestrian. The sentence I quoted above, the first sentence of the book, is quite typical of Maimonides. The work is written in the form of a (very long) letter to a perplexed pupil, broken into bite-sized chapters for easy comprehension. The only technical terms are those derived from Aristotle—essence, form, matter, etc.—which posed no problem for me.

The second striking aspect of The Guide is how similar Maimonides’s intellectual approach is to that of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the aim of both thinkers was more or less the same: to provide a rational defense and systemization of their respective faiths. Both lean heavily on Aristotle for this task, adopting his doctrines, terms, arguments, and philosophical style.

Of course this isn’t a coincidence. The attempt to harmonize Greek thought, specifically Aristotle, with religious thinking originated, I believe, with Muslim philosophers, and later spread to Europe. Maimonides himself was born in Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus), wrote in Arabic, and was clearly well read in Islamic philosophy. Later on, the works of Aristotle, translated from Greek into Arabic, entered Europe through Toledo, where they were translated from Arabic into Latin so that people like Aquinas could read them. Aquinas also read Maimonides, by the way.

Thus the three Abrahamic religions were engaged in almost the same philosophical project during this time. But of course, being of different faiths, the thinkers reached different conclusions. For example, Maimonides’s conception of God is strikingly different from Aquinas’s. Instead of expounding on all the different perfections of God, as does Aquinas—his omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, necessary existence—Maimonides holds that God’s essence cannot be described in any satisfactory way. In fact, Maimonides’s conception of God strongly reminded me of, and was perhaps influenced by, the Neo-Platonist conception of The One, the mystical, mysterious, ineffable fountainhead of all existence. Like Plotinus says of The One, Maimonides asserts that we cannot even attribute existence to God, since he holds that existing things are always composite, while there is nothing composite about God.

But for me, Maimonides’s most interesting opinion was his explanation of rituals, worship, and animal sacrifices. As he points out, “what is the purpose of His worship, since God’s perfection is not increased even if everything He has created worships Him and apprehends Him to the utmost possible degree, nor is it at all diminished if there is nothing in existence beside Him?”

For Maimonides the purpose of religious practice is not to please God through worship, but to know Him by training the mind and purifying the soul. The reason that God commanded rituals and sacrifices was only because the original Chosen People were still accustomed to idolatry, and thus they would not have accepted the true religion if they were not allowed to practice their religious customs. The rituals were, therefore, a kind of transitional device, allowing the people to turn their thoughts from idols to the true God. I found this explanation remarkable, since it anticipates the modern, historical approach to religion, while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Maimonides insists that the exterior forms of a ceremony are totally irrelevant if the practitioner is not thinking of God. It is the mental state of the worshipper, not their ritual actions, that are essential. This doctrine also reminded me of Neo-Platonic mysticism, wherein the final goal is a direct knowledge of the The One through mental discipline. But Maimonides is not so straightforwardly mystical as Plotinus, as he places much more emphasis on rational argument and the holding of the correct metaphysical and theological opinions.

This book was obviously not intended for me, since I am a nonbeliever, and Maimonides considers nonbelievers beneath contempt and not even worth responding to. Thus this book was of purely historical interest for me. This is, of course, not a bad thing, and indeed as a historical document it is rewarding. But I cannot say I found it an exhilarating read, since I not only disagreed with Maimonides’s conclusions but with his methods and his premises. Nevertheless, I am very glad to have read the book, if only because I have been intending to ever since my trip to Córdoba, his birthplace, and stood next to his statue in the Jewish district of that old city. Just like walking through those crooked, cobblestone streets, reading this book is a voyage in time.

(Photo by Selbymay; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings

Review: Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings

Medieval Islamic Philosophical WritingsMedieval Islamic Philosophical Writings by Muhammad Ali Khalidi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as one must protect unskilled swimmers from perilous shores, people must be shielded from reading philosophical books.

For a long time, I’ve been bothered by the tremendous gap in my philosophical reading. Most of the medieval period is simply a blank for me, an intermission that stretches from Boethius (480 – 524) to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Part of the problem is that, for a variety of reasons, in most of Europe not much notable philosophy was being written in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire; the major Christian philosophical project, scholasticism, didn’t get on its feet until St. Anselm (1093 – 1109) started writing. But another problem is that, owing to Western provincialism, most of the good philosophy written during these years isn’t read nowadays, because it was written by Muslims.

This collection was expressly put together to rectify this situation, and it does the job admirably. Now, instead of an enormous gap, I can move comfortably from Boethius to Al-Farabi (872 – 950), to Ibn-Sina, or Avicenna (980 – 1037), to Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111), to Ibn Tufail (1105 – 1185), and finally to Ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126 – 1198). This progression completes not only the temporal picture, but has the geographic advantage of leading from Baghdad to the Iberian Peninsula. We thus see the trajectory through which the works of Aristotle, preserved in Arabic translation, as well as copious commentary on Aristotle’s works, entered Europe, where they later gained ascendency.

The editor and translator of this volume, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, put it together for non-specialists. He made his selection with the hopes of showing the relevance of these thinkers to contemporary philosophical questions; but he also hoped to show something of the cultural significance of these philosophers. None of the selections is very long, and none is very difficult. It is a mere tasting, not a feast. For me, it was perfect, since I have only a layman’s interest in the subject.

My interest was ignited in medieval Islamic culture through my visits to Andalusia, where I was continually astounded by the beauty of Moorish architecture. If a culture was vibrant enough to build the Great Mosque in Cordoba, I figured, then they must have had some excellent thinkers too—which they certainly did.

In what follows are my brief summaries and reactions to each of the pieces in this collection. But before that, I want to add my reflections on the whole. What most struck me during my reading was how familiar were the styles and ideas. Truly, medieval Islamic philosophy does not represent some alien tradition, or a mere curiosity, nor were these philosophers mere preservers of the Greeks; rather, they should be regarded as an integral part of western philosophical history.

The fact that we still read Aquinas but seldom Maimonides and rarely Averroes has little to do with merit, and more to do with religious allegiance. All three of these traditions were engaged in similar philosophical projects—namely, the harmonization of faith with reason, relying heavily on Aristotle. Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the persistent Islamophobia (and Anti-Semitism) in the West would be less virulent if history were not taught in such a fashion that the contributions of Jews and Muslims to European culture were not so deemphasized. But I suppose that’s another matter.

