A Man Without A Country (Kurt Vonnegut review)

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Whenever I read a Kurt Vonnegut book, I imagine a fun uncle sitting next to me at a family reunion, telling me a story of his life.

He sips from a glass of beer and foam drips down his mustache. Then he sighs and pats his belly and wanders through old stories, stories I have heard before, but never tire of.

I tell him a joke I overheard on the radio.

Uncle Kurt smiles and wrinkles crease on his forehead. His cheeks flush from hours of drinking and joking and chitchatting and meeting cousins.

In his watery eyes, I sense something else, however. Sadness maybe. Disappointment in us as a species. We could have been so much more.

I’ve read this book about thirty times. Once I pulled it off a shelf at a house party, once I read it on a road trip to Indiana, once I flipped through it in a school library.

Why do I keep returning to it?

Maybe because it’s funny. Not so much in a slap-my-knee, wheeze with shocks of laughter, kind of funny. His books are funny in a raw and naked way. In an absurd, endearingly hopeless way.

He reminds us that we’re all humans and we’re all silly. And sometimes we do cruel things to each other when we should’ve been loving and kind.

Life would be so much simpler if we weren’t complicating it all the time.

Laughter can be a healthy defense mechanism to fear and anxiety and trauma.

Vonnegut used humor to deal with the tragedies of his life. He understood the shadow-side of humanity so well that he revered ordinary people who were saints. He wanted a world where humans treated each other with kindness, a world of love for the simple joys of each day.

In our short, fleeting existences, where we often feel so confused and lost and alone, we can respond to tragedies with dignity. We can decide to be humane as we are pulled along by circumstances we can’t control.

We take ourselves so seriously. We blind ourselves in our greed lust, in our desire for more (resources, power, money, and status), that we forget our interwoven humanity.

We forget to care for our communities, for ourselves, for the plants and animals and water and air.

We ignore our planet, our beautiful planet, because we are addicts to fossil fuel. We drop devastating bombs instead of being compassionate toward each other. We murder each other for resources and poison our environment.

One day, we will lose everything because we were too power hungry and stupid and greedy, when we should have been kind.

Reflections on Prometheus Rising

“What the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.”

People think themselves into their relative neurological realities. In these “realities,” there are underlying assumptions about what is true and false, right and wrong, essential and not essential, real and fake.

They think about the universe through the neuro-filter of a Marxist, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, feminist, Democrat, Republican, protestor, doctor, Caucasian male, African female, cynic, optimist, lover, fighter, bad son, good daughter, and on, and on.

People make constant assumptions about their identities and the identities of others. While it is easier to see the prejudices and biases in others, it is far more difficult to see those same inclinations within.

Most people not only don’t know but they don’t know what they don’t know. Their “reality” appears to be the true one, while other people’s realities, the further they diverge, seem increasingly bizarre and nonsensical.

When the Thinker is convinced of a given reality, then the Thinker will unconsciously work to organize all “evidence” in favor of it being true. Signals that are consistent with a favored reality are absorbed into their overall model of reality while other signals are forgotten, ignored, rejected, rationalized, and resisted.

Brains are made of matter in spacetime. They weigh close to three pounds, are composed of a gel-like form, transmit “ideas” with electro-chemical signals, varying in innumerable neuronal sequences, while suspended in cerebrospinal fluid.

Brains generate many ideas — influenced by everything that impacted them, from texts written a thousand years ago to a drama on TV to a fight with a sibling. Ideas are not equal to reality, but ideas can make up the models of a given reality.

While brains resemble the hardware of a computer, ideas resemble the software. Anything, from psychedelic drugs to an idea about political revolution to eating only a vegetarian diet, can change the consciousness of a person.

Certain programs can be written onto the hardware of the brain: genetic imperatives and imprinting, conditioning and learning. The mind is bound to what it imprints at vulnerable stages of its development. Its software turns into hardware overtime, which sets the structure for conscious thought.

Out of an infinite number of signals in the universe, when a person’s growing brain is imprinted at different stages of life, that person develops a sense of self. Further learning and conditioning adds to the structural foundation, thus creating a more intricate model of what reality is.

In the oral bio-survival circuit, people are hardwired in the most primitive parts of their nervous systems to seek security, nourishment, and a womb-like sense of safety, while avoiding what is harmful, dangerous, and threatening.

Domesticated primates (humans) are genetically hardwired to seek security within their family, immediate group, and tribe. They can be further conditioned to seek security in symbolic groups that they identify with such as a country, a political party, the religion they were raised in, and so on. They can even transfer this security-need onto symbols such as money, which in itself is of no value (you cannot eat money) except in the agreed upon value determined by other members of that particular group.

“In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror.”

Humans who do not belong to the same group are often categorized as outsiders and are perceived as hostile, aggressive, or challenging to that group’s interests and purpose. Any element, from a dissident person to an idea, which threatens the security of the group, is resisted and rejected.

The emotional-territorial circuit is involved with power. People are unconsciously in a struggle for status in a social group. In a tribe, members fit into various roles with different responsibilities and functions. Some members assume top dog roles while others fall into bottom dog roles.

These roles can be divided into the four quadrants of “I’m ok/you’re ok, I’m ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re ok,” to use the terminology of Transactional Analysis.

This model, among other similar models. that represent the earliest imprinting, and subsequent conditioning, of one’s ego role in society, will vary based on how strong the imprinting is, how the dynamics of the group are in relation to the individual and societal structure, how well one can be conditioned out of robotically accepting an imprinted role, and so on.

Furthermore, each of the quadrants, while convenient as a tool for practical use, can be divided into subtler categories (with no end in sight). Nobody exists in one of the quadrants absolutely, but rather, will fall on a spectrum between extremes, which shifts overtime, as one’s nervous system changes.

Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. These symbols include, but are not limited to, art, music, mathematics, maps, and words.

Many symbols rule people’s lives without their conscious awareness of them such as with the wheel, the Roman road systems, the alphabet, agriculture, the State, and so on.

Some symbols, such as words, already have assumptions about reality buried in them, suggesting certain psychological states, emotional tones, explanations of the physical universe, and references to innumerable aspects of what makes up existence and meaning and purpose.

The semantic circuit makes distinctions out of raw experiences. It puts labels on life, dividing and sub-dividing, routine with categorization.

Every generation adds information to the previous ones, re-classifying the outdated information of the past. New connections arise between what has existed before, leading to insights in knowledge.

While entropy is the increasing disorder overtime in a closed system, information is negative entropy, coherence and order, where understandings birth out of chaos. As information increases more rapidly, so does a recognition of patterns from a randomness of events.

Over ever shorter spans of time, information is exponentially increasing, marking advancements in science, technology, music, art, and so on.

People are still using their more primitive circuits, despite this so-called progress. They have evolved with the reptilian and mammalian brains of earlier epochs in time.

Their rational, semantic, or time-binding circuits can be manipulated easily by fear of outsiders, threats to their status and safety, criticisms of the authorities that they trust in, appeals to tribal loyalty at the expense of those who are seen as inferior, dangerous, alien to them, etc.

While the first two circuits establish homeostasis in a civilization, the third circuit seeks higher states. The third circuit has always been controlled, partially or totally, by rules, taboos, prohibitions, laws, traditions, rituals, cultural games — most of which are unconscious, unstated, or seen as “common sense.”

Those who are in power want to control third-circuit insights, and establish order, because what is unknown and new and radical challenges the power structures already in place. There has always been fluctuations between progressive ideas and tradition, but as time increases, so does informational content.

That informational content may support. life such as with the LGBT, environmental, black, and feminist movements, recent medicines that treat diseases, scientific revolutions, and so on. At the same time, informational content could threaten to destroy all of life, such as with bombs, pollution, assault rifles, child labor, war between certain groups of domesticated primates over a sliver of territory, etc.

Everything that has manifested in civilization — from planes and trains, skyscrapers and roads and houses, nuclear weapons and clothes and microwaves — birthed from ideas, connecting symbolically in various people’s imaginations, developing, changing, self-correcting, evolving.

From the manifestation of imaginations, people live with a potential for unknown amounts of growth and destruction. In a world of limited resources, overpopulation, and institutions that seek to maintain their primate order with bombs, a manipulation of the third-circuit, and ink excretions on paper to establish their power over land and water and air, there is another force that is accelerating: information. From information there is a potential for high knowledge, liberation, and awareness.

The socio-sexual circuit first awakens during adolescence — at the onset of puberty. At this most vulnerable stage in human development, sexual preferences, taboos, dysfunctions, and fetishes have the highest chance of being imprinted.

These imprints can be due to chance, trauma, genetics, and environmental influences. People often mimic what’s deemed as acceptable by their local culture and hide what is not, keeping certain parts of their sexual profiles secret.

Every tribe has their own rules as to what is considered sexually moral and immoral. There are often, in every society, controls over a person’s sexual self-identification and subsequent behaviors. Whether the rules are ignorant, biased, misinformed, enlightened, liberated, and so on, is one matter. The innate purpose behind these rules, however, is to control the survival and variability and evolution of the gene pool. It is also to have power over what people can do and cannot do, socially controlling their choices and values.

Despite this attempt at control, there will always be unknown variables in sexual attraction, reproduction, mating, and future evolution.

Robert Anton Wilson said, “Taboo and morality are tribal attempts to govern the random element — to select the desired future.”

Those who act as guides and leaders in the local group, such as priests and shamans, philosophers and politicians, define what symbols are considered to be acceptable and what symbols are not.

From categorizing certain symbols as acceptable, moral, and right, those in power control the limits of information. Ideas seen as immoral, unacceptable, eccentric, and so on, are repressed, blocked, and forbidden.

The socio-sexual circuit keeps a check on the time-binding, rational third-circuit, to prevent the unrestrained rise of innovation and to keep order.

Children are often taught to follow the rules of society. They are not commonly taught to question, to criticize authority, and to become independent in thought.

Tribal guides, from parents and teachers to priests and police, desire for children to think and act semi-robotically, mimicking group values, following the traditions of the past, so they can be accepted into preferred roles in their group.

Most people are programmed to be just smart enough to do their roles properly, but not smart enough to question the roles they are placed under. They are trained to follow certain unspoken rules within their groups (of gender, class, race, age, and so on) and not to question them much.

They will vote for leaders who appeal to their primitive circuits, such as politicians claiming to be patriots, denouncing all outsiders that threaten their traditional values.

To stir up fear in the masses based on outside threats, to speak eloquently of change and hope, is a way to manipulate the human need for security and fear of losing it to the unknown.

Groups often use tactics to re-imprint individual nervous systems. Many cults, governments, militaries, religions, and terrorist groups, who’ve effectively re-imprinted (brainwashed) those initially outside their groups, used methods of isolation from conflicting reality-tunnels, punishments for unacceptable behavior with rewards for acceptable behavior, reinforcement of group superiority over individual inferiority, mind-altering drugs on occasion, initiations into status in the group with fear of the unknown (outside perspectives) along with comfort in the group (protective mother/father figure), and so on.

“The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. All of the above principles then immediately go into action, a process which social psychologists euphemistically call socialization. The bio-survival circuit automatically hooks onto or bonds to the most appropriate mother or mothering object; the emotional-territorial circuit looks for a ‘role’ or ego-identification in the family or tribe; the semantic circuit learns to imitate and then use the local reality-grids (symbol systems); the socio-sexual circuit is imprinted by whatever mating experiences are initially available at puberty.”

Domesticated primates (humans) have nervous systems that can adapt to wildly different reality-tunnels. Whereas in the past, groups could exist separately from other groups and maintain their sense of stable reality, in modern times, in an ever-connected world, groups bump into each other constantly, clashing with each other over what reality (symbol system) is. The symbol system that they hold to be true and logical, to other groups, is false and nonsensical. Furthermore, they confuse the symbol system (map of reality) with reality itself.

To dogmatic believers inside the group, their reality is the only true reality and everyone else who opposes them is deluded, immoral, or heretical.

