Friday, September 19, 2014

Book promotion!

Howdy guys, I know that I've been breaking a cardinal rule in blogging in that I've only been posting very infrequently lately, but I do still see a lot of visits to the site.  So I'm going to keep it up.

I'm currently putting a lot of my energy into writing books, which, unfortunately, seems to include a fair amount of marketing.   So, I'm doing a promotion for my first offering.

I'm doing a promotion for my book, it is free to download from SmashWords until the end of October. You have to register with SmashWords and use this coupon code: SD66Z . The book is at this link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/456115 . All I ask is that if you enjoy reading it that you write a review and share the word with others. Feel free to share this link to your friends, FaceBook connections, twitter, your own blog, or anything and anyone else you think might be interested.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Daoist Take on the Race Riots in Ferguson Missouri

I've been following the events at Ferguson Missouri with especial interest as the events are taking place close to my dear and beloved wife, who lives in metropolitan St. Louis.  There seems to be a consensus emerging that something really wrong is going on in that part of the US, but what exactly seems to be somewhat vague.

Much of the concern seems to be directed at police brutality and the militarization of the police.  But as an outsider who has developed a cursory familiarity with the area, I think that people should understand that the St. Louis area suffers deeply from racial segregation.  It is absolutely gob smacking to an outsider.  For example, there are literally streets you can drive down where one side is filled with beautiful, nice old homes---inhabited by white people;  and the other is filled with dilapidated houses where black folks live.   

Here's a twelve minute YouTube documentary that pretty much explains the situation and explains how it happens.  Pay particular attention to the quick segment that happens at about 7:05 point.  It shows egg cartons with black and white eggs and shows how simply not wanting to live in an area where you are out-numbered 2-to-1 in your neighbourhood by people of another race inevitably leads to total segregation.  


Another thing to pay attention to is the bit about how real estate agents "steer" prospective home buyers towards neighbourhoods that are majority white or black, and away from one where they don't "belong".  

At the end of the documentary, the professor suggests that it is important to take action to end the Institutional sources of segregation instead of seeing it primarily as an issue of personal morality.  This is tremendously important, as things like this routinely get seen as individual morality plays.  

I suppose that this has something to do with the way evolution has formed our minds.  After all, the basis of racism seems to be a genetic disposition to not see anyone who is not related to us as being "Other".  This makes sense as it is clear that someone who looks so different probably doesn't share DNA with us, so there is no evolutionary advantage in helping them.  But this type of socio-biological analysis misses the point that we have also evolved as societies and relationships of reciprocity between non-related people are the only thing that allows us to function as cities and nations.  

I would suggest that a large part of the reason why we see things like the events in Ferguson as morality plays is because of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The Abrahamic religions put a huge emphasis on the idea that we have free will and are able to choose to accept the grace of God or reject it.  In contrast, Eastern religions take into account the social context that someone comes from and understands that this greatly influences the decisions that people make.  There is a line in the Daoist Taiping Jing where the Celestial Master suggests that people should not condemn someone who does wrong too harshly because they are the product of their childhood and background.  Similarly, they shouldn't think too highly of themselves if they do good, for the same reason.  

Following the Celestial Master's suggestion, the thing to do is acknowledge whatever emotional reaction one may be feeling about the news.  This involves centring the body, taking an inventory of both our physical and mental state, and reminding ourselves that we are self-aware, self-conscious individuals who have at least some control over our emotions and behaviour.  This is known as "holding onto the One", and is the core teaching of both the Nei-Yeh and the Taiping Jing.  

Once we have "the One" in hand, then the thing to do is to try and understand the Dao of the situation.  This involves calmly trying to look for the subtle issues at hand, issues that perhaps the overwhelming majority of people are missing because they are so caught up in their strong emotions.  I would suggest that if you do so, you can find something that the overwhelming majority of the media has missed.  That is, there is a study that a group of people have done that exposes the real reason why Ferguson Missouri has exploded into violence.  

A group that calls themselves the "Arch City Defenders" has prepared and published a report on the entities known as Municipal Courts and their baleful influence on the black community in the Greater St. Louis area.  You can read it as a PDF here.  It is fairly long, but is easy to read and is worth it.  It explains that there are great many little municipalities outside of St. Louis that have independent town ordinances, police forces and municipal court systems.  As well, a disproportionately large amount of the city revenue that is raised in these communities comes from fines levied against people in these communities.  Ferguson, for example, uses this as its second largest source of income.  Moreover, these fines are levied disproportionately against people of colour.  And the system is progressively rigged to extract money from poor people who are so close to destitution that even a minor fine of a few hundred dollars or a short stay in jail of less than a week, can be catastrophic.  

