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Archive for October, 2012


What I do find compelling about Freud’s project is the attempt to give an account of our ethical capacity. What sort of biological origin can there be for an impulse to consider the needs of another person? This has been, and continues to be, one of the most compelling questions ever asked. The problem with his model, as I see it, is that he seems to have followed, unquestioningly, what I call original sin theory. This is the notion, also present in the writings of Hobbes and Nietzsche, that our aggressive tendencies go all the way down. That humans are essentially aggressive, impulsive, power and pleasure driven creatures with no natural source of restraint. That we are essentially constituted by will to power. This left Freud with the problem of how to account for the restraint of that will. I wonder what factors influenced his decision to not consider alternative models of human nature, because they certainly had been proposed many times in the course of human intellectual history?

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For a pragmatist in the world, there is no truth of the matter. Inscriptions are events. Nothing more attaches to them. The series of inscriptions 2+2=4 for example does not re-present a state of affairs “out there,” any more than an artist’s rendition of someone’s face or a landscape in spring. 2+2=4 simply is an event that some people have learned to respond to and others have not. The fact of responsiveness does not guarantee something called “truth.” It simply provides a hint as to what may come later. That someone else may respond in a manner that I find useful, or pleasing. The truth of these statements is founded on nothing more than a correspondence of behaviors. This is not, however, a recipe for nihilism. Our ancestors who responded to inscriptions survived and gave birth to us. In order to continue this tradition, we must work harder and improve.



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If we define, for a moment, an ironist as a person seeking to create a new vocabulary never before heard, what then is a theorist? A theorist could be defined as a person who follows an ironist and seeks to interpret the meaning of the ironist’s work for all humanity. These two are in tension. The ironist seeks to invent new metaphors while the theorist seeks to find a final, big set of metaphors that shall apply to all people. I am not saying this is always the nature of ironists and theorists, rather that we use these words this way for a moment in time. Because then we can understand the modern writer as one who seeks to be both ironist and theorist (poet and philosopher). Why would someone try this? Well, perhaps because looking back at the history of ironists like Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed, we notice that they are followed by centuries of theorists who attempt (ironically enough) to codify and universalize by any means necessary, the teachings of the original. And then they fall into metaphysics. Which could be described as the effort to anchor the words of the ironist to a reality out there in the world. Once the anchor is built, others can be saved and the theorists become priests. Priests who convey the Truth to the unwashed masses. Unfortunately this way often lies war and burnings at the stake. So I beg you not to forget: the ironist was a person like you and me. You too are as great as all these. Your mind is the Buddha’s mind. Your divine grace is as eternal as Jesus. Your wisdom as great as Socrates. Your submission as sublime as Mohammed. These people were great only to the extent that they were remembered. And the remembering was an accident of time. So is yours and mine.



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I would be very pleased to know that my statements have turned out to be more helpful than true.



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These days we should be just as concerned with the very question that was asked 2500 years ago by both the Buddha and Plato of Athens: How can we understand human suffering (emotional pain) and alleviate it? The Buddha said that pain is caused by 3 things: being alive in a mortal body, being separated from things we want or need, and awareness of change. But the good news is that in this awareness is also the relief of suffering, for as we become aware of habitual desire and avoidance, we can develop a different relationship to pain and suffering and respond more effectively to the way things are. One of the things that humans need, as a social animal, is connection. Connection reduces stress hormones which can damage the brain and body, increases helpful chemicals like oxytocin and helps us recover from suffering. In this way what modern people might think of as “therapy” could be transformed into a fulfillment of humanity’s age old dream: how to create healthy connections between people? The modern world is a world beset with challenges our brains were never designed for, and in this world we are more separated, more depressed, more anxious, more intoxicated and more aggressive than I bet we ever have been in our entire history on this planet. It seems to me that we desperately need just this sort of adaptation of effective emotional coping and connection building tools. The ingredients of modern “therapy,” it seems to me are readily adaptable to a more vernacular dissemination. People readily understand the stress of the constant barrage of bells and whistles, the intrusions of TV, of worries about not so distant war and injustice, and the suffering of isolation. Books like Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence,” and the work of the Dalai Lama have paved the way for teaching emotional coping and connection skills. I think all we need to do is to redescribe what we’ve learned from 2500 years of science in order to bring the benefits to more people.