In present times, to come into contact with so many different reality-tunnels is to be challenged with threats to group identity. The more dogmatic the group, the more dangerous the outsiders are or can be.

Beyond the first four circuits of the nervous system is the neurosomatic circuit.

Pranayama breathing, meditation, visualization of white light, prolonged sexual play without orgasm, psychedelic and cannabis consumption, among other techniques, trigger highly pleasant or unpleasant sensory states, depending on whether those who do these practices are experienced or unprepared amateurs.

Many yogis, gurus, mystics, and heretics have described this circuit as orgasmic experience, union with all/God/the infinite/the divine, crossing the abyss, and so on. Some enter this state through terrible internal struggle while others seem to naturally flow there without suffering.

The fifth circuit is intuitive and non-linear. Whereas the third-circuit hyper-thinking rationalist builds linear maps of reality, and the second circuit alpha male acts based on who is dominant in the social hierarchy, the fifth circuit mystic senses the gestalt, the organic whole, between data points in infinity.

The neurogenetic circuit goes beyond all previous circuits. It is the circuit of genetic memory, of the collective unconscious, of the Tao, of non-duality. Coincidences are significant and paradoxes are solved with wordless understanding. There is no true distinction between what exists out there and what exists within.

In this circuit, all of infinity fits into a flicker of sunlight. All of the cosmos, from quarks to planets, from the Big Bang to a sigh in the present moment, is interconnected, mutually rising and falling, becoming and not becoming. Life and death intertwine like the root systems of expanding trees.

The mind becomes what it focuses on. A mind that thinks about thinking is meta-thinking. To think about thinking about thinking, ad Infinitum, to reflect life like a mirror without clinging onto the changing experience, to be totally absorbed in an idea, a feeling, a moment, without any mental separation, is to use the meta-programming circuit.

This seventh circuit can program all lower circuits and switch between them like the channels of a TV. Similar to non action in Taoism, the meta-programmer adapts to what it engages but does not hold on.

The human brain may be psychically small compared to the universe, but within the brain, all of the universe hums. As the mind encounters certain reality-tunnels, the mind can be those reality-tunnels, while knowing of ever more.

The neurological system takes in a limited number of “existential” information, or a limited number of data points, out of the infinity of the universe.

The nervous system creates models of reality from changing data, editing, re-combining, classifying, removing, and adding information, mostly without conscious awareness.

So many thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations are experienced every millisecond. Most of people’s lives are forgotten, rejected from their belief systems, re-classified to fit into their relative models of reality from what happened, ignored totally, and so on.

Usually only fragments of experiences are selected before they are analyzed, edited, classified, judged, and rationalized.

Humans then narrow their perceptions further through filtering themselves in different symbol systems of race, class, gender, politics, religion, height, fitness, personal hobbies, sexuality, ad Infinitum, creating reality-tunnels for themselves.

Domesticated primates are a lot more creative than they realize. They are the artists of their own existence, capable of, but not always aware of, neurologically programming their relationship with the universe.

All human systems have degrees of order and chaos within them. As this balance shifts, so does the system and those who are embedded in it. The more complex the system becomes informationally, the more unstable it will become as well. Moreover, with information increasing exponentially, there will be major transformations in the system, radically changing the realities of future people — sometimes intentionally, most often not.

Look at the difference in perception between a hunter-gatherer and an industrialist, an astrologer in ancient Egypt and a quantum physicist in the twentieth century, a factory worker in 1890 and a computer software engineer.

The breakdown of an old system could be the sign of a breakthrough into another model of reality, another visionary step, another way of seeing.

From death comes life again. In all of life, however, there is still an element of death. Like a caterpillar bursting through the rigid hold of its cocoon, and then flapping out its bright wings, for only a moment, for only a brief span of time, before it too returns back to the earth.

Systems are not isolated information organisms, destined to evolve or self-destruct alone. They are interconnected with the energies of other systems and gleam with promise like the beads of Indra’s Net.

As entropy is a measure of the increasing disorder in a closed system, there is still a quantum probability of energy underlying the fabric of every event non-locally. As information increases in an uncertain but probabilistic state of coherence to chaos, order to disorder, systems change and neurological realities will adapt within, until there is another transformation in future consciousness.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

The human brain is a three pound galaxy of complex, evolutionarily developed, neural connections, which when working together or apart, underlies the many processes, forming all of consciousness.

A typical neuron has around 10,000 connections to other neurons. These neurons fire in patterned sequences in many parts of the brain, all before a person is even conscious of thinking about acting.

What is a thought if it cannot be touched or felt or smelled or tasted? This strange organ inside each of our skulls controls our thoughts, but most of our brain’s activity is unconscious. Any change to the brain changes our thoughts, from the food we eat to the drugs we take to the amount of sleep we have to who we’re sexually attracted to from the time of puberty.

Our brains don’t see any absolute reality. We receive neural inputs from our organs, which are limited and biased. Our brains interpret these signals, while rejecting or ignoring what’s considered inessential. Most of what’s out there in reality is not registered. What is registered is highly interpretive.

What is perceived is an unconsciously put together illusion of a reality. Subjectively, however, reality feels more stable than it really is. People often don’t know what they don’t know.

From treating patients with brain injuries to testing cognitive biases with sensory illusion tests, it is often shown that the brain constructs a type of reality, mostly unconsciously, from a narrow selection of neural patterns, which subjectively, are given conscious meaning only afterward. Based on these neural patterns, the brain makes predictive assumptions when encountering perceptual blind spots.

Our brains are hardwired with a sense of Newtonian physics. We often learn a new physical ability consciously and then it becomes an unconscious process. If we encounter a variable that isn’t predicted, we become conscious again to process that variable and its relationship to our sensory-motor system, until it becomes automatic as well.

Our perception of time lags behind time. We need to process the moment we’re in before becoming aware that we are in that moment. At the same time, our feeling of time passing slowly or quickly alters and can be manipulated by external events.

We often have gut feelings based on prior experiences where we unconsciously formed associations between two or more things. Our associations between things influences our decision making and can easily be manipulated, making us act in irrational ways based on our hunches, even if we consciously know otherwise.

The brain is made of systems and sub-systems, responsible for different tasks, such as memory, speech, movement, and so on. Some of these systems overlap, like with the right and left hemispheres. Other systems compete with each other. Many of these areas are deeply embedded in the brain, unconsciously working, while conscious attention acts as a general.

Brains work to conserve as much energy as possible, using the most resources at the start of learning a new skill, and then eventually reducing that energy level after finding ways to be more efficient. When a person damages part of their brain, other areas often compensate for that deficiency. If the damage becomes too great, then conflicting messages will occur. Brains compensate for a lack of function in one area because they are highly adaptive and can rewire. Furthermore, brains are always active, working to create patterns of meaning, even when there are none externally.

When the conditions of a person’s brain changes, they fundamentally change as people. Someone’s inclination to commit a crime, to feel depressed, to gamble without restraint, to be smart, to have sexual desire for a certain sex, and so on, is determined by the type of brain they have, whether that brain is healthy or unhealthy, how that brain functions with chemicals, environments, hormones, etc.

Genetics hardwires brains while environments slant the hardwiring. People are born with complex neural systems in changing environments. Each brain has genetic predispositions and a high adaptability to variables overtime. People’s brains are mostly unconscious while people feel freedom in their thoughts and actions.

The brain is made up of many smaller “brains,” each with its own purposes for the benefit of the collective brain, sometimes competing, sometimes in harmony, rebuilding connections while ignoring what seems irrelevant, weaving together meanings through a processing of old patterns, ignorant of their biases when perceiving, all while maintaining an illusion of stability.

Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac idealized Gary Snyder in “Dharma Bums,” similar to his idealization of Neal Cassady in “On The Road.” Both figures, although so different from each other, were made into glorious saints of the beat movement through Kerouac’s vision.

Snyder was a humble poet living in a shack lit with wax candles. He bought working class clothes only from thrift stores, meditated, drank wine in the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, read, studied, and translated many ancient Buddhist texts, and hiked up mountain peaks with a high, echoing yodel.

Kerouac carried a lot of assumptions about what Buddhism is or could be — looking for a kind of “absolute truth” by climbing to the top of a mountain. Awake briefly in awe only to forget again.

At his most lyrically beautiful, he reminded me of a mystic filled with insight about the infinite grace of the cosmos.

Then at other times, he made Buddhism into a chore of daily understanding, a ritualized act of acquiring more and more knowledge just to show off, a literary dabbling into primary sources.

Sometimes he wrote with boyish fantasy, with naive hope, that after years of seeking, he had finally found an ultimate experience, one that would give him full understanding and end all his suffering.

Then there were moments when he was too arrogant with what he had learned about Buddhism (that others didn’t or couldn’t ever know). At those times, he basked in a false spiritual wisdom — like the main narrator in Fight Club — perceiving his role in the universe as a Chosen Bodhisattva, which seemed more like he was putting on a mask of spiritual vanity to compensate for insecurity.

Throughout “The Dharma Bums,” there was a confusion between his ideas about non-duality and what he was really like as a person, as a man who desired to fuck and eat and love and do drugs and shit and travel and be understood, as a lost bum poet who cared too much and felt too strongly and wandered through all of America with a great self-consciousness.

He always seemed to almost get the point of zen, before losing himself in a tangle of symbols. His Catholic background might have conditioned him to seek some fixed idea of Buddhism. Some odd merging of God and Jesus and Nirvana and Heaven and Hell and Buddha and so on. There was so much struggle in his search, in thinking over and again that he had finally got what It was about, that he often missed what was in front of him all along. Being a Buddha is to be nothing special, just here, now. Awake in the moment, not grasping. Not stuck.

As Lin-Chi once said, “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.”

There is no out there to get to, no special place, no person to give all the answers. But ironically enough, even in Kerouac’s search, whether it’s judged as right or wrong, it is still as much zen as anything else, in the same way that right implies wrong, outside an inside, and in form, there is emptiness.

Only minds make distinctions and get lost in those distinctions without looking at the passing moment. To walk round with a head full of ideas about anything, even Buddhism, is to hold an overflowing cup.

As Dogen Zenji wrote, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Kerouac, in his need for truth (more in finding his own subjective truth even when filtered through a particular person or philosophy) still came across as beautiful because of his talent, because of his earnestness, because he wanted harmony and peace and spontaneous joy, folding evermore inward on himself.

He romanticized a bohemian lifestyle, one in which artists move round the country, hitching in cars and on freight trains, meeting up briefly, smoking joints together under a roof as rain falls, pitter-patter, reading haiku to each other in coffee houses, having orgies with each other, loose and free and open to what comes.

By having an authentic lifestyle in such conflict with the conformist notions of his time, there were drawbacks. There was the uncertainty of where to eat and sleep, poverty, judgement, a threat of prison, relationships that came in moments of ecstasy only to go. There were those abused by life on the road, rootless to anyone and everything, who became victims to fear, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, and starvation.

Kerouac, in a sense, became a victim of his own life — dying under the pressures of fame and alcoholism and unsatisfied yearning.

The sensitivity that made his writing great brought him intense joys and sorrows. He had such perceptiveness into others but also could rationalize his own delusions, such as with “Ray’s” unfeeling talk with a paranoid Rosie before her suicide, where he never truly cared about her well-being. He spouted Buddhist philosophy only for his own ego, not out of compassion or love. Such compartmentalization shows, as the Tao Te Ching said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

Despite Kerouac sometimes being possessed with delusions of grandeur, and his inability to get his family to understand his disconnected insights, he was not hard to like. His affinity for all of life and reveling in its ecstasies, made him a wanderer, a loner, a rebel, spiritual in his longing and despairing in his fall. He inspired countless generations of hippies and hipsters and seekers and artists and found himself a guide for those who want meaning outside of a conventional world.

Man’s Search For Himself

People often don’t know what they truly feel or want. They sense something missing inside themselves, an existential emptiness, an anxiety that gnaws deeply at their insides.