It is very obvious to anyone who reads through this report that the "system" of places like Ferguson Missouri is designed to keep a boot placed on the neck of black people.  This is what racism looks like.  It isn't a bunch of boozed-up Klansmen who decide to pull someone from jail and lynch him.  (As in the movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird".)  But rather a set of laws and regulations that make it extremely difficult for anyone to dig themselves out of debt or poverty.  Subtlety is the essence of long-term oppression.  And subtlety is how to identify and escape from it.  Moral outrage is irrelevant.  


Monday, August 4, 2014

That Elusive Feeling of "Oneness"

I've been walking around in a vague sense of funk lately.  I have had a hard time identifying why, but several very different things have made me depressed.

First of all, I am somewhat upset about the huge amount of effort that I am having to put into marketing my book.  Everything I've read says that it is more work selling a book than writing it, and it is certainly the case that I've had to go through a big learning curve as I figured out how to format it, register it so I could get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), register a copy with the National Archives, get an tax exemption so I don't have to pay tax double on any hypothetical royalties I might earn, and, find out how to merchandise it using social media.

Secondly, I've been really upset about work lately.  Not that much affected me directly, but there's been a lot of renovation going on in the Library and I'm just annoyed at the ridiculous amount of change that constantly seems to be happening around me.  The image that immediately comes to mind is that of a hamster running in a wheel.  This place just seems to be constantly involved in change for change's sake.

Also there have been changes in co-workers that have been dragging on, literally for years.  One co-worker was forced to leave because of what appears to have been chronic alcoholism and the university has literally taken years to fill the vacant position.  In the interim, a young fellow has been working on a contractual basis and the consensus seemed to be that he was going to get the permanent job.  Instead, a woman from a department that was declared redundant but who has 28 years of seniority, is going to get the position.  This seems to a lot of people to be somewhat unfair.

None of this stuff is new, but I had a bit of a revelation recently.  As part of my job I am supposed to check offices on the weekend to look for things like water leaks.  I went through a couple offices and noticed various manager's meager work-related book collections.   One person has a collection of books about how to use blogs to influence others and market various products and services.  The other had a book on his desk about how to use meetings to accelerate the rate of change within an organization.  Finally, I was in an office being used by a contractor to manage one of three projects in the building and he had a copy of the contract for his particular project open on his desk.  It was in a three-ring binder and appeared to be about two inches thick!

It suddenly dawned on me that my problem is the crazy complexity of modern life and how much of what we do from day-to-day is dominated by complex abstract ways of doing things.

I have tried in my personal life to simplify things and to lessen my impact on the world around me.  These things that I see on the desks of other people are all things that complicate the world around them and are attempts by individuals to increase their influence.  The second last chapter of the DDJ encapsulates my gut instinct:
A small state with few people.
Let the implements (ch'ih) for ten and hundred men be unused,
Let the people fear death such that they do not move far away.
Although there are boats and carriages,
There are no places to ride them to.
Although there are weapons and armours,
There are no occasions to display them.
Let the people again tie ropes and use them (as memory aids).
Let them enjoy their food,
Consider their clothing beautiful,
Be contented with their dwellings,
And happy with their customs.
The neighbouring states overlooking one another,
The dogs' barkings and cocks' crowings are heard from other states,
Yet till they are old and dying the people do not visit one another 
Chapter 80, Ellen Chen trans.
Oh that we could go back to that past world of simplicity!  Where people interacted with honesty and based upon their real feelings instead of calculation. Of course, the worm in that particular apple is the fact that my theoretical "Eden" never actually existed. Even in the time of Laozi it was probably not much more than a pastoral fantasy.

Modern psychology has some very interesting things to say about this instinct I have for "the good old days".

First of all, our brains are constructed for instant, instinctual decisions.  This had significant evolutionary pay-off in that there are lots of situations where it doesn't pay to waste time deliberating.  If that rustling in the bushes is a leopard, you are dinner before you know it if you try to reason things out.  But this instant decision-making comes at a price.  Our unconscious uses short cuts.  We jump to dumb conclusions if we don't take the time to think things through.  And because our brains are designed to maximize speed over accuracy, when we do try to think things through it takes a lot of effort and it isn't easy.  

Secondly, our minds seem to be designed to maximize the ability to get along in small, family-based hunting bands.  This makes sense if you consider the "selfish gene" theory.  In strict evolutionary terms, the only reason why any animal exists is to replicate their genes. It doesn't really matter if the genes are in me or in an identical twin.  Moreover, the genes in a brother or sister will be half the same as mine, so there is utility in my helping replicate those too.  The same even applies to a lesser extent for cousins. If I do something selfless that results in the survival of the rest of my family---even though it results in my death---it is still helping the genes that are the same as mine to replicate. But this doesn't apply to a total stranger.  If I come across someone from a totally different tribe, who isn't even remotely related to me, there is no value in helping him to survive at all.  (A woman might be a different case, as I could have sex with her and maybe create a child with half of my DNA.)