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What is it going to take for us to grow as a species? For us to begin to understand our brains, our bodies, our minds, our souls? I believe that we require a growth of understanding across traditional disciplinary lines the likes of which we cannot even begin to comprehend. The feeble advances made over the last 20 years in neurology and psychiatry are only just the beginning. When was the last time we had a true advance in the treatment of schizophrenia for example? Probably with the introduction of risperdal in the early 90s. Since then there have been no significant changes or advances in the treatment of this devastating disease, despite the frequent re-packagings and re-issuings that have certainly supported the coffers of corporate big pharma. I believe that to truly advance in the treatment of human emotional and mental suffering, we are going to need advances in the realms of statistical modeling, computer simulation, ethics and spirituality beyond anything we can currently imagine. Take the simplest unit of psychological analysis: stimulus and response. What do we really know about neuro-psychological stimulus and response? Not much. Probably someone some day someone will have to volunteer to have a nano-scopic neuron surfing telemetry unit injected into their brain to help us gather truly illuminating data about the stimulus response event. And I suspect the volume of data collected will be so massive as to fuse the circuits of the most sophisticated computer storage device currently in use and will require stochastic heuristics more advanced than the brainiest of our most academically nerdy nerds can even dream of. And of course this will challenge us ethically and spiritually in ways we cannot conceive. The human mind peering into itself in ways unimaginable: What will we find? How will we have to grow as a species, a community, a collectivity? Will we be ready for that?

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To understand the nature of the phenomenological patterns that I collectively experience as “rationalism” consider the following passage by Shakespearian scholar and Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt as he reflects on his mother’s experiences of living with anxiety and panic disorder:

I understood early on that my mother’s “heart”—the palpitations that brought her and everyone around her to a halt—was a life strategy. It was a symbolic means to identify with and mourn her dead sister. It was a way to express both anger – “you see how upset you have made me”—and love—“you see how I am still doing everything for you, even though my heart is about to break.” It was an acting-out, a rehearsal, of the extinction that she feared. It was above all a way to compel attention and demand love. But this understanding did not make its effect upon my childhood significantly less intense: I loved my mother and dreaded losing her. I had no resources to untangle psychological strategy and dangerous symptom. (I didn’t imagine that she did either.) …Lucretius’ words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: “Death is nothing to us.” To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, he wrote, is mere folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed. He gave voice as well to a thought I had not yet quite allowed myself, even inwardly, to articulate: to inflict this anxiety on others is manipulative and cruel.

Notice how his language confuses, through a logical fallacy called “affirming the consequent,” effect with intent and concludes with the common post-Freudian assumption of “unconscious motivation,” even as he himself struggles to extricate himself, on the basis of Lucretian philosophy, from the darkened pit of despair built by this notion. The resources to untangle “strategy from symptom” are exactly what I believe our culture is wanting so badly in this war-weary, conflict ridden, perfection mad and power hungry culture we breathe in and around us every day of our lives. What indeed is the antidote to the poison of the western world? On this question hinge our lives, our fortunes, our several and tenuous honors.


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I recently watched Bill Murray’s movie “Groundhog Day” again on netflix for the first time in what, almost 20 years now since it was released? (I had to look it up…). In this movie a man is doomed to live out his life over and over again on the same day. At first he believes he has discovered heaven on earth. He can apparently do anything he wants, anything at all, and not suffer the consequences because the very next morning the clock is literally reset and all is forgiven and forgotten. But then, alas, he realizes that life with no uncertainty is actually a living hell. He even tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide over and over again, but like some tortured, irredeemable Christ-Gandalf-Comedian figure, reincarnates every morning at 6:00 AM to start all over again. So he is forced to innovate. To start to learn things about the small Pennsylvania town he is trapped in so as to manipulate his reality into something just barely tolerable. He robs an armored car. He takes piano lessons. He tries to cheat death and save an old man. He takes up ice sculpting. He contrives to learn everything he can about his love interest Rita, played by Andy MacDowell, so as to lure her into satisfying his carnal cravings. However a curious thing happens on the way to the bedroom. Life actually gets interesting again. Of course his contrivances to land unsuspecting Rita in the sack backfire, leading to more and more contrivances and correspondingly more and more interest in Rita as a person. It is an interesting modern parable, isn’t it? I mean, alongside the scheming, contriving, cynical, wanton and cavalier Phil is also the dedicated, unyielding, stubborn and creative Phil who wins the day (of course) and in the end gets the girl. What a fabulous redescription of our modern Faustian dilemma! Think about it as an allegory: alongside our driven, contrived, draconian, comfort and perfection mad society perhaps we also have the makings of a culture of curiosity, commitment and honoring which can someday break out of this endless repeating cycle of pain and suffering – what the Buddhists call samsara –and help us to discover the healing power of authentic connection.



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when you the reader encounter a fiction, you have to do some work. you complete the work that the author started. but sometimes that work is the work of no-work. the work of observation. notice what effect the work is having on you. just notice and get curious. who am i in relation to this experience? buddhism is often mis-perceived as a passive practice. but this is mis-informed. was galileo being passive when he observed the moons of jupiter? investigation into the way things are is not a passive process. wise observation is an active process. though it may not appear to “produce” anything, it is an integral part of wise effort.



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ryokan: i want to drink up his words forever
so the fountain of a river stream
runs through me and all of time.
his is the food of an unmet life.
his, pines in a crisp cool wind
far from any city.


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