Al-Farabi. Like nearly everyone in this collection, Al-Farabi was a polymath, writing not only on philosophy, but on music, math, science, and cosmology. But he is perhaps most important for being one of the first and most prominent Muslim philosophers to elevate Aristotle as the epitome of reason. His work in this collection is taken from The Book of Letters. It puts forward a schematic philosophy of history, during which he lays out what he considers the essential stages of historical development. Most striking is Al-Farabi’s elevation of philosophy. According to him, nearly every other discipline, practical or theoretical, stems from philosophy. Even religion takes second place. In Al-Farabi’s opinion, prophets do not access supernatural knowledge, but merely transform the insights of philosophers into metaphorical garb, so that common people can understand them. Indeed, for Al-Farabi almost all religion is just popularized, allegorized, simplified philosophy—Aristotelianism for the people, you might say.

Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, is the Thomas Aquinas of Islamic philosophy, except perhaps greater. An astounding polymath, he not only wrote encyclopedias of science and philosophy, but an encyclopedia of medicine that was still being used in Renaissance Italy. Like Aquinas, and like Aristotle himself, Avicenna was a great systematizer. He had a prosaic, orderly, and remarkably capacious mind, allowing him to compose encyclopedic works in many disparate subjects. In this collection is the short work, On the Soul, which is an investigation into the capacities of the human mind, with a special emphasis on epistemology. Unlike Al-Farabi, Avicenna didn’t consider prophets to be popularizers, but a kind of super-philosopher whose intellects intuit things faster than other people’s.

Al-Ghazali probably wouldn’t like being called a philosopher. He was, rather, a mystic who wrote against philosophy. Included in this collection is his Rescuer from Errors, which is a sort of intellectual autobiography. In it, he describes a crisis of faith he experienced when he realized that his religion was mere conformity. After doubting everything, he proceeded to study theology, which he found inadequate, and then philosophy, which he found slightly better, and eventually settled on being a mystic. This was by far my favorite work in this collection. Al-Ghazali is an excellent writer, and his procedure of radical doubt can’t help but remind one of Descartes. Indeed, if you’re inclined to doubt the existence of the world, becoming a mystic might be a more rational solution than the one Descartes settled upon.

Ibn Tufail (sometimes called Abubekar) was born in Moorish Spain, near Granada. In addition to being a philosopher, he was a novelist, physician, and court official during his lifetime. (Reading the biographies of these guys makes you really mourn the rise of specialization.) He contributes the longest section to this book, in the form of Hayy bin Yaqzan. Not exactly a work of philosophy, it is rather the description of a man born and raised in social isolation on a deserted island. The titular character, using nothing but his cleverness, manages to deduce the entirety of Aristotelian thought, and eventually becomes a mystic. I suppose this story was meant to demonstrate that revealed religion wasn’t necessary to reach the truth, but that a monotheistic mysticism could be deduced from experience. I found it quite unconvincing.

Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, was born in Córdoba (the same city where Seneca and Maimonides were born), and was perhaps the greatest Muslim philosopher after Avicenna. Interestingly, Averroes’s influence was bigger in Christian Europe than in Islam, because many of his key positions were seen as heretical. After his death came the trend known as Averroism, which held, among other things, that the individual soul is not eternal, only the universal soul which every individual shares. In this collection we find his The Incoherence of the Incoherence, a work written in refutation of Al-Ghazali’s work The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali attempted to demonstrate that belief in causes and natural laws was heretical; there are no laws, Al-Ghazali held, and no causes except the direct intervention of God. Averroes quotes Al-Ghazali in extenso, and then argues against him point by point. The final effect is of a real debate, since Al-Ghazali anticipated many of the rejections that Averroes brought against him.

Well, that’s it for my review. I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there is a lot of historical and philosophical value in these pages, and in Islamic philosophy generally.

(Cover photo by Timor Espallargas; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: City of God

Review: City of God

City of GodCity of God by Augustine of Hippo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once on the beach at Utica, I saw with my own eyes—and there were others to bear me witness—a human molar tooth so big that it could have been cut up, I think, into a hundred pieces each as big as one of our modern teeth.

I’m trying to think of books that might be equal to this one in importance to Western history: Plato’s Republic? the works of Aristotle? Euclid’s Elements? Homer’s epics? There aren’t many. This book arguably set the tone for the entire Middle Ages that followed. It is a vast, sweeping, powerful, and cockamamie book; it is a true classic.

Augustine wrote The City of God over a period of 13 years. He began the work when he was 59, and finished it when he was 72. The work was occasioned by the capture of Rome in 410 by the ‘barbarian’ leader Alaric, king of the Visigoths. It was a brutal defeat for the Romans, with much destruction, rape, pillage, and death. More than that, it was a symbolic defeat, the first time Rome had been taken by a foreign enemy in hundreds of years. Unsurprisingly, the remaining pagans blamed the newly ascendant Christians for this calamity. If the old gods were worshiped, the critics argued, this never would have happened. Rome was never taken when Jupiter was praised and when Nike, goddess of victory, was gracing the Curia of the Roman Senate. (The statue of Nike, the Altar of Victory, had been removed from the Curia by Constantius II, briefly reinstalled by Julian the Apostate, and then removed again.) In short, the Roman Empire was collapsing and it was all the Christians’ fault.

These accusations were what prompted Augustine to begin this work; but as the book grew, so did Augustine’s ambitions. By the middle, the beginning has been forgotten; and by the end, the middle is a distant memory. Because Augustine frequently interrupts his main points to indulge in lengthy digressions, the reader is often mired in pages and pages of side-issues and curiosities. Yet there does remain one vital central idea. It is therefore quite tough to give a fair impression of this book’s contents. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, if I focus only on Augustine’s main thesis, then it will make this chaotic jumble seem too unified and focused; yet if I lose myself in the details, then I’ll omit its most lasting contribution. I even have it easier than most readers, since I read an abridgment—meant to cut out much of the extraneous material. Even so, there is a new topic on almost every page. So I think I’ll follow Russell’s approach in his History of Western Philosophy and give you a taste of some digressions before tackling Augustine’s more major themes.