The result of this is that people very quickly develop a sense of "us" and "them" based on familiarity.  This means that, for example, the small number of us who work together in the library have an exaggerated sense of "togetherness" that means we get very resentful when an office somewhere else on campus decides who does or doesn't get hired to work with us.  If some young person who's worked with us for a couple years on contracts gets passed over for the permanent job by someone else from another place on campus, it seems an outrage because she is an "outsider".  But the fact of the matter is that she has 28 years seniority and the University has signed contractual obligations with the union to ensure that people don't get dumped onto the side walk like garbage when they are too old to expect to find employment anywhere else.  People might think that it is unfair to see the young guy not get the job, but that is just our quick-deciding part of the brain working.  Think things through, and you can see that human resources has a point too.

It's the same way with a lot of other things too.

I might be all munged out about the extra work that I need to put into selling my book.  But the fact of the matter is that in the past I probably would never have been able to get the book into print in the first place.  Non-fiction books are usually published not on the quality of the writing or ideas, but rather on the credentials of the author. Not being a professor, I would never have even gotten my manuscript read by a publishing house, let alone printed.

I learned this a long time ago when I quickly dashed off a letter to the editor of an economic journal.  I never thought much about it, but I put it in an envelope that happened to have a letter head from the university.  To my surprise, the editor phoned the university (from England!) to get a hold of me. I connected and he said that he was very impressed by what I had to say and wanted me to make it into an article for the journal.  I said "OK", then he asked me what department I taught in.  When I said that I was a security guard in the library there was a very pregnant pause and then he said "Well, maybe we can print it as a letter to the editor".

I also had a friend who was a professional editor for a big publisher.  She said that she routinely got manuscripts from big names that were so badly written that she, in effect, ghost wrote the books.  (Without any credit, of course.)

The price I have to pay for this increased opportunity is that I have to bust my ass in order to market the book because no one else is going to do it for me.  But the pay off in the end is that if I do manage to sell a fair number of copies, I get to keep a lot more of the money for myself.  In the past even very successful authors tended to make a pittance out of sales because the middlemen pocketed almost everything.

I'm not the sort of person who believes that "all that is, is right" and comes up with explanations to justify everything.  I still am righteously annoyed with the endless renovations that take place on campus when much-needed maintenance is delayed long past the point of its necessity.  I am also annoyed that so much of the wealth of both the nation and nature is being squandered for precious little return.  But I do have a great deal of sympathy with Germaine de StaĆ«l's idea that "to know all is to forgive all".  So I try to remind myself to think about the big picture and avoid jumping to conclusions.  When I succeed, I often find that things that annoy me are the unavoidable results of other things that I do find useful.

The result is that through this rational analysis I can develop a sense of equanimity that while different from the sense of pastoral "Oneness" that seems to be upshot of Daoism, may actually be a much better way of developing peace of mind.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What is a Martial Art?

I have some tracking software on this blog that allows me to understand which posts bring the most traffic.  I've been surprised to see that a few posts that I made years ago totally swamp all the others in popularity.  Those are the ones about how I got involved in Daoism in the first place.  And of those, the discussion focuses repeatedly on the Taoist Tai Chi Society (TTCS) and Moy Lin Shin.

I suppose that this makes sense, given that the TTCS is a huge organization with affiliated schools and temples all over the world.  But in the on-going discussion that takes place in the comments section I've noticed that a lot of the back-and-forth comes about claims that I have made about the taichiquan form that is taught through that school.  The latest one got very involved in a complex discussion about another form called "lok hup":
It turns out the 108 moves was Mr Moy's way of preparing students to learn the zhu ji liuhebafa set of Liang Zipeng. The foundation exercises the TTCS practices are meant to be like Mr Peng's Three Treasures of Southern Yiquan: the danyu, toryu, and zhan zhuang. They all help build strength in the dantian and reinforce energy currents in the body. These are the "qigong elements" added into the 108 moves that people are always going on about.
You should see some of these advanced practitioners do lok hup ba fa though. It's obvious how that was Mr Moy's passion, and the simplified Yang 108 was the "internal arts 101" class... 
Many of my readers will no doubt find the terms mentioned "danyu", "toryu", "zhuan zhuang" and "lok hup ba fa" mystifying.  The first two are specific types of exercises, the third is a class of exercises, and the last is an internal "form".  Here's a YouTube of someone doing "Lok Hup":



That is to say, first of all, is this stuff a martial art?  And if it isn't, is it of any value?  And if it is of some value, are the results worth the effort?