They do what everyone expects from them to do—from their teachers, employers, parents, religions, and communities — or at least, what they imagine these groups expect. As one ordinary person said, “I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.”

People want to be liked. They crave after attention and respect, believing rather compulsively that these things will be sufficient for happiness and meaning.

“Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him. But many modern people have gone so far in their dependence on others for their feeling of reality that they are afraid that without it they would lose the sense of their own existence.”

Social acceptance seems like a cure to existential angst, but it only temporarily relieves loneliness, fear, and anxiety. People seek approval from others while symbolically returning to the warmth of the womb, and in turn, sacrificing freedom for dependency.

What arises from such emptiness is the need for authority, for someone or something to take control of, and then make better, what is neglected within.

“When a nation, rather, is prey to insupportable economic want and is psychologically and spiritually empty, totalitarianism comes in to fill the vacuum; and the people sell their freedom as a necessity for getting rid of the anxiety which is too great for them to bear any longer.”

Those who live with existential anxiety lose themselves. Overwhelmed, confused by what is out there. They cannot clearly identify what they want out of life. They succumb to what is external instead of tending to what is sacredly internal.

They feel the threat of being cast off.

They seek social approval while avoiding isolation, alienation from the group.

Those who hide from their anxieties during the crucial stages of their development will only stagnate or get worse. Anxiety, for everyone, is a normal aspect of growth. People should be honest and confront their own anxieties, exposing themselves gradually to what they need that helps them mature.

While anxiety confuses reality, people can still choose to constructively engage with these negative feelings. “Just as anxiety destroys our self-awareness, so awareness of ourselves can destroy anxiety.”

People often, however, compartmentalize much of their lives. They use their reason to study, save themselves for fun on the weekends, distract themselves from feeling pain and fear by watching television and posting on social media. They put on shows for other people, for an invisible audience in their minds. They become performers rather than humans, caring about their actions, based on the reactions of others to their actions.

“But the artists, and the rest of us too, remain spiritually isolated and at sea, and so we cover up our loneliness by chattering with other people about the things we do have language for — the world series, business affairs, the latest news reports. Our deeper emotional experiences are pushed further away, and we tend, thus, to become emptier and lonelier.”

To find those deeper experiences, people need to live fully, vulnerably, alive in each moment. Human beings are capable not only of being nature, and being in nature, but in thinking of nature and their place within it.

People are able to be self-aware, keep time, to learn from the past, plan for the future, use symbolic systems to make distinctions and communicate. They can empathize with people from hundreds of years ago, on different continents, with other types of animals and plants, and imagine themselves as them.

These gifts of humanity come with anxieties and fears, with inner-crises. People still struggle with not only their current states of development, but with all those influences which had come from before.

People have the ability to be created by their engagement with others and what had conditioned them in their past. At the same time, they can create themselves.

“The self is always born and grows in interpersonal relationships. But no ‘ego’ moves on into responsible selfhood if it remains chiefly the reflection of the social context around it. In our particular world in which conformity is the great destroyer of selfhood — in our society in which fitting the ‘pattern’ tends to be accepted as the norm, and being ‘well liked’ is the alleged ticket to salvation — what needs to be emphasized is not only the admitted fact that we are to some extent created by each other but also our capacity to experience, and create, ourselves.”

People can create themselves by being aware of themselves as thinking-feeling-intuiting creatures deeply connected to nature. Their “selves” are not merely a sum of “roles” that they should perform to be accepted by the group. Each human can rather be fully integrated within themselves, fulfilling their potentialities.

“But the human being’s task in fulfilling his nature is much more difficult, for he must do it in self-consciousness. That is, his development is never automatic but must be to some extent chosen and affirmed by himself.”

People are unique in their consciousness of themselves. No one entirely knows the full extent of what another person feels and thinks. Each person is alone in their minds and must find their inner-strength ultimately without anyone else to do it for them.

People must affirm their own dignity and self-worth. It is far easier to blame others or oneself than it is to take responsibility for life.

To blame or praise is often to mask an arrogance of being overly concerned with one’s own importance, despite whether one feels superior or inferior. To engage in such thinking is a deception that people use to avoid a constructive attitude toward life, in seeing things as they are.

One should love oneself.

To love oneself is to love others and to love others is to love oneself. There is no selfishness in genuine caring, compassion, empathy, and kindness. When one is aware, one can let go. By letting go, spontaneous joy comes into living for each moment. One feels an expansion rather than a constriction, actively alive rather than passively existing.

To love, one must be sensitive to feelings and thoughts, to the connection of body and mind, to nature and community, to all sense and intuition, passing from dawn to dusk, over and again.

“The originality and uniqueness which is always part of a spontaneous feeling can be understood in this light. For just as there never was exactly that situation before and never will be again, so the feeling one has at that time is new and never to be exactly repeated. It is only neurotic behavior which is rigidly repetitive.”

It is easy to block awareness with routines and repetitions and busying oneself every day. Rather than idleness, contemplation and meditation, people often do without any thought as to why.

Individuals will constantly struggle to discover what they want, how they feel, and what they can do to live fully, because there are many external pressures that will prevent them from being aware.

“Strictly speaking, the process of being born from the womb, cutting free from the mass, replacing dependency with choice, is involved in every decision of one’s life, and even is the issue facing one on his deathbed. For what is the capacity to die courageously except the ultimate step in the continuum of learning to be on one’s own, to leave the whole? Thus every person’s life could be portrayed by a graph of differentiation — how far has he freed himself from automatic dependencies, become an individual, able then to relate to his fellows on the new level of self-chosen love, responsibility and creative work?”

It is normal for those who desire to grow to experience great moments of anxiety, fear, and terror.

“Moving out from a protected, familiar place into new independence, from support to temporary isolation, while at the same time one feels one’s own anxiety and powerlessness.”

People must work with feelings of anxiety, alongside an environment that pressures them to conform or rebel, while moving toward inner freedom.

To create oneself is to transcend the fit of old masks, to move beyond those dependencies of childhood, to seek unfamiliar places that haven’t yet been explored.

Unhealthy environmental influences will never support a person’s quest for inner freedom. They will rather, in the form of family, religion, government, and so on, redirect a person’s fear toward others, eventually turning that fear into hatred.

“Hatred and resentment are destructive emotions, and the mark of maturity is to transform them into constructive emotions. But the fact that the human being will destroy something — generally in the long run himself — rather than surrender his freedom proves how important freedom is to him.”

Those who suppress their hatred often feel a deep resentment. They don’t resent others or themselves nearly as much as they reject having their freedom taken away, feeling powerless to do anything about it.

Those who don’t conform usually rebel. Their rebellion is a mistaken attempt at individuality, a failure of responsibility in reaction to what is external.

“But rebellion is often confused with freedom itself. It becomes a false port in the storm because it gives the rebel a delusive sense of being really independent. The rebel forgets that rebellion always presupposes an outside structure — of rules, laws, expectations — against which one is rebelling; and one’s security, sense of freedom and strength are dependent actually on this external structure. They are ‘borrowed,’ and can be taken away like a bank loan which can be called in at any moment. Psychologically many persons stop at this stage of rebellion. Their sense of inner moral strength comes only from knowing what moral conventions they do not live up to; they get an oblique sense of conviction by proclaiming their atheism and disbelief.”

To live in reaction is not to be free. To be dependent is also not to be free. People claim freedom to do whatever they want as well. But they neglect responsibility by chaining themselves to addiction, security, comfort, and gratification, avoiding what is uncertain and mysterious, fearful and painful.

“Freedom means openness, a readiness to grow; it means being flexible, ready to change for the sake of greater human values. To identify freedom with a given system is to deny freedom — it crystallizes freedom and turns it into dogma. To cling to a tradition, with the defensive plea that if we lose something that worked well in the past we will have lost all, neither shows the spirit of freedom nor makes for the future growth of freedom.”

Freedom comes when people mold themselves and take care of others. Freedom comes first through self-awareness, expanding forever out.

“Through his power to survey his life, man can transcend the immediate events which determine him. Whether he has tuberculosis or is a slave like the Roman philosopher Epictetus or a prisoner condemned to death, he can still in his freedom choose how he will relate to these facts.”

Freedom is not given. It is developed every day. People can choose to kill themselves psychologically, unaware and ignorant, in restless craving. They can conform to the conditioning of their youth and follow a linear path made up for them to adhere to until eventually dying. Or they can gain a false sense of power through rebellion, in reacting, resisting, combating an enemy, until they wither away in hatred and fear.

To be free, however, is to have discipline. With self-discipline, one seeks to learn about life and consistently follows one’s values, discovering freedom through inner work.

“Man’s anxiety, bewilderment and emptiness — the chronic psychic diseases of modern man — occur mainly because his values are confused and contradictory, and he has no psychic core. We can now add that the degree of an individual’s inner strength and integrity will depend on how much he himself believes in the values he lives.”

To live with integrity is terrifying and uncertain at times. People often retreat from what’s not known, becoming rigid and dogmatic, protecting themselves with certainty.

“Within the creative person himself there is fear of moving ahead. In these myths there speaks not only the courageous side of man, but the servile side which would prefer comfort to freedom, security to one’s own growth.”

There is a battle within each person: for comfort and security, and for creativity and freedom. To fully conform to security is to undermine one’s inner strength. To be conditioned to the whims of others is to give up choice and awareness.

People who are ethically sensitive will struggle daily, but they will be creators of themselves. They will live consistently, aware of who they are and what they want.

When one is courageous, one can accept being alone. One is not living merely for the acceptance of others, but rather, is living fully. There then is no authority greater than oneself.

The mature person has “the capacity to love something for its own sake, not for the sake of being taken care of or gaining a bootlegged feeling of prestige and power. Certainly loneliness and anxiety can be constructively met. Though this cannot be done through the deus ex machina of a ‘cosmic papa,’ it can be achieved through the individual’s confronting directly the various crises of his development, moving from dependence to greater freedom and higher integration by developing and utilizing his capacities, and relating to his fellows through creative work and love.”

One doesn’t have to leave society to be mature or free. To be in the crowd but still maintain the “sweetness of solitude,” as Emerson said, to have integrity while still learning from tradition and culture, is to possess inner strength.

One is not bored, but interested in everything, in everyone, alive in the moment.

“Wonder is the opposite to cynicism and boredom; it indicates that a person has a heightened aliveness, is interested, expectant, responsive. It is essentially an ‘opening’ attitude — an awareness that there is more to life than one has as yet fathomed, an experience of new vistas in life to be explored as well as new profundities to be plumbed.”

With curiosity, people can explore all of life. They begin from themselves, and not from others, as a foundation for love, open to what is possible, affirming who they are through their choices, not only in action but in attitude. A person will find what is valuable for him or herself. These values will be intimately known rather than passively given.

In every choice, there is always a risk. To choose from self-awareness, however, is to take responsibility and affirm oneself though a creative decision.

Whether each choice springs from conscious or unconscious motives, whether the person will make a mistake or not, doesn’t take away from the integrity of choosing what feels right in the moment, based on current knowledge.

What matters is to be honest with oneself. Knowledge of one’s unique perceptions, impressions, and experiences, leads to clarity and a higher purpose. In order to have this self-knowledge, however, one must have tremendous courage.

“Courage is the capacity to meet the anxiety which arises as one achieves freedom. It is the willingness to differentiate, to move from the protecting realms of parental dependence to new levels of freedom and integration. The need for courage arises not only at those stages when breaks with parental protection are most obvious — such as at the birth of self-awareness, at going off to school, at adolescence, in crises of love, marriage and the facing of ultimate death — but at every step in between as one moves from the familiar surroundings over frontiers into the unfamiliar.”

People are often afraid to be themselves because they don’t want to be laughed at, ridiculed, mocked, and shunned. They hide in the crowds, avoiding taking a risk, complacent with the shaky comfort of fitting in.