Early on in the book, Augustine considers whether virgins who were raped in the sack of Rome have lost their virginity. He argues that, as long as they did not consent and did not enjoy it, they are still virgins. Augustine even argues that being raped might have been a good thing for some of them, since it taught them not to be haughty about their virginity. (It’s frightening that, at the time, this opinion was considered quite progressive.) He considers whether the extremely long lifespans reported of some Biblical figures (such as Adam’s purportedly 900-year long life) should be interpreted literally, or whether, as some argued, 10 years back then was equivalent to 1 of our years, thus arriving at a more realistic figure for Adam’s age, 90. (Augustine thinks Adam did live 900 years.) In resolving this question, Augustine notes that there are several discrepancies in the ages reported of certain people in different versions of the Bible; specifically, the original Hebrew Bible said one thing, and the Septuagint said another. (For those who don’t know, the Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Bible, done by 70 Jewish scribes in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE at the behest of the Egyptian king, Ptolemy II. The legend says that all 70 scribes completed their translations separately, only comparing them at the end, and they turned out to be all miraculously identical.) Augustine concludes that, though the Septuagint was indeed divinely inspired, where it differed from the original Hebrew, the original should be trusted.

In a lengthy section, Augustine attempts to correlate secular history with biblical history, doing his best to place the events of the Old Testament in the context of Greek and Roman history. He even speculates on the possibility that Plato might have read parts of the Old Testament, since parts of Plato’s Timeaus are so similar to the Book of Genesis. Augustine is against judicial torture, thinking it vile and illogical to torture witnesses and the accused. He anticipates Descartes’s cogito ergo sum: “In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force. If they say; ‘What if you are mistaken?’—well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can be no means be mistaken. Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken.” (By the by, Augustine also anticipated Kant’s subjective theory of time, which Augustine put forth in the eleventh book of his Confessions.) Augustine attempts to prove that living, physical bodies can, indeed, be tortured endlessly in the fires of hell, since, as everyone knows, salamanders live in fire, and peacock meat never putrefies. So what’s so miraculous about human bodies endlessly burning in the flames?

I actually can’t resist including a bit more about the peacock meat. Apparently, having heard from someone else that peacock meat never spoils, Augustine set aside a piece of roasted peacock meat when he was served it at a friend’s house. He observed this piece of meat for a whole year, noting that even after all that time it never began to stink; it only got dry and shriveled. Now, presumably the piece of meat had been thoroughly cooked and salted, so make of that what you will. While I’m at it, I also want to include a story Augustine tells about a friend of his who had hemorrhoids and had to have surgery. As the man was fearful of going under the knife, Augustine and several other friends had a loud and fervent prayer session before the surgery. (If I had to get surgery back then, I’d be praying too.) And the surgery was a success!

Now for some more meaty issues. Augustine formulates here the idea of original sin, arguing that Adam’s fall changed the nature of humankind, filling us with sinful desires and causing death to enter the world. Augustine thinks, for example, that before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose to have sex without any feeling of sexual desire; all of the physiological prerequisites for intercourse (to use a polite expression) were under just as much control as our arms and legs. In short, Adam could just choose to have an erection without feeling horny. But now, in order to reproduce, we are at the mercy of our desires, which we cannot directly control and which threaten to overwhelm our rational minds. Thus is the sorry state of fallen man. As a consequence of this belief, Augustine also argues that unbaptized infants go to hell; not being cleansed of original sin, they simply must. By the way, there are several memorable passages in Augustine’s extraordinary autobiography, his Confessions, where he chastises his infant self for being so greedy of food and drink, and so selfish of love and attention.

Several other ideas are connected to Augustine’s conception of original sin. Since humankind is fallen, it is impossible for us without God’s aid to do good deeds and to achieve salvation; salvation is granted from God, it is a gift of divine grace, not something we earn. Augustine also believed in predestination. God, being omniscient, foreknew which people would end up saved, and which would end up damned. So in addition to anticipating Descartes and Kant, Augustine also anticipates Calvin. (From what I hear, a lot of the Protestant Reformation involved a return to Augustine’s teachings, but I’m not so knowledgeable about this.) I should point out that these ideas weren’t commonly accepted at the time. Just the reverse: many people argued vociferously against these doctrines. Notably, Pelagius, an ascetic from England, argued that humans were not born already damned (or, in other words, there was no ‘original sin’ in the Augustan sense); that humans had absolute free will, and thus were not predestined to be saved or damned; and that the grace of God was not necessary to do good works. Augustine combated Pelagius’s ideas with his typical intolerant zeal, considering them heresies, and succeeded, after a long fight, in making his own opinions orthodox for a long time to come.

As befitting a great Christian thinker, Augustine also tackles some of the perennial problems of Christian philosophy. One of these is free will. Now, without free will, the entire worldview of Christianity collapses, since then there is no fair basis of separating people into the saved and the damned. Yet God is omnipotent and omniscient; this means that when He created the world, He knew exactly what was going to happen. So how can we reconcile these attributes of God with free will? Augustine does so by noting that, although God knows what you will do and whether you will be saved, His knowing doesn’t cause you to make the choices you make.

Augustine also addresses the so-called problem of evil. This is another classic paradox of Christianity, which results from trying to harmonize the undeniable existence of evil in the world with God’s omnipotence and His infinite goodness. If God was truly all-powerful and purely good, why is there evil in the world? Augustine makes several classic replies.

First, he notes that, by allowing some evil in parts of creation, the whole might be, by consequence, even better, as the resulting goodness outweighs the evil. In short, goodness is cheap unless it is tested with temptation; so the presence of some evil is necessary for the existence of good. Augustine also notes that God never causes evil directly, since it is only His creatures that choose evil. For Augustine, as for many others, evil doesn’t really exist; evil is a lack of existence, the same way darkness is a lack of light and cold a lack of heat. Thus, God never created anything evil; all existence, as existence, is good; His creatures, through their own perversity, have sometimes chosen evil. So even Satan himself, insofar as he exists, is good; though his nature has been corrupted by his wicked ways (this corruption presumably being some sort of deficiency in his existence). Augustine even plays with Aristotelian terminology, saying that evil never has an efficient cause (the direct, or proximate, cause of something), but only a deficient cause.