Well, let's look at "Lok Hup".  Like a lot of things, finding the right spelling can make a big difference in learning about something.  Here's a Wikipedia article that talks about it, but it uses the phrase "Liuhebafa" instead of Lok Hup.  It has some interesting links at the end, including this one from a school that teaches Liuhebafa.

Like with most issues, I find that it is useful to try and clarify our language in order to improve our thinking about it.  So what's a martial art?

Well, the first answer would be that it is a form of self defence.  OK, but it is more specific than that.  The first clarifying question to ask is whether or not soldiers are taught martial arts, and I would suggest that they are not.

Martial arts came about not as something that ordinary folks could learn, but rather as a specialized skill that aristocrats learned in order to give them an edge when dealing with the "great unwashed".  Poor people were often a lot stronger than the wealthy, simply because they'd spent a lifetime in toil instead of leisure.  In contrast, because of that leisure and wealth, the rich had the opportunity to hire teachers to train them in specialized fighting techniques and the time to practice what they were taught.  This meant that when an aristocrat (or Buddhist monk or Daoist cleric) was attacked by ruffians, that the fight was sometimes very far from fair.

Take a look at the following scene from the film "Rob Roy".  Western, classically-trained actors are usually taught fencing as part of their training, which is why this scene is so realistic.  The guys really do know what they are doing.  This means that this scene is a little more realistic than many of the Asian martial arts movies.

  
Besides the issue of training opportunities, there is also the issue of weapons.  Martial arts are artificial constructs created by social limits being placed on what weapons are available.   Fencing with a rapier only makes sense when the opponent doesn't have any armour or a projectile weapon.  That means that they only became common after armour was made obsolete by black powder guns and stayed only until repeating pistols made them useless.  A rapier is worthless against a gangster who can buy a cheap automatic pistol, but very useful against an 18th century thief who probably cannot afford anything more lethal than an oak club or a dagger---especially if you are trained and he is using brute force. A musket with a bayonet would also be very good against ruffians, but would be a hassle to lug around to the whorehouse and gambling den, so a rapier and pistol it is.  There is always a chance that an aristocratic opponent might be wearing some type of armour under his clothing, but it would be useless against a pistol and would slow him down to make him an easier target to hit for that crucial single shot that muzzle-loading pistols allowed. (Plus it would be damned uncomfortable to wear and probably easy to spot anyway.)

Nowadays martial arts are pretty much worthless for most people.  We have very safe streets and very efficient police forces.  And anyone who is out to commit violence has ready access to really powerful weapons.  This means that the only really intelligent reaction in any but the rarest of instances is simply to run and hide, period.  If you believe that you absolutely must have some sort of self-defence system, then the logical thing to do is get a gun, a concealed carry permit and put your energy into learning how to shoot safely and efficiently.

The decline in the value of martial arts has meant that most of the European ones have died out.  Rapier fencing has survived as both a sport and as training for actors, but that is just about it.  In the East, however, because of the association between religion and martial arts, they have survived as methodologies for physical and spiritual cultivation.  I was, for example, taught taijiquan by a Daoist as part of a larger institution that included meditation classes and ritual worship at a Temple.   This connection has been formalized in "history" that suggests that Shaolin Kungfu was "invented" by the same Buddhist Monk who "invented" Zen.   Similarly, Daoist hermit Chang San Feng is supposed to have "invented" taijiquan.  (This is all nonsense, of course.)

In Japan a similar process was at work where people created the "do" (think "dao") way of understanding martial systems.  So "bushido" is "the way of the warrior", "Akido" is "the way of qi", "karatedo" is "the way of the empty hand", and so on.  The emphasis morphed from being specifically about fighting and surviving, and became that of learning to live a specific type of life.

This is all very well.  Indeed, I've pretty much built my life around this sort of thing.  But there are several real problems that can arise from this way of doing things.  First of all, young men have a genetic predisposition towards brawling.  (Think of young rams banging their heads together.)  The leaders of these schools have a strong incentive to completely remove sparring from the school, or, to formalize it to the point where it bears no resemblance at all to an actual fight.  Secondly, because the only reason why someone comes to a school in the first place is to learn something from the teacher, there is a tendency to artificially build-up the teacher to the point where they become just a tad short of Jesus Christ in the awesomeness department. The value of sparring is that it very quickly separates truth from bullshit.  And if your teacher is a real human being instead of a demi-god, you have a tendency to test what he has to say instead of just accepting it as a revelation from above.