One can be courageous in living and still be connected to a community. One can discover an inner power without being socially isolated. “It takes courage not only to assert oneself but to give of oneself.”

To be courageous is to let go of what is familiar. Steadily, patiently growing from awareness of one’s inner world, seeking out what is mysterious and exploring, highly creative and mature.

One is blocked from being courageous when one doesn’t stand up for his or her values, when one automatically falls into roles that others have desired, rather than living from a genuine purpose.

People need to be accepted as who they are, not for as others wish them to be. But all too often, people want to be liked, not for who they are, but for who they appear to be.

To strive to be normal and seek acceptance from outside is to give up on courage. By living after others, one feels worthless whenever the group doesn’t approve, but feels valuable whenever they do.

“Courage arises from one’s sense of dignity and self-esteem; and one is uncourageous because he thinks too poorly of himself… Vanity and narcissism — the compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own.”

A courageous person can stand by their own convictions without the need to justify those convictions to others. Rather than trying to explain who they are and what they value to an authority, such as to a symbolic parent, they only need to convince themselves. To try to convince those who made up the rules, who want one to conform anyway, is to implicitly legitimize those rules and then react against them.

One must hold with conviction one’s own standards — no matter how imperfect they may be.

“It is the courage to be and trust one’s self despite the fact that one is finite; it means acting, loving, thinking, creating, even though one knows he does not have the final answers, and he may well be wrong. But it is only from a courageous acceptance of ‘finitude,’ and a responsible acting thereon, that one develops the powers that one does possess — far from absolute though they be.”

When people can honor their own dignity, they can see the dignity in others, even in those who are different from them. They can see the human and not the object to feel superior or inferior against.

They can feel the joys and sorrows of another, empathize, being fully present.

To love is not to exploit someone for an advantage. It is not to depend on another to reduce fear and loneliness. Love arises through mutual dignity, developed from self-awareness.

People are so used to competing, to treating each other as objects, raised on the philosophy of buying and selling, that they’re conditioned to love with undeveloped authenticity.

All too often, “love” is provided only when one gets what one wants.

Genuine love means to give, but only when one is mature enough to give, when one is internally strong enough to live through themselves.

“It is a giving of one’s self and a finding of one’s self at once. Such ecstasy represents the fullest interdependence in human relations; and the same paradox applies as in creative consciousness — one can merge one’s self in ecstasy only as one has gained the prior capacity to stand alone, to be a person in one’s own right.”

To live with the ideal of love, freedom and responsibility, completely in the present moment, with awareness and spontaneity and patience, to intimately explore one’s potentialities and face the uncertainty of life, is to be mature, to be humble about what one doesn’t know while being open to what could be. It is ultimately to be alive.

Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Gung Fu”

Bruce Lee, a legendary action star and martial artist, wrote a classic book on Chinese martial arts, called “The Tao of Gung Fu.”

More than an instructional on proper technique, Lee explored combat like a philosopher. He believed that fighting wasn’t Chinese or American or Korean, but rather, a deeply human, creative expression. Dogmatically following a particular style of martial arts was a limitation on the human potential for growth and fluidity.

Imagine the Yin Yang symbol. Yin can represent negativeness, passiveness, gentleness, internal, moon, darkness, femininity, and so on, while Yang can represent positiveness, activeness, firmness, external, sun, and so on. Together, Yin Yang is one, whole, changing from one to the other.

There is no true duality between Yin and Yang. They are complementary, not in conflict. There is no black without white, no force without gentleness, no before without an after. There is a Yin in every Yang and vice versa.

In martial arts, one should be adaptable, fluid in movement. One doesn’t strike. The fist strikes without any thought of striking. When trained properly, there is action without action, strategy without any thought of strategy.

There is no strength without gentleness or gentleness without strength. To strain too much is to tire just as to be too submissive is to be overwhelmed.

The bamboo, yielding and then bending along with a strong wind, doesn’t crack like the stiffest of trees.

What the mind focuses on, it emphasizes while neglecting the rest. To neglect the rest is to be blind to all but one thing. To ignore all is to be blind to all. When the mind perceives what happens without attaching to one thing or two things or more, then it intuitively understands, adapting to change as it happens.

“When I look at a tree, I perceive one of the leaves is red, and my mind stops with this leaf. When this happens, I see only one leaf and fail to take notice of the innumerable other leaves of the tree. If, instead of restricting my attention to one, I look at the tree without any preconceived ideas, I shall see all the leaves. One leaf effectively stops my mind from seeing all the rest. But when the mind moves on without stopping, it takes up hundreds of thousands of leaves without fail.”

Where the mind focuses, it is captive. The mind should flow freely through the body. When it is nowhere, it is everywhere. By not calculating, it acts as it should. By planning, it is inhibited. Become one with whatever activity is taking place, not trapped in how or why it takes place. Water flows where it does without an obstruction, spontaneous and alive.

When there is no intellectualization in fighting, no thought of superiority or inferiority, winning or losing, the fight happens naturally. There is no true separation between the internal and external, between one opponent and another, until one makes distinctions between the two.

Yin and Yang are not in conflict, but the mind makes them appear to be so. To be intuitively aware is to act without acting, to let the mind alone, adapting to what happens as it happens, like the calm mirror of a pond and the rushing of a waterfall.

A martial artist should strive for perfection in simplicity, avoiding flashiness. Rather than study a thousand techniques or overcomplicate oneself with too many steps, develop what is essential, reject what is unnecessary.

One should not block thoughts or try to think too much. Instead the mind is not grasping, not getting stuck in ideas or emotions. A martial artist uses no-mind, being everywhere and nowhere at once.

Martial artists should not concern themselves with status, with being superior or better than others. Pride is illusory, based on a fixed idea of self, given and eventually taken externally.

When one is prideful, one is always terrified of being dethroned. A wise martial artist cares about discipline, knowing themselves truthfully through self-cultivation. To be self-sufficient is what matters, not the appearance of success, based on the opinions of others.

When a martial artist begins, he or she is ignorant. Then after training, the martial artist knows some about defense and offense and thinks a lot about both. After the martial artist masters their training, they no longer think about it. They are wise like an expert and ignorant like a beginner.

“If you try to remember you will lose. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip — or crash! Be water, my friend.”

A martial artist must never be rigid in thought or in movement. Like water, combat is uncertain, changing from moment to moment. To be stuck in dogmatism is to be severely limited, resisting the nature of what is.

“To me, styles that cling to one partial aspect of combat are actually in bondage. You see, a choice method, however exacting, fixes its practitioners in an enclosed pattern. I always say that actual combat is never fixed, has no boundaries or limits, and is constantly changing from moment to moment. Because one does not want to be made uncertain and be engaged in broken rhythm, so he establishes a fixed pattern of combat, a cooperative pattern of rhythmic relationship with his partner. As his margin of freedom is getting narrower and narrower, he becomes a slave to the pattern and accepts the pattern to be the real thing. Such exclusive drilling on a set pattern of one’s choice will only lead its practitioners to clogginess, because basically it is a practice of resistance. In reality, the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, and one will soon find out that his choice routines lack pliability and are incapable of adapting to the ever-changing swift movement of combat. All of a sudden his opponent is alive and no longer a cooperative robot. In other words, once conditioned in a partialized style, its practitioner faces his opponent through a screen of resistance. In reality, he is merely performing his stylized blocks and listening to his own screams.”

An effective martial artist is not bound, but rather, free of self-imposed prisons. Spontaneous, broken in rhythm, open in mind to all possibilities, sparring to keep sharp in combat, unconcerned with belt and status. There is no rigidity in forms, overthinking of techniques. There seems to be an action of no action, an intuitive mind focused on nothing and yet on all that occurs, not concerned with mere externals but with momentary change.

Enter the Kettlebell! Strength Secret of the Soviet Supermen (review)

For Russian strongmen, elite military forces, and hardened criminals in Chechnya, the kettlebell has been an essential tool for developing a balanced musculature, endurance during the most grueling physical trials, functionally explosive strength, and a whole host of other benefits.

A tiny iron cannonball doesn’t seem that impressive, but after gripping at its cold handle and ripping into the momentum of a swing, there is nothing more punishing or more addictive.

Kettlebells come in poods. For example, the average male beginner uses 1 pood (16 kgs. or 35 lbs.) while the advanced lifter uses 2 poods (32 kgs. or 70 lbs.). There are different weights for every level. One must master the lighter weights to progress onto the heavier ones, but even the most powerful athletes can accomplish their goals with 1 pood.

In “Enter the Kettlebell,” Pavel Tsatsouline describes the correct (and most thorough) techniques available for exercises like the sumo deadlift, face-to-wall squat, halo, swing, snatch, clean, and get-up.

Pavel encourages a daily practice, not a burnout. Kettlebell training requires a lot of skill and patience to do well. For instance, to do a proper two-handed swing, one needs to maintain a box squat alignment, keep a straight but not upright back, generate power from the hip but not in the arms, sit back rather than dip down, and so on.

This book uses a minimalist approach and recommends two kettlebell exercises for the most benefit: the swing and the get-up.

“The swing will take care of your back, legs, heart, and lungs. The get-up will temper flexible and resilient shoulders, ready for exercises and spots skills that traditionally trash them: punching a heavy bag, grappling, heavy pressing and jerking, and so on.”

Once one has practiced these exercises for a long time (weeks to months to even years), focusing on finesse over speed and technique over high repetitions, additional exercises can be incorporated.

Kettlebell cleans, snatches, and presses are demanding. One needs to use strength and flexibility to do them well. Pavel argues for slow strength training with lower reps. Rather than championing the popular fatiguing way of strength training, he believes that slow training minimizes injuries, while building resiliency and power.

When using kettlebells, one is always in the Yin Yang of relaxation and tension. Like any good martial artist knows, it’s all about timing.

“Tension and relaxation are the two sides of the performance coin. An always-tight powerlifter can hardly move. An always-loose yoga practitioner is weak. A karate master, who moves like lightning and then freezes for a split second to put all of his mass behind the punch and then recoil with relaxed quickness like a snake’s tongue, has both. In the words of the late Okinawan karate master Chozo Nakama, this is ‘relaxed tension.’”

Kettlebells bring the entire body into each movement. One exhales with control like a boxer throwing a cross, relaxing and then tensing, building up their combat conditioning. Kettlebells reduce injuries through a stabilization of numerous muscles, strengthening the back, arms, shoulders, abs, legs, glutes, and grips.

Pavel recommends training everyday. Stay consistent but always vary in the workouts each time, switching from heavy to light weights, focusing on proper technique in between sessions, never exercising until fatigue.

He suggests using ladders, starting low. Switching hands, resting. Then slowly building up to fifty repetitions, one hundred repetitions, in a short period of time. Eventually, as one progresses, one will build 1 ladder (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) to 2 ladders, 2 ladders to 3 ladders, and so on. This can take a few minutes, a few hours, or even a full day.

When it comes to rest in between sets, that depends on individual goals.

“Either extreme of rest between sets — less than a minute on one end, and 10 minutes and more on the other — will make you strong for different reasons. Extremely short breaks will make you stronger by building muscle in the tradition of Charles Staley’s EDT (edtsecrets.com). Extremely long breaks will make you stronger by improving your skill of strength in the tradition of my GTG program from The Naked Warrior. Medium breaks will give you a mix of muscular and neural adaptations. This is why I have not specified how long you should rest between your sets in this book. Why complicate?”

Kettlebell training can be timed as well. Alternating rep/rest periods at random, experimenting daily to build up to high reps in a short amount of time, can be challenging and rewarding. HIIT and Tabata are two beneficial methods for intense, short workouts.

Kettlebells are versatile, adaptive to both the person and program. They’re simple, effective punishers, training raw power and strength, conditioning and balance, flexibility and skill.

One can combine kettlebells with intervals of pull-ups and pushups, shadow boxing and sprints. Athletes can alternate with barbells and machines and dumbells and ropes. They can skip those tools all together and use kettlebells alone.