I know that my opinion is not worth nearly as much as Augustine’s in this matter, but I do want to include my thoughts. I don’t find Augustine’s answer to the problem of evil satisfactory. And this is because, even if God is not indeed the proximate cause of evil, He would still be the ultimate cause, since He created the universe with full knowledge that evil would result from His action. It’s like this: If I am a leader of a country, and choose to go to war with another country, I am not the direct cause of people dying—that was presumably the guns and other weapons. And arguably the soldiers on both sides do have some share in the responsibility, since each of them chose to participate, to fight, to kill, to risk their lives, and so on. Yet ultimately it was my decision to send all these people into battle, and I think I would share a large portion of the responsibility and (if the action were unjust) the guilt. If the war was indeed justified and necessary, and the result was good for the world, that would make the action excusable, but it would not negate all of the pain and suffering inflicted on the soldiers, nor would it make me any less responsible for their fate.

Besides, I find this whole business of balancing good and evil, as if weighing a scale, quite absurd. If an innocent person suffers, if a single child is abused or crippled by sickness, how can any amount of goodness elsewhere make that okay? Here’s an example. Imagine there are ten people on an island with very limited food. There is only enough food for each person to stay alive, but not enough to make them energetic and happy. So when all ten people are living there, eating the food available, the total satisfaction-level is around 40%. Now, if nine of them ganged up on the last one, and killed and ate him, it’s possible that, even though there would be a lot of pain inflicted on that one man, the joy experienced by the remaining nine of having real meat, and the extra resources freed up on the island by having one less person, might in the long run make the general satisfaction-level higher—perhaps 60%. Does that justify killing the man? I think not. My point is that the happiness of the many cannot be balanced against the misery of the few, like an accountant balancing an earnings report.

Now, I know this review is already extremely long, but I haven’t even gotten to Augustine’s main thesis—the City of God. Augustine divides up humankind into two metaphorical cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Members of the City of Man are swollen with pride; they think that they can achieve happiness in this life, through satisfying their bodily desires or by practicing human virtue; by creating peaceful cities and just laws; by trade, wealth, power, fame, and wisdom. Yet, noble as some of them may be, this goal is pure vanity. In this life, we are too beset with troubles and uncertainties to have real happiness. States try to create justice, but their laws are frail human creations, constantly failing to attain their goal of absolute justice—since so many sinners go unpunished and so many innocents are unduly condemned—with the result that the laws are always being changed, updated, reformed, and differ from country to country, from place to place, all without getting any closer to their goal. The Stoics attempt to achieve happiness through virtue alone, without any hope of heaven; and yet how often do painful disease, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a scheme, the unquenchable passions in our breast overwhelm our reason and cast us into abject misery? Members of the City of God are not exempt from any of these miseries. However, they know that they are mere pilgrims on this earth. They place their hopes, not in this life, but in the life to come. Thus they are not misled by the vanities of earthly happiness, but act in harmony with God’s will to achieve salvation.

This doctrine, though simple enough, proved to be immensely influential. Augustine not only separates church and state, but subordinates the state to the church. Temporal authority is just the product of consensus, while the authority of the church comes from God. The resultant history of the Middle Ages, with the rising political power of the Catholic Church, owes much to Augustine for its intellectual justification and formulation. Again, the importance and influence of this book could hardly be overestimated.

After spending so much energy reading, summarizing, and responding to this book, I am almost at a loss for how to make a final evaluation. Augustine is obviously a genius of the highest order, and even now it is difficult for me to avoid be sucked into the endless labyrinths of his mind. This is especially impressive to me when I consider that I am not a Catholic, not even a Christian, and disagree with almost everything he says. More than that, although I have immense admiration for his originality and his brilliance, I often find his perspective unhealthy, intolerant, dogmatic, and generally unappealing. Perhaps what I like least about Augustine is his incredible, I would even say his morbid, sense of sin.

In his Confessions, there is a famous section where he berates his child-self for stealing a peach from a peach tree. From his rhetoric, you would think that he committed a genocide; even after all these years, he seems wracked with guilt and filled with shame. To me, as I suspect to many others nowadays, this is absurd, even a bit childish. I admit a part of me wants to admire him for feeling so bad for his misdeeds; but when I really think it over, I do not even find this admirable. The sense of sin is, in my opinion, an unrealistic and unhealthy way of thinking. I think the whole idea of sin is wrong-headed. Sins are not mere bad deeds or mistakes, but, in Augustine’s view, the byproduct of our ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful’ nature, with the power to actively corrupt and taint our immortal souls. In other words, sin is a reflection of our ‘true self’, or at least a part of it, and acting out these evil impulses makes us unworthy human beings, fit for eternal torture.

This makes no sense to me. Sometimes people commit bad actions; but, to me, it is more sensible to focus on why the action was bad, rather than how the person is evil for committing this action. For example, if I get angry and say something hurtful to my friend, I can respond to it by isolating what I said, figuring out why I said it, determining why my friend thought it was hurtful—which requires empathy—and then apologizing to my friend and trying to learn from this experience. Or I might, as Augustine would, start thinking about how I have done an evil thing, pray incessantly, beg God for forgiveness, and for years afterward torment myself with the thought of this wrong action. The first is adult and responsible, the second is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. To me, this endless chastisement for bad actions is immature on many levels.

First, the sin is attributed to your ‘sinful nature’, rather than to a habit of yours or to a mistaken assumption, which I think is plain hogwash, and which also doesn’t help you focus on what really caused the problem; nobody is inherently evil or good: we have bad or good habits, and can change them if we want. Second, since the sense of sin makes people obsess about whether they will be damned or saved, it makes people think about their actions through an intensely selfish lens—their own fate—rather than promoting good behavior through empathizing with those around you. So in summary I find the idea of sin to be counterproductive to living a happy and ethical life.

This is what I find most intensely unattractive about Augustine’s personality. Yet, if I am to practice what I preach, I must not condemn Augustine the man for this behavior, but only a bad habit of thinking he developed. And if I am to weigh everything lovable and unlovable in the scales of my affection, I must admit that I find Augustine to be one of the most compelling personalities and extraordinary thinkers in all of history. This is not a book for just Catholics, or even just for Christians. This is a book for everyone, for all of time. So to repeat the words that lead to Augustine’s conversion to the faith, Pick up and read, pick up and read, pick up and read.