Without this process of "truth testing", we can end up with this sort of situation developing:


I'm not about to make a decision one way or the other about what is going on the head of this Sensei.  It might be that he is a venal twerp who wants to either extract money from his students.  It might also be that at one time he decided that in order to make the rent and keep the kids around so he could teach them a little common sense, he decided to start making stuff up about qi.  It might also be that he was a very good teacher that ended up with a lot of very naive students treating him like a hero from a comic book and it went to his head.  Lots of different paths could lead to the place where he finds himself in this video.

What seems obvious to me, however, is that both he and his students are involved in a collective delusion about his supposed powers.

Again, it is possible to see how this could come about.  You cannot teach martial arts without a certain degree of play acting.  If you put people into a ring and try to get them doing stuff "for real" from the get go you are going to end up with broken bones, smashed teeth, concussions and lawsuits.  For example, this means that when you are learning joint locks you don't put maximum pressure on the limb and the other guy doesn't fight, he just passively flows into the throw.  The hope is that once you learn how it is supposed to work and do it so many times that it comes naturally, you will be able to use it in a real fight.  The problem is, however, that unless you actually try it out for real against someone who really is resisting, you never really know if it is for real or just baloney.

In the above, I'm assuming that someone is actually trying to do the martial art as primarily a martial art and only secondarily as a "dao".  But where someone can really go down the rabbit hole is when they give up on the self-defence elements altogether and start doing it for spiritual and health reasons.  This is because once you change the ultimate goal of the practice to that you remove any ability at all---even in theory---to check for self-delusion.  Any form of exercise will help people up a certain extent, but beyond that people can convince themselves that all sorts of things are happening in their body.  You can tell if someone is able to push other people around with their qi, by having some outsider actively resist and see if he still gets tossed.  But how do you argue with someone about what they are actually feeling in their bodies?  Or what sort of deep philosophical insight they are gaining from the practice?

Ultimately all we can do is look at their bodies.  Did the qi cure their cancer?  Or did they just feel good for a few months and die anyway?  Do they seem to be wiser and more insightful than everyone else?  Or do they do just as dumb and screwed-up things as everyone else?  At that point we are forcing martial arts to submit to the same sort of analysis as everything else in society.  To my mind, that means that we fall back on the old stand byes of scepticism:  logic and evidence.  






Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Ability to Communicate

I recently got embroiled in a stupid argument with some neo-cons on a local newspaper's discussion board.  It was about a lawsuit that the municipality recently lost with a construction company about building a new City Hall. I made a mistake by confusing a figure ($20 million) that was being thrown around with regard to the suit.  The company asked for that as a settlement.  I assumed that this was for damages, whereas it appears to be a payment that the city refused to pay once it severed its contract.

To a large extent, the reason why I made the mistake was because of the bizarre way that one of the people on the list argues.  He doesn't actually write much of anything himself, he just cuts and pastes large swathes of legal information he finds on the internet and "lets it speak for itself".  When confronted by very large chunks of verbiage written in legal mumbo jumbo, it is very easy to miss the meaning.

What this has got me thinking about is how many problems in society come from people's inability to express themselves.  In a more mundane example, I remember being asked at work to locate power outlets buried under carpeting at work.  One of the day staff gave me a map that showed how to locate these outlets under the carpet.  She said that "its absolutely the same everywhere in the library".  I looked and looked, cut many dry holes in the carpet and didn't come up with anything.  I went back to her and said "I can't find the outlets, are you sure that that map is accurate?"  Yes!  She was absolutely adamant that everywhere in the library was the same.  So I went back, did some more measurements, cut some more dry holes, and still didn't find anything.  I went back a third time and said that I had tried and cut all sorts of holes and I still couldn't find anything where it was supposed to be in the reserve area on the first floor.  At that point she said "Yes, the map works everywhere in the library---except on the first floor."

I know that this woman wants to do the best job that she can.  I also think that she believes she does.  Moreover, I'm pretty sure that she thinks I'm a bit of a "screw-up" because I "waste" so much time thinking about things and questioning people about issues instead of just saying "yes sir!" when asked to do something.  And it isn't that she lied to me, it's just that she had used what I call "universal absolute" language when what she should have done is used "nuanced" language instead.  If she had said "almost everywhere in the library is the same", there would never have been any problem.  Just like if the person posting about the lawsuit had bothered to use his own words to explain that "this $20 million figure is not for damages but rather deferred payment" instead of cutting and pasting something from a judge's findings.

I used to get really outraged about this sort of thing because I saw it as being done for some sort of ulterior purpose.  That is, the guy who uses cut and paste to make his points was trying to confuse people on purpose to slag the Mayor, and, my co-worker got some glee out of seeing me get blamed for wrecking a carpet.  But over the years I've come to the conclusion that in the majority of cases this sort of thing happens simply because many people don't have the ability to express themselves with any clarity or precision.