From stretching hip flexors to stabilizing joints, from building raw power to reducing the chances of arthritis, from lowering heart rate to increasing balance, kettlebells are underrated in the fitness world.)

Practicing Peace in Times of War (review)

“We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.”

It is common for us to harden our hearts whenever we experience unpleasant feelings. Overtime, our minds solidify in their views and interpretations of events. We judge others, not only for who they are but for who they represent. Our fear and anger and greed consume us. We react habitually to our unpleasant feelings and act aggressively toward others and ourselves. Suffering follows suffering.

“We point our fingers at the wrongdoers, but we ourselves are mirror images; everyone is outraged at everyone else’s wrongness.”

We feed our self-righteousness and anger. We blame and doubt and fear and criticize. As long as we keep acting and thinking and feeling in these same patterns, our suffering will never go away.

“Whenever there’s a sense of threat, we harden. And so if we don’t harden, what happens? We’re left with that uneasiness, that feeling of threat. That’s when the real journey of courage begins. This is the real work of the peacemaker, to find the soft spot and the tenderness in that very uneasy place and stay with it. If we can stay with the soft spot and stay with the tender heart, then we are cultivating the seeds of peace.”

We have destructive habits within us, passed down through many generations. There is a teaching that beyond all the rigidity in our hearts, there’s a soft spot. In softness, there’s spaciousness. In spaciousness, there’s a boundless, ungraspable world.

We have to stay with what’s impermanent, letting our hearts soften in those naked moments.
While we may not control what’s outside of us, we can change our own minds, breaking apart aggression.

“We don’t automatically react, even though inside we are reacting. We let all the words go and are just there with the rawness of our experience.”

When we stay with our uncomfortable feelings, we discover that there’s no real resolution. There is nothing to hold onto. Most people are afraid of that groundlessness, fleeing to an answer, a belief, a solution. They want what’s right and wrong, what can be defined and categorized, what gives them a sense of permanence. 

“You have a choice whether to open or close, whether to hold on or to let go, whether to harden or soften, whether to hold your seat or strike out. That choice is presented to you again and again and again.”

If we develop the patience to be with our energy, even though we may feel afraid and anxious and nervous, something within us will die. When we can let go, there is endless freedom in the death of our opinions, our fundamentalist approach to life.

When we have thoughts, we can simply label them thoughts. We can keep returning to right now, disrupting our habits, minimizing our reactive tendencies. Otherwise we will become a slave to them.

We are humans. We cannot escape illness, old age, death, pain, and loss. When we resist these realities, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs, we cause ourselves and others suffering.

Our tendency is to seek a sense of security that will never come.

“Instead of asking ourselves, ‘How can I find security and happiness?’ we could ask ourselves, ‘Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace — disappointment in all its many forms — and let it open me?’”

Through our practice, we can become intimate with what hardens our hearts. What barriers have we used to isolate others from others, to not feel the pain of a parent’s cancer and a child’s crying, to protect ourselves from rejection and depression? When we come to more subtly recognize these barriers, they will break apart.

“Becoming intimate with pain is the key to changing at the core of our being — staying open to everything we experience, letting the sharpness of difficult times pierce us to the heart, letting these times open us, humble us, and make us wiser and more brave. Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away.”

We can recognize in ourselves our own prejudices and fears, guilt and shame, connecting to other people through a familiarity of going through the same things.

We can sit in meditation and know ourselves. Feelings will come and go, dissolving overtime. There is no rejection of these thoughts and feelings. They seem so consuming at first, but eventually they are like the clouds. They have no solidity after all.

In spaciousness, we can still feel sad, happy, angry, jealous. These things all come and go. Instead of reacting, we don’t take the bait. We learn how to remain present in what’s pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. With equanimity, we simply are.

“Our interpretations and our opinions are just that — our interpretations and opinions. We no longer have to be under their control, or have them color everything we think and do. Strong reactions will continue to arise, just the way the weather changes. But each of us can develop our ability to not escalate the emotions so that they become a nightmare and increase our suffering.”

Aggression begins in our minds. Violence begins in our minds. We can water the seeds of prejudice and anger, blaming others, justifying ourselves, believing we’re the only right ones. Or we could sit deeper into our own pain, completely vulnerable, breathing in and out, in and out, experiencing our changing, shifting insecurity. Then there will be only the awareness of nothing solid. These painful moments will pass through our hearts to our understanding of all people.

“When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You’re able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently, endless opportunities to dissolve the seeds of war where they originate — in the hearts and minds of individuals like you and me.”

Ethics for Dummies (review)

Ethics isn’t merely about the reality of the world, but how the world ought to be. Some argue that since the world isn’t fair, everyone needs to get used to it. In defense of ethics, rather than resigning one’s life to the harsh conditions of hatred, corruption, and violence, one should rather ask why the world needs to be unfair. If life can potentially be better, then what can be done to make it better?

Shouldn’t people do something to improve the lives of others, or at the very least, mitigate their pain and suffering? Should endangered species be shot and collected as trophies to be placed on walls or should animals be protected? Should governments, grassroots movements and corporations, among other groups, promote the most effective policies to decrease the disastrous effects of climate change? Can the ongoing nuclear threat be eliminated?

Ethics concerns itself with ought and should, not necessarily with what is or isn’t. Additionally, ethics isn’t the same thing as the law. While speeding is illegal, for instance, speeding in the case of a dire emergency may be considered ethical. While the law may inspire some ethical actions, law in itself doesn’t equate to what is ethical. A law may even be unethical, such as laws that are racist, sexist, exploitative, and so on, in the past or continuing in the present. There must be ethical standards to judge whether laws are justified or not. If laws truly equate to ethics, then law X (kill your first born, racially segregate, take advantage of a tax bill to give money to the rich.) would be considered right because it is the law. These categories, while overlapping sometimes, are distinct from each other.

Furthermore, when discussing ethics, it is important to be precise. Using three classes (required, permitted, forbidden) when describing moral issues may be more nuanced than simply saying something is right, wrong, good, and bad.

Some people may ask, “What’s the point of being ethical at all?” On a practical basis, it may be in one’s basic self-interest. To follow certain guidelines such as not murdering, stealing, harming, and lying, in a civilization, provides people with a greater chance of group harmony, happiness, and the reduction of suffering.

In forming ethical standards, one should be mindful of one’s thoughts and feelings and how they relate to the rest of the world. Learning about personal beliefs, values, intuitions, thinking about difficult moral problems, remaining curious, open-minded, asking questions, evolving based on better information, can help a person develop a solid ethical framework. Integrity forms from knowledge, intention, and actions, based on consistent principles that one develops throughout one’s life.

In subjectivism, ethical statements are personal opinions. If that’s the case, then statements aimed at achieving moral truth are nonsensical or contradictive. Some subjectivists state that even though there is no objective fact regarding whether something is good or bad, there are a diverse range of tastes or preferences.

In other words, something may be right for me but wrong for you, right for you but wrong for another person. This philosophy is a form of relativism because right/wrong is relative to a certain person. To expand on this point, when someone says that something is wrong, they are really talking about their own personal opinions regarding an issue rather than the issue itself.

To respond to subjectivism, one should judge ethics based on the truth. Does believing in X, especially when many people disagree about X, make it valid? Does it correspond with what’s factual or logical? Subjectivists consider all ethical views to be opinions, what’s right for one person or people. If one is saying, however, that they are right and another person is wrong, then that goes beyond the ethical claim that all of ethics are merely opinions, preferences, personal views. Additionally, if everyone had personal views that are right for them, then would every view be considered correct and infallible? Doesn’t this mean that every ethical belief about sexism and racism is right? For the subjectivist, if everyone is right (for each person), then everything would then be permissible (for them), like theft, murder, slavery, and so on. While subjectivism may seem flawed, it does point to certain valuable features about ethics: just because someone believes something different than you doesn’t mean they’re wrong, don’t be too quick to judge, and some people do have ethical views that are correct.

Related to subjectivism is cultural relativism. In this theory, right/wrong are related to one’s culture. While in cultural relativism, there is no objective truth about how one should live, there are ethical standards that transcend the individual view. A person can do something wrong if they violate the norms of their culture. On the other hand, a person from one culture can’t judge people in other cultures.

While there are similarities between cultures (e.g. generally not allowing the murder of infants), there are differences in views on how to raise a child, homosexuality, women’s rights, blasphemy, and so on. Some cultural relativists believe that people should follow the ethical standards of their given culture. People, especially in modern times, often try to show sensitivity to different cultures to avoid being ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism has led to the suffering of different cultures who are judged as primitive, who are forced to give up their beliefs, values, religions, languages, lands, communities, families, and even lives.

For all the benefits of cultural relativism, it does have issues as well. Firstly, there is not always a clear boundary between different cultures. Many cultures, for instance, exist in a place like America. They’ll cross-pollinate each other, changing overtime. Secondly, many individuals belong to more than one culture or subculture. These cultures don’t always give the same advice about ethical issues either. Some will overlap in values, beliefs, and practices. Others will differ greatly. While cultures coexist relative to each other, some will be intolerant, hostile, and violent. Some cultures intermingle, but alternatively, there are other cultures that are not tolerant.

Just because a person belongs to one culture, whether it’s from their age, religion, gender, home, work, hobbies, music, race, ethnicity, and so on, doesn’t mean they have to remain in that culture indefinitely (in some cases). Furthermore, people who are born in one culture may consider that culture’s practices to be unethical (like the Nazi party) and they’ve got the right to criticize it. They don’t have to tolerate that culture unconditionally, simply because of where they were born. They can, however, choose to tolerate a culture that is internally/externally tolerant toward others.

Additionally, if cultural relativism is absolutely true in claiming that there isn’t a universal ethics that transcends every culture, then wouldn’t that be an absolute statement too? While there still may be some bugs in cultural relativism, it’s important to avoid judgements about dissimilar cultures and to question one’s own cultural beliefs. Likewise, in designing an ethical system, it’s important to have tolerance for other people as well.

In emotivism, ethical statements such as “thou shall not kill” are not necessarily facts. While cultural relativists avoid judging other cultures and subjectivists don’t like to judge another person as morally right and wrong, emotivism deals with what ethical words mean.

Statements about how the universe works, such as whether the earth is spherical, can be scientifically tested. Statements on ethics, however, say more about the motivation of the person than the statement itself. Ethical claims are emotional expressions. Ethics essentially is a sophisticated way of saying “Yay!” or “Boo!” toward something. In other words, to command others to not steal, to say that shoplifting is wrong, is to simply say that it disappoints, aggravates, and bothers the person saying that it is wrong.

Emotions and motivations are important in making decisions. To disregard rational argument for a system of booing and cheering, however, would eventually make ethical positions seem confusing, nonsensical, and illogical. People, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily motivated to act based on scientific facts alone. They have to be emotionally invested and influenced to do the right thing.

Before a person is motivated to act ethically, can they truly do so? If a human is free to choose the right action, as opposed to another action that is physically and mentally impossible (levitating, telekinesis), should they act in such a way? Different ethical theories argue about how a person ought to be, what they should do, based on the autonomy they have or don’t have.

This ties in with human nature. People may be disposed to lovingkindness, compassion, and caring. They may be selfish, greedy, and cruel. They may also be neutral or a mix of all these traits. These traits may be cultivated or atrophied over time, depending on one’s intentions and actions. Some philosophers argue that people need to constrain what is destructive inside them and strengthen what is creative inside them. Following an ethical path may then be a reflection of human nature or a distortion of nature.

What a person chooses, based on their relative freedom, could still be determined from genetics, desires, God/Gods, scientific laws, and so on. Freewill may be conditional or part of a greater plan, contingent on the unfolding of the universe or built upon previous choices. Humans may have the illusion of freewill while they’re really influenced from their narrow biology in a changing universe. They’re acting from what they believe is freedom, but where are their choices coming from, their thoughts? Do they choose each word or movement, every heartbeat or breath from their lungs?