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Review: The Righteous Mind

Review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be good, but I did not expect it to be so rich in ideas and dense with information. Haidt covers far more territory than the subtitle of the book implies. Not only is he attempting to explain why people are morally tribal, but also the way morality works in the human brain, the evolutionary origins of moral feelings, the role of moral psychology in the history of civilization, the origin and function of religion, and how we can apply all this information to the modern political situation—among much else along the way.

Haidt begins with the roles of intuition and reasoning in making moral judgments. He contends that our moral reasoning—the reasons we aver for our moral judgments—consists of mere post hoc rationalizations for our moral intuitions. We intuitively condemn or praise an action, and then search for reasons to justify our intuitive reaction.

He bases his argument on the results of experiments in which the subjects were told a story—usually involving a taboo violation of some kind, such as incest—and then asked whether the story involved any moral breach or not. These stories were carefully crafted so as not to involve harm to anyone (such as a brother and sister having sex in a lonely cabin and never telling anyone, and using contraception to prevent the risk of pregnancy).

Almost inevitably he found the same result: people would condemn the action, but then struggle to find coherent reasons to do so. To use Haidt’s metaphor, our intuition is like a client in a court case, and our reasoning is the lawyer: its job is to win the case for intuition, not to find the truth.

This is hardly a new idea. Haidt’s position was summed up several hundred years before he was born, by Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” An intuitionist view of morality was also put forward by David Hume and Adam Smith. But Haidt’s account is novel for the evolutionary logic behind his argument and the empirical research used to back his claims. This is exemplified in his work on moral axes.

Our moral intuition is not one unified axis from right to wrong. There are, rather, six independent axes: harm, proportionality, equality, loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, actions can be condemned for a variety of reasons: for harming others, for cheating others, for oppressing others, for betraying one’s group, for disrespecting authority, and for desecrating sacred objects, beings, or places.

These axes of morality arose because of evolutionary pressure. Humans who cared for their offspring and their families survived better, as did humans who had a greater sensitivity to being cheated by freeloaders (proportionality) and who resisted abusive alpha males trying to exploit them (equality). Similarly, humans who were loyal to their group and who respected a power hierarchy outperformed less loyal and less compliant humans, because they created more coherent groups (this explanation relies on group selection theory; see below). And lastly, our sense of purity and desecration—usually linked to religious and superstitious notions—arose out of our drive to avoid physical contamination (for example, pork was morally prohibited because it was unsafe to eat).

Most people in the world use all six of these axes in their moral systems. It is only in the West—particularly in the leftist West—where we focus mainly on the first three: harm, proportionality, and equality. Indeed, one of Haidt’s most interesting points is that the right tends to be more successful in elections because it appeals to a broader moral palate: it appeals to more “moral receptors” in the brain than left-wing morality (which primarily appeals to the axis of help and harm), and is thus more persuasive.

This brings us to Part III of the book, by far the most speculative.

Haidt begins with a defense of group selection: the theory that evolution can operate on the level of groups competing against one another, rather than on individuals. This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a highly controversial topic in biology, as Haidt himself acknowledges. Haidt thinks that group selection is needed to explain the “groupishness” displayed by humans—our ability to put aside personal interest in favor of our groups—and makes a case for the possibility of group selection occurring during the last 10,000 or so years of our history. He makes the theory seem plausible (to a layperson like me), but I think the topic is too complex to be covered in one short chapter.

True or not, Haidt uses the theory of group theory to account for what he calls “hiveish” behavior that humans sometimes display. Why are soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren? Why do people like to take ecstasy and rave? Why do we waste so much money and energy going to football games and cheering for our teams? All these behaviors are bizarre when you see humans as fundamentally self-seeking; they only make sense, Haidt argues, if humans possess the ability to transcend their usual self-seeking perspective and identify themselves fully with a group. Activating this self-transcendence requires special circumstances, and it cannot be activated indefinitely; but it produces powerful effects that can permanently alter a person’s perspective.

Haidt then uses group selection and this idea of a “hive-switch” to explain religion. Religions are not ultimately about beliefs, he says, even though religions necessarily involve supernatural beliefs of some kind. Rather, the social functions of religions are primarily to bind groups together. This conclusion is straight out of Durkheim. Haidt’s innovation (well, the credit should probably go to David Sloan Wilson, who wrote Darwin’s Cathedral) is to combine Durkheim’s social explanation of religion with a group-selection theory and a plausible evolutionary story (too long to relate here).

As for empirical support, Haidt cites a historical study of communes, which found that religious communes survived much longer than their secular counterparts, thus suggesting that religions substantially contribute to social cohesion and stability. He also cites several studies showing that religious people tend to be more altruistic and generous than their atheistic peers; and this is apparently unaffected by creed or dogma, depending only on attendance rates of religious services. Indeed, for someone who describes himself as an atheist, Haidt is remarkably positive on the subject of religion; he sees religions as valuable institutions that promote the moral level and stability of a society.

The book ends with a proposed explanation of the political spectrum—people genetically predisposed to derive pleasure from novelty and to be less sensitive to threats become left-wing, and vice versa (the existence of libertarians isn’t explained, and perhaps can’t be)—and finally with an application of the book’s theses to the political arena.

Since we are predisposed to be “groupish” (to display strong loyalty towards our own group) and to be terrible at questioning our own beliefs (since our intuitions direct our reasoning), we should expect to be blind to the arguments of our political adversaries and to regard them as evil. But the reality, Haidt argues, is that each side possesses a valuable perspective, and we need to have civil debate in order to reach reasonable compromises. Pretty thrilling stuff.

Well, there is my summary of the book. As you can see, for such a short book, written for a popular audience, The Righteous Mind is impressively vast in scope. Haidt must come to grips with philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, history—from Hume, to Darwin, to Durkheim—incorporating mountains of empirical evidence and several distinct intellectual traditions into one coherent, readable whole. I was constantly impressed by the performance. But for all that, I had the constant, nagging feeling that Haidt was intentionally playing the devil’s advocate.

Haidt argues that our moral intuition guides our moral reasoning, in a book that rationally explores our moral judgments and aims to convince its readers through reason. The very existence of his book undermines his uni-directional model of intuitions to reasoning. Being reasonable is not easy; but we can take steps to approach arguments more rationally. One of these steps is to summarize another person’s argument before critiquing it, which is what I’ve done in this review.