It is the case, of course, that sometimes the point that is being communicated is not a literal piece of information, but rather that of the relative power of the players involved.   The famous scene from the movie "Cool Hand Luke" is about this power in-balance.  Luke, for one reason or another, seems to act as if he has more personal autonomy than the prison warden wants to allow him.





For those of you who haven't seen the movie, the problem with Luke is that he simply refuses to internalize the rules and culture of prison life. This really is a big problem for the warden, because it would be impossible to run a prison without the tacit cooperation of the inmates.  When a charismatic prisoner comes along who refuses to "play ball", the authority really does have to find some way of getting him or her to "play ball".  And in many cases, it does simply involve finding some way to communicate the new power balance.  This can include forcing him to wear leg irons or striking him every time he makes a smart comment. The same sort of thing happens in the army during basic training, which is all about teaching people to follow orders instantly and without question.  Since the whole point of the exercise is to by-pass the discursive intellect and get people to act without thinking, force is the main instrument of communication.

This issue of communication is important for anyone who is interested in Eastern Philosophy where it manifests itself in language that is often gnomic instead of clear and precise.  Consider the following scene from the sci-fi series "Babylon Five", which gives two neat examples of gnomic sayings in response to a specific question.



The initial snippet involves the Centari Ambassador, Londo, being asked to help the parents of a child to get "justice".  His answer is "how much justice can you afford?" The Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, is being asked if he will be willing to intervene to stop an operation by the station physician to save the life of a child.  (The procedure is against the parent's religious beliefs.)  Kosh's answer is "The avalanche has already started.  It is too late for the pebbles to vote."  Londo is asking for a bribe, whereas Kosh is suggesting that the situation is already beyond the ability of both the parents and ambassadors to influence.

Gnomic answers are used for a variety of reasons.  In the case of people, like Londo, asking for bribes, they help people avoid making any blunt statements that can be used against him at a later time.  They might also allow both parties to avoid offending their overt belief system by making what they are doing seem like a trivial exercise.  Bribes are often "tarted up" this way by calling them "gratuities" or "coffee money" and so forth.

The sort of answer that Kosh offers is used to brush off someone without diminishing his standing in their eyes.  As fundamentalists, the parents probably wouldn't be able to understand a more complex answer that tries to explain why their belief system is faulty.  Instead, they'd probably be offended, which might end up threatening the Vorlon relationship with their society.  So by tossing out some sort of enigmatic statement that pretty much absolves Kosh of any personal responsibility (after all, things are already beyond his ability to do anything), he not only avoids getting stuck to an ethical tar-baby, he also preserves the dignity and supernatural aura that adheres to the Vorlon "brand".

Language can also be used to answer a question by encouraging the person asking the question to go through a non-verbal exercise that helps them answer the question for themselves.  Consider the following from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.


The Gates of Paradise 
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked:  "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin.  "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued:  "So you have a sword!  Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
Hakuin could have tried to explain to Nobushige that Heaven and Hell were metaphorical representations of mental states, but he probably thought that a soldier would have have had a hard time following an abstract argument.  So Hakuin decided that the best way to explain his position would be to try and force the soldier to recreate the mental states involved during their exchange.  The hope would be that it would be such a forceful experience that the Nobushige would have to acknowledge the truth of what Hakuin was expressing.

Yet another way of communicating with people is to use what are called "plastic words". Dictionary.com defines these as "language twisted to fit various circumstances by politicians and other officials; words that can mean everything and nothing".  These are used by politicians and marketers because they allow people to talk to a group of people composed of folks who see things in various different ways, and yet seem to be agreeing with all of them at the same time.  The best example of this that I can think of is the phrase "sustainable development".

"Sustainable development" was crafted as a response to the Club of Rome's statement that said that there are "Limits to Growth" that a finite planet imposes on the human race.  It should be self-evidently true that the planet places constraints on how many people the earth can support and how large the economy can grow.  But this threatens so many entrenched elements of society that a huge backlash developed to the term.  As a result, a United Nations commissioned a group to study the relationship between the economy and the environment, which became known as the "Brundtland Commission" (named after the chairwoman.)  This group published a report, which ended up promoting the concept of "sustainable development" in opposition to "limits to growth".  Because there was so much institutional support for the former, and opposition to the latter, it quickly became the only language used.