Compatibilists agree that people are defined from a past, genetics, and limitations under physical laws, while still determining their lives. They can act to control the outcomes of what’s fixed, to consciously make decisions. Reason and instinct may be ultimately determined, but in the possibilities of ethical action, there is still a choice on how to act.

Libertarians, however, believe that people’s behavior cannot be completely predicted. They may still be defined by a past, genetics, and the physical laws in the universe, but they possess non-material minds. While a clear division between non-material and material needs sufficient evidence, human brains are incredibly complicated organs. They may not necessarily work in a predictable, deterministic manner. Even if they do, they’re so complex that they seem free, even if they’re running from the laws of the universe.

Despite whether freewill exists or not, are humans predisposed to do good or evil? Philosophers like Mencius (BCE 372-289) claimed that humans are naturally good. When a child is endangered, one is sympathetic. If a tragedy befalls a friend or a family member, one feels compassion for them. While caring may come naturally to a person, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will help or do an ethical action. Mencius believed that people should tend to their gardens, cultivating actions of caring, love, generosity, and so on. Taoists consider humans to be good too. One with nature, spontaneous, free. Rather than cultivating virtue, people should remove their attachments to what the world is and how everything should be. One should let go rather than hold on. For someone like Rousseau (1712-1778), artificial rules imposed on individuals shackle their goodness. Society leads to power, desire, conflict, preventing one’s freedom.

Then there are philosophers who view human nature as innately bad. Xunzi thought that people are naturally self-interested, competitive, greedy, and insensitive toward others. They have to consciously devote themselves to virtue in order to overcome their tendencies. While humans may not desire suffering for others, they are still selfish. Hobbes was pessimistic about people too. He thought of humans as having short-term and long-term self-interest. Acting on selfish whims may satisfy an immediate craving but it will be disastrous in the long-term (pain, jail, violence, death). Long-term selfishness is more practically advantageous for developing trust, respect, success, and so on. To habitually change and be ethical, one should internalize the rules of wise people, practice virtue, educating themselves daily (Xunzi). Another way would be to enforce rules that punish immoral behavior while appealing to rational self-interest (Hobbes).

Other philosophers don’t see human nature as inherently good or bad. People are inclined to be good and bad. They can be tempted to act in both ways or neither. Human nature may even be completely empty, full of potential for meaning and value. For existentialists such as Sartre, human nature doesn’t have an essence, but is still a condition of existence. Humans will age and die. Between birth and death, they can make choices based on their values. They can make their lives full of meaning in an indifferent universe. For Dong Zhongshu, education, culture and strong rulers, among other influences, help one to check one’s worst impulses. Righteous laws restrain the masses from subjecting each other to suffering.

Many religions, however, claim that true virtue is connected with the divine. Religions have different ethical codes that people should follow. Some of these religions disagree on which codes to follow, contradicting each other’s rules about how one should think, feel, believe, and act. Even within the same religion, there are different sects and interpretations of the same laws. In some religions, a prophet dictates a rule because of their God or gods. In other religions, there aren’t gods or God. Additionally, the existence or non-existence of a God may be irrelevant to one’s ethical behavior.

In divine command theory, all ethical actions depend on God, even if someone has freewill. Some religious people believe that God is the utmost authority on good and evil because God understands everything that ever was, is, or will be. Secondly, God will punish anyone who disobeys a divine command. If someone, on the other hand, only acted in an ethical way because of their fear of a punishment, would they truly be ethical? Another issue with divine command theory is that if a command from God is the be-all-end-all of ethics, and God wants people to be happy and avoid suffering, then that doesn’t necessarily make people ethical either. It makes happiness the goal. Furthermore, there may be a conflict between God’s commands (internal contradiction), conflict between interpretations of God’s commands, and commands that are incomplete. If God, for an example, commanded someone not to steal or kill, but that person stole to avoid murder, then in absolute terms, that person would violate a divine command. At the same time, holy books cannot cover situations that happen in every facet of life. People have to interpret the divine commands in changing, new contexts.

One big challenge to divine command theory is the Euthyphro problem (devised by Plato). Could God or gods command anything to be ethical (since they’re all-powerful, all-knowing) or are they not in charge of what’s ethical? If a God or gods accept something as ethical because of its ethical nature, then ethics is beyond them. They’re not truly in charge of what’s ethical. They didn’t create what’s good and evil. If ethical actions are commanded from God/gods, and these deities can make anything become ethical, then child murder, rape, theft, massacres, and so on, can be divinely judged as ethical. If gods/God can instantly change what’s ethical at any time, then ethics becomes arbitrary. Moreover, accepting rape as good because of a divine command seems to be an absurd rule to follow. From accepting either of the positions in the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory soon appears to be false and irrational.

Some people are guided to act in an ethical manner because of religious codes. Other people are not religious. They don’t necessarily believe that the divine exists, guides their lives in a meaningful way, offers any value in an increasingly modern age, and so on. Some people who believe in God (deists) believe that God created the universe but is indifferent toward what’s created. Others argue that it always will be impossible to know God’s mind due to humanity’s limited nature. God is beyond the understanding of all. Then there are people who believe in a God or gods, but consider the divine irrelevant to living a good life.

In this advanced age, science has helped people’s lives tremendously. Science draws conclusions based on sufficient evidence. That evidence correlates with the material world. Some of the claims of religion, like the existence of a God or angels, may be immaterial. Because science relies on repeated and tested observations in the material world, it doesn’t make any claims about the immaterial world. It avoids any judgement that is not based on thorough evidence. Kant argued that people should concern themselves with what’s reasonable—not necessarily with what’s spiritual or immaterial. Reason guides humanity to act in an ethical way. Other philosophers such as John Stuart Mill viewed happiness as both the path and goal. Rather than depending on spiritual insight for answers, going after pleasure and avoiding suffering for oneself and others, is its own reward. Another compatible ethics with science, seen in Aristotle and Confucius, states that individuals should cultivate virtue, reduce vice, and form good relationships with people.

Some religious followers believe that hell/heaven is incentive enough to do good and not do evil. While there is no scientific evidence for the existence of heaven and hell, people will be less inclined to do an evil deed if there are negative consequences. People, however, don’t have to wait until they die to be punished. A person who lies regularly, for instance, is trusted less. Someone who steals may be jailed, killed, or suffer from their remorse. Furthermore, even the most devout religious people, who believe heaven and hell exist, do not always do the right thing. Those who are both religious and not religious do good and bad things. Being religious isn’t the same thing as being ethical.

There are arguments that a scientific worldview can lead to unethical behavior. For example, people have misused the phrase “survival of the fittest” to justify their own selfish behavior. There are other scientific ideas, such as the selfish gene, which may seem to support unethical behavior. Firstly, the saying “survival of the fittest” doesn’t truly mean that the strongest, toughest, or most ruthless of competitors will reign supreme in the gene pool. Even if the best of the best lives, they might not reproduce. Survival of the fittest means the best adapted to a given environment at a given time probably will survive and reproduce. As for the selfish gene hypothesis, selfish genes are merely advantageous genes selected over generations with a tendency to replicate themselves. Having multitudes of genes that want to replicate doesn’t preclude a person from being ethical. People, moreover, aren’t merely ethical. They want to survive and mate and flourish, which means they probably value social relations. Murdering, cheating, and lying, among other actions that cause suffering, tend to make for poorer social relations. It’s in a person’s best interest to be ethical.

There are, however, challenges about why people are truly ethical. Some critics argue that some ethical systems are inherently biased. Traditional ethics may reflect the beliefs of one race/class/gender to the exclusion of others. For example, why is it that only certain philosophers are taught in academia and not others? Why do the rich—with the privilege to ponder philosophy in comfort—represent the interests of the entire world? How many women throughout history were given the chance to contemplate ethics as opposed to men?

Then there is the argument that ethics is relativistic to an individual or given culture. Just because an ethical system applies to one person/group doesn’t mean that it has any authority to dictate to other people. Furthermore, to follow a strict moral code that applies to everyone, without challenging that code if it conflicts with one’s beliefs, is to violate one’s integrity.

Nietzsche thought that one should passionately live in one’s own way, not compromising one’s inner strength. Rather than finding a personal path in self-creativity, traditional ethics imposes codes and principles upon people. It forces masses to conform. People should instead be aware of their own motivations, understanding their cowardice and bravery, strengths and weaknesses, when forming themselves. They should seek challenges and engage with life fully. Most people, however, lean on religions, traditional ethics, and gods. They use those ideas as crutches. As these myths fall apart, degrading overtime, people will finally be free. They will be able to choose their own lives. Once existence becomes comfortable for a person, he or she has given up personal responsibility. To relinquish one’s individuality is to become a faceless member of a group. Nietzsche didn’t want mediocrity to take away a person’s possibilities. He saw an individual as an artist, creating their principles continually. Rather than painting a portrait with a full palette, most, however, use an assortment of grays.

Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard believed that one should live a life of integrity. He thought that people are born in despair—not taking full control of their lives, not taking risks, succumbing to what’s easy—but they can take responsibility for themselves. They often fall into traps of stagnation, believing that they cannot change their condition. Furthermore, they renounce the divine and forget to fully engage with meaningful pursuits.

From a Taoist perspective, one exists in harmony with nature (the Tao). There is no true separation of one from nature. It is the mind that creates the dualities of good/evil, black/white, chaos/order. Like Yin/Yang, there is movement of one in the other. Life is not only Yin, not only Yang. One cannot be without the other. People often try to impose their ways on what is, resisting reality, and then suffer. Taoists don’t attach themselves to virtue/vice. They are open without judgement, flowing with all phenomena. Like a mirror that reflects the rippling waves. Without preference, expectations, one spontaneously acts without acting. Effortless in the moment, unconstrained by artificial rules and principles, trusting in what is.

While Taoists move beyond mental categories, virtue ethicists focus on having a good character. People are defined through their virtues and vices. What one does with their character traits, such as honesty, humility, generosity, and so on, matters in each moment. Being virtuous isn’t something chosen when it’s convenient. One should always develop their good intentions and actions until those actions form into habits. Those habits will give direction to life, pulling one away from vice. One should be aligned with virtuous thinking, feeling, action, and seeing. They don’t ignore someone else’s plight, desire to steal, avoid meaningful work, or think selfishly. A virtuous person doesn’t rely on rigid rules to solve moral issues. One uses practical wisdom to asses each situation, knowing what needs to be done.

Aristotle argued that virtuosity is an end in itself. While some people use money to buy a house to live in a harmonious community, being an excellent person is its own reward. Secondly, to be virtuous is to live up to one’s fullest capabilities, to be complete. To develop maturity in kindness, trustworthiness, loyalty, lovingness, and so on, is to reduce suffering, build happiness, and have better relationships with people.

Some philosophers, such as the stoics, believe that virtue is sufficient enough to bring forth happiness. It doesn’t matter what circumstances one is in (poor, rich, sick, healthy). One can be as happy sweeping streets as they can be as the king of a land. Other philosophers, such as Aristotle, thought that people cannot be happy without being virtuous first, but other external conditions are needed as well (e.g., wealth, food, shelter). He believed that humans are unique in their ability to use intellectual virtues (reason, wisdom) to reflect about themselves, existence, and the universe, while at the same time, dealing with the minutia of life. For Confucius, cultivating the proper virtues for each role (husband, wife, student, child, worker, subject) is essential for the good life. People should move beyond their petty egoic needs to engage in harmonious social relationships.

Between the two extremes of behavior, such as rashness and cowardice, lies virtue. Finding the right balance in life, using good judgement, is the mark of a virtuous person. Being committed to the path—starting from the foundation of the self and family until extending into community, society, and all of humanity—is essential for growth.