He argues that religions are not primarily about beliefs but about group fitness; but his evolutionary explanation of religion would be rejected by those who deny evolution on religious grounds; and even if specific beliefs don’t influence altruistic behavior, they certainly do influence which groups (homosexuals, biologists) are shunned. Haidt also argues that religions are valuable because of their ability to promote group cohesion; but if religions necessarily involve irrational beliefs, as Haidt admits, is it really wise to base a moral order on religious notions? If religions contribute to the social order by encouraging people to sacrifice their best interest for illogical reasons—such as in the commune example—should they really be praised?

The internal tension continues. Haidt argues that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they appeal to a broader moral palate, not just care and harm; and he argues that conservatives are valuable because their broad morality makes them more sensitive to disturbances of the social order. Religious conservative groups which enforce loyalty and obedience are more cohesive and durable than secular groups that value tolerance. But Haidt himself endorses utilitarianism (based solely on the harm axis) and ends the book with a plea for moral tolerance. Again, the existence of Haidt’s book presupposes secular tolerance, which makes his stance confusing.

Haidt’s arguments with regard to broad morality come dangerously close to the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’: equating what is natural with what is good. He compares moral axes to taste receptors; a morality that appeals to only one axis will be unsuccessful, just like a cuisine that appeals to only one taste receptor will fail to satisfy. But this analogy leads directly to a counter-point: we know that we have evolved to love sugar and salt, but this preference is no longer adaptive, indeed it is unhealthy; and it is equally possible that our moral environment has changed so much that our moral senses are no longer adaptive.

In any case, I think that Haidt’s conclusions about leftist morality are incorrect. Haidt asserts that progressive morality rests primarily on the axis of care and harm, and that loyalty, authority, and purity are actively rejected by liberals (“liberals” in the American sense, as leftist). But this is implausible. Liberals can be extremely preoccupied with loyalty—just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. The difference is not that liberals don’t care about loyalty, but that they tend to be loyal to different types of groups—parties and ideologies rather than countries. And the psychology of purity and desecration is undoubtedly involved in the left’s concern with racism, sexism, homophobia, or privilege (accusing someone of speaking from privilege creates a moral taint as severe as advocating sodomy does in other circles).

I think Haidt’s conclusion is rather an artifact of the types of questions that he asks in his surveys to measure loyalty and purity. Saying the pledge of allegiance and going to church are not the only manifestations of these impulses.

For my part, I think the main difference between left-wing and right-wing morality is the attitude towards authority: leftists are skeptical of authority, while conservatives are skeptical of equality. This is hardly a new conclusion; but it does contradict Haidt’s argument that conservatives think of morality more broadly. And considering that a more secular and tolerant morality has steadily increased in popularity over the last 300 years, it seems prima facie implausible to argue that this way of thinking is intrinsically unappealing to the human brain. If we want to explain why Republicans win so many elections, I think we cannot do it using psychology alone.

The internal tensions of this book can make it frustrating to read, even if it is consistently fascinating. It seems that Haidt had a definite political purpose in writing the book, aiming to make liberals more open to conservative arguments; but in de-emphasizing so completely the value of reason and truth—in moral judgments, in politics, and in religion—he gets twisted into contradictions and risks undermining his entire project.

Be that as it may, I think his research is extremely valuable. Like him, I think it is vital that we understand how morality works socially and psychologically. What is natural is not necessarily what is right; but in order to achieve what is right, it helps to know what we’re working with.

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Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

The Institutes of Christian ReligionThe Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many wicked lies get mixed up with the tiny particles of truth in the writings of these philosophers.

I am here writing a review of John Calvin’s most famous book, but I can’t say I’ve actually read it. I have read an abridged version, one that preserves about 15% of the original. This is still a fair amount, considering that the unabridged version runs to well over 1,000 pages; but there is so much I missed that I feel a bit self-conscious writing a review.

John Calvin is arguably the most important Protestant theologian in history. Karl Barth once called Hegel the ‘Protestant Aquinas’, but the title seems more apt for Calvin, whose Institutes put into systematic form the new theology and dogma of the budding faith. Calvin begins with knowledge of God, then moves on to knowledge of Christ, the Christian life, justification by faith, prayer, election and predestination, the church and the sacraments, and much more along the way.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, and it shows in his style. Unlike Aquinas, who made careful arguments and addressed objections using logic, Calvin’s primary mode of argument is to quote and interpret scripture, in much the same way as a lawyer might argue from legal precedent. You can also see his legal background in Calvin’s combative tone; he attacks and defends with all the cunning of a professional debater, and will use any rhetorical device available to win his case.

The two biggest theological influence on Calvin, it seems, were St. Paul and St. Augustine, both of whom were rather preoccupied with evil and sin. The gentleness of the Gospels seems totally absent from Calvin’s worldview. Perhaps this is due as much to his personality; he struck me as rather saturnine and bitter, a man disappointed with the world. His mode of argument and cutting tone—treating all his interpretations of the Bible as self-evident and obvious, and his enemies as wicked deceivers—also made him, for me, a rather authoritarian guide through theology. And his zeal was manifested in deed as well as word. It was Calvin, after all, who oversaw the auto-da-fé of Michael Servetus, a Unitarian who believed in adult baptism.

Besides being a powerful thinker, Calvin was a powerful stylist. This book, in the French translation, remains one of the most influential works of French prose. He can swell into ecstasies as he describes the goodness of God, the mercy of Christ, and the bliss that awaits the elect in the next life. At other times, he can rain down fire and brimstone on sinners and reprobates, accusing humanity of universal sin and condemning human nature itself. One of his most characteristic moods is a powerful disgust with sin, which he sees as an inescapable part of earthly life, a pervasive filth that clings to everything. This quote gives a taste of his style:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; they suffer for their own imperfection and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

The most controversial part of this book is the section on predestination. Before even the creation of the world, God knew who would be saved and who would be damned. Our salvation is not ultimately due to any choices we make; we are entirely helpless, completely dependent on God’s grace. By ourselves, we earn and deserve nothing. Human nature can take no credit for goodness. The reason why some are saved and others damned is entirely mysterious. You can never know for sure if you are among God’s elect, but there are certain signs that give hope.