  "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

The thing to remember about sustainable development is that depending on where you place the emphasis, it can mean two things that are pretty much opposed to each other.  It can mean "sustainability" to people, which means that the environment is being used in a way that allows it to exist in an non-degraded way for the indefinite future.  Or, it can also mean "development" to people, which means really fast economic growth for economies that are not at the same rate of industrialization as those of Europe and North America.  It also steadfastly refuses to admit that there is a inherent contradiction between these two agendas.  When I talk to people about this, it becomes very clear to me that the consensus amongst most people is that the sustainable development means "sustained economic growth" more than anything else.  This is the power of "plastic words", they can sound good but stop real conversation short because they ultimately do not mean much of anything at all.  In contrast "limits to growth" is the opposite of plastic.  Everyone knows right from the get go what that phrase means. That's why powerful interests moved heaven and earth to replace it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Individual Versus the Collective

I've finally published my book, so I think it's time I got back to blogging for a while.

%%%%

I've just finished reading a couple very interesting books that catalogue various insights from modern psychological research and how they impact society at large.  The first one was The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker.  The second was Evolution 2.0, by Joseph Heath.

What is fascinating about both books is the way they encourage the reader to break down the Cartesian idea that human beings exist as individual, discrete entities who influence the world around them but are influenced very little by it.

Pinker's main thesis is that human society has become increasingly less and less violent over that past three or four hundred years.  He cites lots and lots of evidence for this argument, which is why his book is so long (over 700 pages.)  One startling part of this evidence is to show how social mores have changed over time.

Everyone is aware that public executions, horrific torture, etc, used to part of everyday civic life in ancient and medieval Europe.  What they don't understand is how brutal day-to-day life was.  For example, one form of "good clean fun" involved nailing a live cat to a wall and then having two people compete in battering it to death by butting it with their heads---while trying to avoid having their faces ripped to pieces or being blinded.  The point Pinker makes is that people nowadays would not only think that such a thing is cruel, they would be hard pressed to see how anyone could find the spectacle worth watching.  People's attitudes have evolved.

Another example he cites is the growth of table manners.  It used to be that people routinely belched, farted, picked their noses, etc, while eating.  In many circles people would get up and relieve themselves against the wall in the dining hall.  One particular point he makes is that the reason why  it became the custom to use dull knives while eating is because at one time people would simply use their daggers to cut their food.  The result, the times being what they were, it was frighteningly common for people to lunge across the table with their daggers at people they were arguing with.  This resulted in a significant number of people with their noses cut off!  We use dull knives to cut our potatoes now and it is rare to see someone without a nose.

Heath's book focuses more on the nature of human reason.  He argues that the ability to reason things out is a sort of epiphenomenon (something that arises accidentally from another process) in human beings.  Our brains have been selected to let us act instantly when we hear a rustling in the grass so we can avoid leopards.  That means we jump to conclusions before considering all the facts.   Evolution has also selected people to only think of family members as "us" and all other human beings as "others" so we maximize the chances of DNA similar to ours being passed on to future generations.  As a result, we demonize the "other", which causes racism and indifference to the suffering of people.

What we know as "reason" primarily exists, according to Heath, through cultural mechanisms.  For example, our judicial system has evolved to understand that police, prosecutors, judges and juries have an innate tendency to jump to conclusions and are indifferent to the plight of the "other".  As a result, a series of "work arounds" have been added to the criminal justice system to try and force individuals to stop their natural inclinations and do something that is unnatural---be fair.  One example is the concept that someone is innocent until proved guilty.  Another is the fact that all police officers have to read people their rights when being arrested.  Another is the right to be represented by a lawyer, who is bound by his professional code of conduct to defend the defendant to the best of his ability.  There are rules about what evidence may or may not be admitted, how someone is allowed to argue their points, what items a jury may consider while coming to a verdict, and, mechanisms for appealing findings that might have been unfair.

Similar sorts of work arounds exist all throughout society.  Peer review helps catch bad science.  Unions exert some control over the excesses of capitalism.  Governments have rules governing decorum and "checks and balances" to minimize the amount of bad laws being passed.  So on, and so forth.

The important point for me for all of this is that what we "are"---the choices we hold and the values we embrace---comes from equal parts genetics and culture.  "OK, nature and nurture", you might say, "so what?"   Well, the difference is that most folks have felt that nature and/or nurture created who you are and at some point the "you" it created took over and you became an autonomous human being capable of making your own choices as a discrete, atomic entity.  Pinker and Shaw are saying something significantly more radical than that.  They are saying that the milieu you inhabit has a constant and critical role to play in how you make decisions on a day-to-day basis and until the day you die!