As one makes a commitment to practice, one looks up to mentors. From being fired up about virtue, virtuous people are an inspiration on how to live. Taking the example of the Buddha, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Black Elk, and so on, guides people toward their own progress. Even a garbageman, custodian, teacher, or anyone, can be an exemplary character. They don’t necessarily need to be famous. From looking up to special guides at various stages in one’s life, and practicing, one will transform into a better human being.

Sometimes it is hard to know what virtues are right in each situation. There is no objective standard in selecting the correct number of traits to express, how to express them, when they are most needed or not needed. While virtue ethics doesn’t dictate what to specifically do, it points in the right direction. Every situation is so specific that not all virtues will be necessary. They are guides for one’s behavior, dependent on context. One has to use one’s own creative moral judgement to solve problems. The virtue ethicist may be seen as a perfectionist, trying to be a good person only for themselves, not because they care. On the other hand, one who practices virtue works to align their thoughts and feelings, character and behavior. They don’t act for themselves alone but for everyone. They are virtuous in one situation so that they will be helpful, generous, kind, and so on, in another. While conditions external to people, such as community, health, genes, and so on, heavily influence one’s development, being aware of how these conditions impact others, acting with responsibility and freedom, helping people who are suffering and giving them opportunities, is crucial for growth.

For consequentialists, what matters are the consequences of actions. Does an ethical action promote flourishing and reduce suffering, create happiness and take away pain? While some consequentialists only believe the ends justify the means, others take into consideration the motivations and intentions involved in an action. Breaking several traffic laws to drive a pregnant woman to a hospital, stealing a basket of apples to feed a starving child, and so on, may seem like the ends (consequences) justify the means (actions). Other moral dilemmas, such as torturing a suspected terrorist or murdering someone who may harm others, are more intuitively ambiguous situations.

Consequentialists generally place more value in the outcomes of actions than with following principles or developing character. It’s important, though, when deciding on the value of good consequences and bad consequences, to evaluate them appropriately. Utilitarian philosophers want to promote happiness and reduce suffering. Jeremy Bentham wrote that happiness, well-being, and pleasure are the highest goods. He considered these goods from a calculus of intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, chance, extent, and so on. How long will a person gain pleasure for, how will it affect others, how easy or likely will they experience happiness, will there be unintended consequences, a chance of suffering, and who will suffer more? John Stuart Mill found Bentham’s approach to be useful, but he distinguished further between higher and lower goods. Experiencing pleasure isn’t the same for all people. Deciding on the right pleasures for the right people, depending on age, experience, refinement, wisdom, and so on, is necessary for true flourishing.

Utilitarians want to maximize utility to bring forth the best results. Therefore, people are considered on an equal basis. Nobody is better than anyone else simply because they are rich, poor, white, black, male, and/or female. While this determination (everyone is equal to one in moral weight) is fair and impartial, there are radical implications, such as choosing between the life of a lover and a stranger. People may believe in this rule as an idea, but in application, it may be hard to condemn one’s child while saving an adult acquaintance. One has to make tough moral choices that can negatively affect the life of a lover, friend, and family member, to help the group.

Utilitarians desire the greatest good for the greatest number of people. One has to asses each situation to determine what the right options are and how to act upon them. How can a person with ten dollars in their pocket act to make the most people happy? Will they donate to a charity, buy a hot meal for the homeless man on the street, invest in a non-profit company? There are values that can be placed on a given set of possibilities in each moment. It is important to remember that since everyone exists with the same moral weight, one’s own interests matter as much as the person being helped. One should never neglect self-care, sacrificing themselves totally (unless by their action, they are saving a group, who potentially won’t cause harm to others).

Other utilitarians take an indirect approach to ethics. They follow principles that generally yield the best consequences. While a little lie may prevent someone from getting their feelings hurt, always lying will cause a lot of suffering. These utilitarians ask themselves how a principle impacted people in the past and what would happen if everyone followed it (e.g., no lying, no stealing). Then they ask what would happen if everyone followed the opposite of the principle. There may even be degrees, or alternatives, to a principle other than simply lying/not lying, stealing/not stealing.

Some critics point out that utilitarianism demands too much. Someone can donate money to a charity, for instance, but should they sell all their possessions and devote their entire lives to caring for starving children? How far should one go when being ethical? Some ethicists make a distinction between doing one’s duty, such as saving a child from drowning, from going beyond what’s in one’s duty. While giving away all of one’s possessions is admirable, it may not be in one’s best interest. Using common sense to determine what is the best path to take is important. Sacrificing everything for others, at one’s ultimate expense, can lead to sickness, mental illness, poverty, and death.

Another criticism of utilitarianism is that acting for the greatest good can lead to detachment. If one doesn’t believe in position X, but follows position X to benefit the most people, then that person is acting contrary to his/her own beliefs. Utilitarian ethics can run counter to own’s own intuitions and beliefs about what’s right. If utilitarian ethics are consistent with one’s beliefs, then that person’s integrity is preserved, but if the two are at odds, then that inevitably will cause internal conflict.

Furthermore, no one is omniscient. While a person can reasonably predict some of the consequences of their actions, not all consequences can be foreseen. Some things will be uncertain or have other effects than are intended. People may punish the ethical and praise the unethical. One will never know every factor in a given situation, but with reasonable consideration, one can choose options with positive, probable results.

Following only consequences at the expense of principles, however, can be problematic. If a person does something that’s wrong, but isn’t caught for it (and there are no consequences), is that person acting in an unethical manner? In Kantian ethics, that person is unethical.

Immanuel Kant believed that people are free to choose foundational principles for themselves. These principles are personally taken on and followed, not dictated from external authorities (e.g., God, the government, parents, teachers). Kant wrote that one should use reason to develop the right principles. While people share similar drives with other animals, such as breathing and eating and shitting, people have the unique ability to reason their positions. They can reflect on themselves and what their actions are and then act with motivation.

The categorical imperative is developed from one’s reason and autonomy. A person reasons about what path to take from the options available. If he or she chooses to follow a principle, that principle should apply in general and to everyone. Only acting because of what may happen in the future doesn’t help establish the principle. It doesn’t make the motivation behind the action more ethical either. Building homes for the needy to gain validation is different from building homes out of a sense of compassion. Both lead to the same consequences but come from different sources of motivation. Consequences, which are not always predictable, are not in one’s control. Having the intention to act ethically is in one’s control.

One is ethically bound to follow their imperative. Other people may not hold the same principle to be true, however. For Kant, if one believes in an ethical principle, in order to fulfill that principle, one must consent to its demands. Those demands are universal because they apply to everyone. It is important to imagine what everyone would do if they followed the same principle. It may not be realistic to do X all the time and for all people, but if it is possible to do, then it may be something to aspire to achieve. If everyone lived with the same principles, would the world be better? Would the conditions be there, helping one to act in such a way? Kant believed that humans are special because of their rationality. They can find value in life, act after reflection, learn. People are an end in themselves, not a means.

To follow a principle unconditionally, however, would be problematic. One may aspire to never lie, cheat, steal, and so on, but there are some cases where it would be preferable to the alternative. To trick a murderer and tell him that one’s family isn’t home (after being held at gun point) may violate one’s principle (don’t lie), but it could save the family. Kant argued that lying to a murderer is another feature in his system. The murderer is still a human—albeit an irrational one at that time. He believed that to lie would be to compromise his ethical system.

Furthermore, Kant, while acknowledging emotions to be important, didn’t emphasize them in ethical decisions. He praised the human ability to reason above having an emotional sense of balance. Most humans, however, are not always rational. Even those who act ethically do so because of emotions, motivations, and intuitions, which are not the same. Kant, while prizing people as rational creatures, never focused on the environment or animals either. His system left out many crucial issues such as climate change, animal torture, respect for other species, and so on.

Some forms of ethics don’t rely on principles, consequences, and motivations alone. For the contract theorists, ethics should rely on agreements between people to behave and not behave in specific ways. Societies, for example, have social contracts. People are not allowed to steal, murder, or cheat. If their actions violate a chosen contract, then there are consequences. The government, or other institutional powers, enforces these contracts. The enforcers (e.g., judicial system, police, military) get their power as a loan in a democratic society. Many representatives work to enact these contracts rather than only one ruler.

Not everyone agrees on institutional power and its methods, however. Governments that enforce the contracts may be unjust, weak, and so on. John Rawls, in response, created the original position. He made a thought experiment where he asked what would happen if people chose a society from scratch. Will the principles be the same? Will there be more rights for women and minorities and the poor? The restructuring of society (if no one knows what role they will undertake) will be done fairly (under a veil of ignorance). To build a society with fair principles as the foundation, not knowing what social group one will belong to, will maximize people’s freedom. Rawls believed that people should do what they want, and take control over their own lives, as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others. To maximize freedom, citizens need equal rights. There needs to be policies enforced to help everyone rather than a concentration of wealth and power.

In modern society, however, people don’t usually sign explicit contracts. They often make implicit contracts—acting in a way that is consistent with the dictates of a contract—without realizing it. Secondly, there are critics that argue institutions should not be allowed to enforce contracts and distribute goods. They believe that there should be a small government or no government at all. Communitarians disagree with Rawls because they don’t value resources and goods as much as relationships. For them, it is impossible to truly think of a just society using the veil of ignorance. Hypothetically, one can step outside of their social role (male, female, black, white, poor, rich) to develop the fairest principles, but not in actuality. People are too connected to their identities to completely be objective.

While Rawls focused on contract ethics and Kant argued for the categorical imperative, there is one ethical rule that has spanned many cultures. The Golden Rule has endured for thousands of years in Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Plato’s philosophy, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on. It appeals to people despite their race, gender, and religion. It is easy to understand, motivates people to love themselves and others, and takes into consideration the interests of the group. It teaches kings the value of slaves and slaves the value of kings. To empathize with another person—seeing from their perspective—is to move beyond selfish needs.

There is a criticism, however, in how people perceive each other. If one person believes his or her own identity is superior to others, and considers others from self-interest alone, then that person may treat others not how they want to be treated, but how he or she believes the right way to be treated is. The right way to one person may be a projection on another person. Sometimes, on the opposite end, the other person may not be working for their own best-interest either. Their beliefs, values, and desires may be flawed, incomplete, and ignorant.

To revise the Golden Rule to handle these objections, there needs to be a consideration of what humans need, such as food, shelter, health, water, purpose, and so on. Then there should be an examination of the other person’s choice. Is it a choice that benefits others or leads to more suffering? Can someone’s choice to do X be applied universally without harming others? The Golden Rule is a test for a person’s consistency more than a full ethical system. It helps people to do their duties without being hypocrites.

The Golden Rule can be stated in a positive and negative manner. “Do unto others what you yourself would want them to do unto you,” suggests a commitment to be good to others or to impose what’s good unto them. Many times, the positive form of this rule is embedded in a given culture, tradition, religion. People will have different ideas of what it means to be good. The negative form, “Do not do unto others as you would not want them to do unto you,” teaches one to refrain from behaviors that cause harm. The negative Golden rule doesn’t argue about what’s good. It focuses rather on reducing suffering and minimizing one’s impact on others.

Ethics deals with how one should and should not think, feel, and act. To some philosophers, such as the consequentialists, it is about promoting the most happiness and pleasure for the most people, while reducing suffering. In Kantian ethics, one should follow principles that can be applied generally to all. Hobbes may have believed in the worst of human nature while the Taoists removed themselves from concepts altogether. Nietzsche criticized traditional ethics for its conformity and lack of authenticity, especially when one had the freedom to create their own values. Many religions obey the good from divine commandments. Others use religion as a guide for the good life, even though people are not necessarily ethical because they’re religious.

Many ethical systems are flawed and incomplete. Over time, philosophers have counterargued against the critiques upon their core ideas. Others have never truly answered the toughest existential questions, ones that could topple entire belief systems. Many systems, likewise, have differing conceptions of the good life. From family to selfish needs, from no-self to nature, from restructuring a society with equal distribution to following reason alone, ethics is a diverse guide, developing with new challenges in the modern world. More importantly, ethics is a way of life.