One thing I do admire about Calvin’s argument for predestination is that he achieves a brutal kind of consistency. God is all-powerful, and thus responsible for everything that happens; he is all-knowing, and so was aware of what would happen when he created the world; and he is infinitely good, so all goodness resides in him and not in us.

The only problem with this doctrine is that, when combined with the doctrine of heaven and hell, it makes God seem monstrously unjust. A God who creates a world in which the majority of its inhabitants will be inescapably condemned to everlasting torment is even worse than a man who breeds puppies just to throw them in the fire. Calvin makes much of the “inscrutability of God’s judgment”; but this is as much to say that you should believe him even though what he’s saying doesn’t make sense.

Calvin perhaps can’t be faulted too much for reaching this bleak conclusion. Theologians have been trying for a long time to square the attributes of God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenificence—with the qualities we observe in the world and the doctrine of heaven and hell. Everlasting punishment can only appear fair if the sinner brought it upon himself with his own free action (and even then, it seems like a stretch to call everlasting torment “justice”).

But how can free will exist in a universe created by an all-powerful and all-knowing God? For if God knew exactly what was going to happen when the universe was created, and is ultimately responsible for everything that happens (since he created the universe with full knowledge of the consequences), then that would make God responsible for the existence of sinners, and thus we get this same absurdity of people being punished for things they were destined to do.

For my part, I find this question of predestination and punishment extremely interesting, since I think we will have to face similar paradoxes as we learn to explain human behavior. As our belief in free will is eroded through increasing knowledge of psychology and sociology, how will it affect our justice system?

In any case, I’m glad I read the abridged version, since I can’t imagine pushing myself through more than 1,000 pages of this book.
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Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Cutting Through Spiritual MaterialismCutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not consider how we are going to vomit; we just vomit.

Chögyam Trungpa was a charismatic and controversial figure in the Western popularization of Buddhism. As a teenager in Tibet, Trungpa fled the Chinese in an escape that involved swimming across a river under gunfire, climbing the Himalayas, and running so short of food that he had to eat his leather belt and bag. Eventually he emigrated to the United States, where he founded several schools, and pioneered a secular interpretation of Buddhism, Shambhala Training. You may be surprised to learn that Trungpa, far from being an ascetic monk, also had notorious penchants for bedding his female students and for going on drunken debauches.

My interest in Trungpa was sparked by reading a book on meditation by his disciple, Pema Chödrön, which I thought was excellent. Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa’s most famous book, contains two series of lectures Trungpa gave, in 1970-71, about the pitfalls of the spiritual path and how to overcome them. As such, this series of lectures is largely theoretical rather than practical—how to think about the spiritual path rather than what to do once you’re on it—even if there are practical ramifications.

‘Spiritual materialism’ is Trungpa’s term for the ways that the ego co-opts spirituality for its own benefit. ‘Ego’ is our sense of self. In Buddhist thought, this sense of self is illusory; the self is a process, not a thing. Ego is the mind’s attempt to create an illusion of solidity where none exists. Put another way, ‘ego’ is the mind’s attempt to reject impermanence.

This attempt takes many forms. We modify our environment, manipulating the material world and bringing it under our control, in order to create a perfectly comfortable world that never challenges or disappoints us. We create intellectual systems—positivism, nationalism, Buddhism—that rationalize and explain the world, that define our place in the world and dictate to us rules of action. We also attempt to analyze ourselves: we use literature, psychology, drugs, prayer, and meditation to achieve a sense of self-consciousness, an awareness of who we are. All of these are the ego’s attempts to solidify both itself and its world, to see the universe as a series of defined shapes rather than an endless flux.

This project of solidification can even use spiritual techniques in its own benefit. The goal of meditation is the dissolution of the ego and the absence of struggle. And yet many who embark on the spiritual path see meditation as a battle with the ego, an attempt to break certain habits, to overcome certain mentalities, to free themselves from illusions. If spirituality is seen in such a way—as ‘you’ against ‘something else’—then you will hit a wall; and this wall will only get stronger the harder you push against it. Only when you give up trying to destroy this wall, when you stop struggling, does the wall disappear; for the wall was the product of your own ‘dualistic’ thinking—once again, ‘you’ against ‘something else’—and ceases to exist when you stop trying to destroy it:

“There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of buddhahood.”

It is no use, therefore, to practice acts of extreme asceticism, forceful acts of self-denial. It is no use to try to overcome your own negative qualities—to strive to be good, kind, caring, loving. It is no use to accumulate vast amounts of religious knowledge; nor is it beneficial to accumulate religious titles or honorifics. True spirituality is not a battle, not a quality, not an ultimate analysis, and it is not an accomplishment. All of those things belong to a person, whereas enlightenment contains no sense of me and not-me.

This is my best attempt to summarize the core message of this book. (And please excuse the ponderous style; I’ve been reading Hegel.) Yet I’m not exactly sure how to go about analyzing or evaluating it. Indeed, such criticism seems totally antithetical to the ethos of this book. But I’ll try, nevertheless.

There is an obvious contradiction between Trungpa’s stance on intellectual analysis—as the ego’s vain attempt to solidify its world through intellectual work—and the analysis that he himself undertakes in this book. If all analysis is vain, what makes his any different? To this, I think he would respond that analysis is fine if we take the right attitude towards it—namely, as long as we keep in mind that our analysis is not identical with the reality it attempts to describe, that we can never describe reality perfectly, and that there’s always a chance we are wrong. More succinctly, I think he’d say analysis is fine as long as we don’t take it too seriously. By his own admission, there is no ‘final analysis’ of the human condition; and enlightenment is characterized by the absence of any need to analyze.

Still, there does seem to be the idea in Trungpa’s system that, in attaining this ego-less state, we are experiencing the ‘truth’ of reality, whereas before we were mired in the ‘illusions’ of the ego. In this, you might say that the system is esoteric: true knowledge is the purview of only the truly enlightened. True knowledge, in other words, is not transmissible through speech, but is the result of privileged state which only a few achieve. Bodhisattvas become authorities through their enlightened states, beings who must be listened to because of their special, higher perspectives. Again, I think Trungpa would respond that even the ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are dualistic (they involves the sense of ‘me’ knowing ‘something else’), and thus this idea is not applicable to the enlightened.