Policemen are not ordered to read people their rights because the odd bad policeman either doesn't want to be or is incapable of being objective in the pursuit of their duties.  They have to read them their rights because absolutely every police office is non-objective at least some of the time.  The human brain is wired to jump to conclusions because when you hear a noise that might be a leopard getting ready to pounce on you, if you misread it and the noise was something else there was no real penalty.  But if it was a leopard and you didn't jump to that conclusion, you just won a Darwin award.  No DNA replication for you, dear boy.

But cultures evolve as well.  And any band of hunter/gathers who didn't develop mechanisms for forcing reason onto their collective decision making in one form or another also won Darwin Awards. It might be that the only way people overcame indifference and hostility to the "other" was by pushing it outwards to large and larger groups (ie:  people who are not part of your nation instead of anyone outside of your family), but it still meant that the group you identified with got much bigger and more powerful than the old hunter/gatherer bands.

What is the Dao?  I hear many people who describe it in terms that sound suspiciously like "God".  I don't like the idea of "God" because the more I think about it, the less think I understand.  But if we see the Dao as being "the sum of all that is", then every time we gain a little more insight into the world around us, we can gain a little more insight into it as well.  I would suggest that the cultural influence that the Dao manifest in the way we make decisions is one more way of reinforcing the Daoist worldview.

One last point.

I recently got into a bit of an argument with a fellow named Gary Weber  who was a guest on KMO's excellent podcast channel C-Realm, Radiant Sun. Weber has developed a meditation program that he believes can solve the world's problems by having people learn to shut down their individual thought processes (not all, of course, just the chattering of the "monkey mind".)   My belief is that this is naive.  It is a good idea to learn to cut down the horrible back-and-forth that goes on in one's mind.  (When my beloved wife is in a psychotic episode it appears to me that the monkey-chattering becomes deafening and is a major part of the problem.)  But it isn't, IMHO, sufficient.   That's because a very significant part of how our minds operate is because of the cultural context we inhabit.   Who we are, how we think, and what we believe comes from the cultural "work arounds" that govern the milieu we inhabit.  And the problem I find with most people who follow a spiritual or religious path is that they turn their backs on that cultural milieu because they decide that it is irrelevant to their progress.  That's because they cling to that Cartesian idea that we are all distinct, atomic individuals who can freely choose any course of action from the plate before us.

This belief allows them to disengage from society and stop working at the political and social process.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Political and social reform is the way we create those "work arounds" that allow us to slowly, collectively improve the way our minds operate.  And as evidence of this improvement, Pinker offers beyond the staggering decline in violence in human society, the amazing fact that human IQ has been increasing.  This is called "the Flynn Effect" after one of the people most associated with identifying it.  There is controversy about what is causing it, but one of the reasons that Pinker suggests is that with an increase in education people are becoming better at doing abstract reasoning, which is one of the key elements of IQ measurement.  More importantly for me, Pinker also suggests that the cultural work arounds that we use to keep our innate impulsiveness under control and help our emergent reasoning work more effectively are constantly accumulating.  For example, consider the  huge difference in trying to figure out a complex mathematical problem using Roman numbers versus our current Hindu-Arabic system.  It was such an improvement that almost the minute people in Europe understood how it works they adopted it.  As we culturally accumulate more and more of these things, our minds become both more disciplined and we have an easier time communicating in a rational manner with other people.

What this says to me with regard to spiritual practice, therefore, is that the cultural milieu that we inhabit as people who meditate and try to increase our wisdom has a direct bearing on the progress we make.  Paradoxically, the reason why I practice as a hermit is not because I want to become isolated from the wider culture and other people, but because I do not want to be free from having to limit myself to one particular subculture and keep the others at arm's length.  At the time I walked away from various institutional groups I didn't have a clearly articulated argument about why I was making this move. But I did have a vague feeling that I didn't like way these groups built themselves up by isolating themselves from others.  Now, thanks to Pinker and Heath, I can articulate why I think that this is a good idea.

This brings up one last thing.  Two of the really good "work arounds" that Heath identifies are books and blogs. They allow people the opportunity to concentrate and work through very complex arguments without being distracted.  This is something that biological evolution has not prepared us for, but which are absolutely essential to cultural evolution.  I hope you enjoy this work around and that it expands your consciousness.  ;-)  


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finally published: Walking the Talk: Engaging the Public to Build a Sustainable World


I have finally published the book I've been working on for the past five years. It is for sale at SmashWords, Kobo and Kobo affiliated distributers (such as Chapters/Indigo.) I've decided to not publish on Amazon for various reasons (my understanding is that the company is not the best corporate citizen.) If you have a Kindle, you can download a copy that will be compatible with that device (mobi files) from Smashwords. If you aren't sure that you want to buy a copy right away, but are interested, you can download the first 20% from SmashWords just to see what it's like.