The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics (review)

The Mind of Clover by Robert Aitken

Zen Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, and in the Sangha. These terms can be more easily understood as “realization, truth, and harmony.” Dharma may be seen as a cosmic law of cause and effect, of one thing depending on another thing depending on another thing, within “the infinite, dynamic web of endless dimensions.” When expressed, this law is karma.

Nothing is independent, but rather, intimate in relations. Everything exists in the context of something else existing or not existing, potentially existing or not existing. In such an interconnected universe, the one who clearly sees the nature of reality is a Bodhisattva. “’Bodhisattva’ is a compound Sanskrit word that means ‘enlightenment-being. There are three implications of the term: a being who is enlightened, a being who is on the path of enlightenment, and one who enlightens beings… Learning to accept the role of the Bodhisattva is the nature of Buddhist practice.”

Buddhists view people as not being above the rest of nature. They are not separate from animals, rocks, clouds, trees, mountains, rivers. They grow out of a “net of relationships,” just as the movement of stars and ocean waves. People rationalize their identities and “other” identities into categories of “I and you, we and it, birth and death, being and time,” desensitizing themselves from accepting the changing flow of life. “But if you can see that all phenomena are transparent, ephemeral, and indeed altogether void, then the thrush will sing in your heart, and you can suffer with the prostitute.”

When one sees clearly, one can cultivate compassion and reverence. One can learn to love those who need love and those who give love back. In the First Precept, one should not kill. Likewise, one should encourage life to flourish, not thinking of harming others, for one cannot survive alone. One lives for others as others live for one, interrelated in both the community and nature.

The three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance dissolve families, communities, and nations, not love and compassion and caring. These poisons “blight the grasslands, deplete the soil, clearcut the forests, and add lethal chemicals to water and air. In the name of progress, some say. In the name of greed, it might more accurately be said.”

To a Bodhisattva, destroying nature or people for idealized progress is not the way. “The practice of peace and harmony is peace and harmony, not some technique designed to induce them.” Rather than searching for a means to achieve a vague notion of peace or justice, to directly serve others is to forget the self, to forget the self is to serve others. This can only be done now, not later or under the guise of a lofty abstraction.

To be peaceful is not only to be a peaceful person now, but to never ignore the implications of the world. “The practical way to practice not-harming begins with a lifestyle that acknowledges all the implications of popular Western culture, and popular Eastern culture too… When I look at my camera, and in tiny print I read, ‘Made in Singapore,’ I reflect upon the women who are employed at the factory there for low wages, who have no room in their lives for anything creative. I reflect upon the American workers who have no jobs because the factory has moved to Asia. There is no quick remedy for this injustice, but awareness is the beginning of Right Action.”

When the mind is at peace, it does peaceful things. When the self is forgotten, one (or nobody) serves others. When there is no self, everything is boundless. There is no thought of obtaining or taking away from other people. There is only a full appreciation for what is.

While the modern world grows in economic inequality — where stockholders care about increasing quarterly profits as workers in third-world countries are exploited and subdued in impoverished neighborhoods — principles such as not-stealing and not-killing come from a mind that sees “the transparency of all things.”

When one sees the world clearly, one is not deluded enough to indulge in a selfish lifestyle while the poor starve without electricity or clean water. To buy an expensive coat while a child shivers nakedly in the dirt, to drink to excess while a village is bombed under orders from a government. These destructive events will impact anyone who is sensitive to living. Instead of selfishness, a Bodhisattva knows the preciousness of simple things. To carelessly use objects and time and people, despite claims about justice and peace and truth, is insidious.

Nothing is isolated or alone in the world. Everything depends on everything else. All relationships are grounds for deepening one’s own spiritual practice. Even the most difficult romances can be enlightening teachers. Immersing oneself in life, seeing everything as clearly as possible, involves the forgetting of self. In forgetting the self, one joins in on the dance. Without self-consciousness, balanced before all things.

From the great silence of awareness, there is no deception, cheating, gossip, and disloyalty. To work for peace, one is peace. To feel compassion, one is compassion. One responds to the dynamic conditions that arise in life, learning what is destructive or not, and how to prevent suffering. For example, to not be a liar, don’t lie to oneself or others or be complicit in lying. “Not only must I not work for an ordinary advertising agency, but I must not swallow advertising lies either. Not lying means no complicity with lies.” Avoid what damages relationships, what causes suffering in families, communities, and nations.

Begin with oneself.

While responding to each circumstance — which changes in context — see the entire picture. Do not choose honesty over compassion or kindness over honesty, for example, out of convenience. Open oneself to all feelings and make friends with them. Do not neglect one aspect of life while affirming another. Be truly transparent. Understand the poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance — how they destroy a society, how they cause the suffering of others, from air pollution to heroin, from wars manufactured for oil to the “corporations dumping carcinogenic insecticides on Latin American populations.”

Silently be aware of the ephemeral world. Notice its relative aspects — good, bad, light, dark, pleasure, pain. Look at everything without judgment. It is easy to see something distasteful, disgusting, dark, or scary, and reject it. Simply say, in the same sense of “he has blue eyes” or “she is a pianist” what has happened or is happening. The world is made of intricate relations. Clouds and streams and trees and stones, sunlight and wind and water and earth. There is no self, because there is no self that is isolated from everything else. One is nurtured from the world just as the world is nurtured from one. There is truly nobody that is “other,” even though old perceptions may be fixed on othering, on putting people in categories of good and bad, right and wrong. People often concentrate on their past or on another person’s past, unable to let go of who they were, of how they felt, of what they believed to be true. They “participate in the continuation of their faults” without acknowledging a person as they are or could be.

“Like Frankenstein, we create monsters with words, and while our creations have no fundamental validity, they fix images in the minds of all, including those whom we gossip about. Even when we can support our condemnation with data, we may be preventing growth. With growth, insecurity becomes true love. With growth, conceit becomes leadership. But if negative qualities are fixed in everybody’s heads, growth is made very difficult.”

From the Platform Sutra, if one condemns the world, that is one’s own condemnation. To be arrogant is to show others that one doesn’t feel at ease, so self-praise must be conjured up. Abusing others then is a means to establish a false sense of security.

To be open, to be modest in understanding, is to accept the teachings of everyone and everything. From the insight of a child to a mangy dog, from the wind to a cruel dictator, there are always lessons for those who learn to see. Likewise, one must look within to see their own shadows and not only pretend that they possess the light. To see everything — without comparing, judging, resisting, and craving — is to realize what is.

“By not praising and abusing others, by using yourself in concert with others to realize the potential of the biotic community, you are saving all beings. And, as Hui-neng says, saving all beings is saving them in your own mind. When your mind is one with all mind, then comparisons are half-truths at best, and your work is the work of the world.”

The more one knows the transitory nature of phenomena, the more one knows nothing. Without delusions of mine and his, ours and theirs, without the divisions that arise in the comparative mind, without the separate self, there is emptiness. Most people speak in abstractions of wanting peace, love, justice, and truth, but do they speak from an empty center, one free of fixed categories? They desire justice for them, truth for us, but they are caught in their allegiances. In a trap of abstractions, they think, they think about thinking, they think about action, they think about their actions, and so on. Working from self-centeredness more than from emptiness. They do not see a universe in a flower.

“It is important to cultivate as best you can your own empty ground of action and expression, so that you are not blown about by the reactions of others. Then when you come forth with your response, you will learn clearly whether or not you are being self-indulgent, and this can be your whetstone.”

As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”

Be open in awareness, tender toward all feelings, thoughts, and sensations. Without a desire to defend one’s image, without a need to judge or complain, one is open to growth. One surrenders to a unique moment every moment. Don’t block what is happening, don’t resist the dance. Become the dance. Whether it is in teaching a child or feeding a homeless person, whether it is in sweeping a floor or building a house, everything is precious, ready to be taken care of.

There is eternity in the unfolding moment.

“’Eternity’ does not refer to beginningless and endless time, but rather to the great timeless void of which we are formed. It is another word for nirvana — not something to be achieved, but the fundamental, potent emptiness that is our essential nature.”

One does not stand apart. One is fully absorbed in action and intention, simultaneously. There is no expectation or conceptual posturing. Everything is integrated into a “purity of action” without self-consciousness. There is no outside goal. The path is the goal. To value something as worth saving, whether a flower or a person, is to be deluded by a mental category. It is to rank something as a beautiful thing or an ugly thing, a good thing or a bad thing, rather than realizing what it is.

“Not dwelling upon colors, not dwelling on phenomena of sound, smell, taste, and touch, but dwelling in nothing at all, we bring forth that mind. And in a Sangha of mutual trust, we find skillful means to bring forth that mind, steadily and steadfastly, in the midst of our poisonous world.”

A mind of emptiness is vast and nothing special. It is unfathomable, nameless. People are prevented from realizing this emptiness because of their attachments to ideas, because of the poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. To be realized is to be compassionate with other people and their suffering, knowing them in yourself, knowing yourself in them. To be selfish is to never be at rest, consumed endlessly in defensive thinking, unable to sleep, hating, judging, blaming. There is never any peace.

“If you foolishly seek peace through alcohol, you end up sedating yourself, harming your body, and destroying what peace there may be in your family. If you seek unity in the universe through a multinational corporation, the unity you achieve is your greed with that of many others. The search for peace and unity is correctly the search for realization of the empty, infinite self and the empty, infinite universe — free of concepts, with all things appearing as their own reason.”

From emptiness, one saves what can be saved — using what resources one can, using whatever skills there are to be used. There is no true inside or outside. There is no division between people, birds, lakes, and deer. Energy manifests in matter of all types — interrelated and coexistent in a process of becoming, in the ephemeral. All objects and creatures, Gary Snyder once said in “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” are necessary in a vast interrelated network. “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”

To have a social revolution, action springs from awareness. Whether it’s in letting go of hatred and envy, standing with equanimity on the front lines of a violent opposition, or in giving to those in need of help, one must be wise. In this fathomless universe, to be aware of the interpenetration of all things, makes one responsible for preserving what is so precious.

“Breathing in and out, you let go of poisons and establish the serene ground of the precepts. You release defenses of the self and the mind comes forth boldly with the count of ‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘three.’ Focused and serene, you are ready for the instruction by the ten thousand things.”

From breathing in and out, in and out, seeing all that is, one is already divine, intimately connected to life. Only people are not always aware of their true nature. “Thus, we live selfishly and create poverty, exterminate Jews, and bomb innocent peasants; we drug ourselves with chemicals and television, and curse our fate when the cancer of human waste appears in our own precious bodies. We ignore the near, intimate fact that heaven lies about us in our maturity, and thus we cannot apply any of its virtues.”

To not be intimate with life is to be distracted. It is to be self-preoccupied, consumed with abstractions. While concepts can be used effectively in a practical and ethical way, they should never use the person. Falling into a net of ideas is to be caught once again. One should not look “out there” for a solution to a problem that is happening here, now.

Often people impose upon the environment, on other people, because they live in abstractions. They believe they are here and everything else is out there. They perceive an inside and an outside, being aligned to one group and not another, to one idea and not another. When the self is forgotten and everything simply is, then there is no lording over nature, no superiority over plants and animals. Delusions of humans being separate from nature, ideas of them as better than other animals and people, has led to the poisoning of rivers, cutting down of trees, slaughter of endangered species, depletion of minerals, extermination of indigenous populations, disruption of ecological balances, endangering the entire planet and future generations.

To practice being with rather than excluding people into us and them, he and she, me and you, from serving the poor and hungry and homeless, from speaking to politicians and police officers and corporate leaders, from forming movements based on an interconnected consciousness, from respecting mountains and rivers and streams, from being open, truly open to the intimacy of the moment, is to achieve nothing, being nowhere. From nowhere, there is peace within. The woman or man of peace, feeling compassion for the suffering of all things, helps in communities that others wish to destroy.

To serve them is to be forgotten, to be forgotten is to serve them.

Because they are us and we are them.