Putting all this aside, it’s worth asking whether this ego-less state is even desirable. Could we have science, technology, literature, or love without a sense of self? An ego-less world might involve less suffering; but isn’t there something to be said for suffering? Trungpa describes the ego as a monkey creating various worlds—creating for itself its own heaven and hell, a world of animal desire and human intellect—and moving through these self-created worlds in a vain search for perfect happiness, only to have each of its own worlds collapse in turn. And yet, even if I accepted Trungpa’s premise that this struggle is vain, I still think it’s an open question whether perfect tranquility is preferable to vain struggle.

All reservations notwithstanding, I still thought that this book was an enlightening read. While I may be skeptical about the prospect of enlightenment and ego-death, I do think that meditation, as a method of slowing down, of savoring one’s own mental life, and of learning to accept the world around you, is an extremely useful technique. And as a technique, its end is an experience—or perhaps, better yet, an attitude—and the theory that goes along with meditation does not constitute its substance; rather, theory is just a pedagogical tool to help guide less experienced practitioners. It is in this light, I think, that these lectures should be read.

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Review: Spiritual Exercises

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

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Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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Review: How to Meditate

Review: How to Meditate

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your MindHow to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off.

When I was in high school, I spent a few years going to Tae Kwon Do classes. I was never any good. Every time we had sparring practice, I got whooped—that is, unless I accidentally kicked my opponent in the crotch (which I did a lot). But besides the fun of hand-to-hand combat, one thing that kept me coming back was the meditation. After every class, we would spend about ten minutes in a guided meditation. These were not easy. Most often, the master had us holding an uncomfortable or difficult pose, until all my muscles were quivering and shaking and I collapsed.

Sometimes all I felt was pain and struggle; but other times, something would happen. As I listened to the master talk about energy flowing through my body, I could actually feel it. I felt strange forces in my arms and legs, seeming to move through me. This was weird, since I didn’t believe anything the master was saying—at least not in a literal way. I didn’t believe in qi, or energy centers in the body, or any of that stuff; but I felt something, and it was interesting.

This experience left me with a lingering respect for and curiosity about meditation. A book by David D. Burns about anxiety recently reawakened this curiosity. As I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I kept thinking that it reminded me of what I knew (or thought I knew) about Buddhism. Besides that, Burns himself drew some parallels with Buddhism in his discussions of fear. So I decided to look into it. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested Pema Chödrön as a place to start; and this book, a practical guide to meditation, seemed perfect.

I was surprised by what I found. The type of meditation Chödrön advocates doesn’t involve holding difficult postures or enduring pain. You don’t even have to close your eyes. Instead, you find a spot, sit up straight, cross your legs (or don’t), and stay there, eyes open, breathing in and breathing out. You don’t focus on energy centers or the cosmic flow of qi. Instead, you just try to focus on your breath. You breathe in, breathe out, and try to keep your attention on the present moment.

I have been doing these exercises for a week now, and I can tell you that being present, focusing on the moment, is far more difficult than you’d think. My mind is like a boiling, bubbling cauldron. Memories randomly appear; fearful fantasies flash into being; my to-do list nags me; an itch on my head irritates; my leg’s falling asleep; a sound triggers an association; a smell makes me think of food; and spasms of impatience surge through me as the time wares on.

Meditation certainly hasn’t induced a Zen-like calm in me so far. But it says a lot that now I’m aware of all these things. Just sitting there noticing what happens in my head, and letting it all pass through me, has been tremendously interesting. I realize that my very brain is not totally under my control. Things are always happening in there, constantly, spontaneously, which draw my attention from the moment; and it takes effort not to get sucked in.

One of the things I like most about Chödrön’s approach is its versatility. You can make anything your object of meditation. You can focus on sounds, sights, tactile sensations, or the taste of an apple. You can focus on fear, anger, sadness, joy, on fantasies or memories. Anything in your life can be the object of meditation, as long as you use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment. Meditation gives you the self-awareness—not through conceptual discussion, but first-hand experience—to learn what your mind is doing and how to interrupt your habitual patterns.

What I find especially appealing is the philosophy. Well, perhaps “philosophy” isn’t the right word; it’s more of an attitude or a mindset. Through the attempt to reconnect with the moment, you realize how much of your experience is transformed by the conceptual overlay you put on top of it. Our heads are full of judgments, opinions, beliefs. We are constantly telling stories about our lives, with ourselves as the protagonist.

Have you ever had an experience like this? When I was in college, I accepted a job doing surveys over the phone. But I was extremely nervous about it. I imagined respondent after respondent yelling at me, hanging up on me, and my manager angry at me and chastising me, and me having a breakdown and getting fired. This fantasy was so strong, I almost couldn’t make myself go to my first day of work. But when I finally did make myself go, shivering with fear, and when I finally made myself call, my voice quaking, I realized that I could do it. What seemed impossible in my imagination was easy in reality. In fact, I ended up loving that job.

This is what I like to call the “novelistic imagination.” Your mind is a natural dramatist—at least, mine is—and it can tell the most outrageous stories about your past, present, and future. But the interesting thing, I’ve found, is that we’re actually quite bad at imagining how things will be. We’re good at imagining possibilities—especially worst-case scenarios—but bad at imagining experiences. That’s because, when we use our novelistic imagination, we assume that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But life is not a story: it’s a collection of moments. And the present moment is so different, and so much richer, than all the wild fantasies in our minds.

My hunch is that we evolved our novelistic imagination as a way of avoiding danger by running scenarios. “If I go so far away, maybe I won’t be back by sundown, and the hyenas over there might smell me, etc.” The problem is that this gets out of hand, which is why we humans get so many stress-related diseases—not to mention suffer from chronic anxiety. We developed the mental faculty to anticipate danger and avoid it; but we can’t turn it off, so we sense danger everywhere.

This is taking me pretty far from the book (so you know it’s a good book, because it’s making me think). I’ll only add that this book strikes me as an ideal introduction to meditation. Chödrön writes with warmth, humor, and understanding. She is brief and to the point, but you don’t feel that she’s leaving anything out. She is practical, encouraging, and inspiring. I encourage anyone whose curious to try it. You can be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist like me—it doesn’t matter. Meditation is not about believing certain things. To the contrary: it’s about getting past your beliefs about the world, and experiencing the world itself.

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