Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2015 approaches - resolutions roll over

I've had quite an eventful quarter. Over the past three months I: sold my flat; moved out of one rented property and into another (gone from a rectangular shaped room to a pleasing square shape); started trading again (just a little); scrapped my old car and bought another (a VW Golf that turned out to be quite the lemon); and changed jobs (made an excursion out of the realm of Finance and into the world of Gas Logistics/Operations). I also managed to read a bucket load of books, which is always to the good.

Thoughts now turn to resolutions for 2015. Figuring that it just can't be a wise move to chart the course of the next three hundred and sixty five days based on little more than a few hours deliberations before the turn of the year, I've decided to roll over my previous year's resolutions, although I have switched out an 'eat better' resolution for "be charitable to myself and to others". I've also added a 'for consideration' list.

Resolutions for 2015
- get outside more
- move around some
- know thyself
- eat more cheeses
- stand taller
- arrange more objects at right angles
- speak less bad and more good
- have good conversations
- keep on at it
- be charitable to myself and to others


Also for consideration
- fail more
- stay in flux
- practice calm mind

The short list format goes against the best practice of creating a process to achieve each goal, settings targets and tracking progress with as much quantification as possible. However, this is the very point. I do not have a goal to transform myself in any grand way, and am just looking for little improvements around the edges. After all, we've all tried the 'New Year = New Me" approach and we know how it ends:



Reverand Robert Hall in 'Beauties of Robert Hall' in 1839.

School of Life video on New Year's Resolutions (I like how they throw 'learn about economics' into the mix):

Friday, December 26, 2014

Book: Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century Selected by David Staurt Davies



This book, which costs a mere £1.99, a great example of how to do things right.

David Stuart Davies, whoever this good chap may be, provides a short, insightful foreword explaining how the short story began its popularity in the 19th century (reduced costs from new printing techniques enabled publishers to start printing periodicals for a mass audience), and extols the quality of the early short story writers ("they are working on a miniature and therefore the brushstrokes have to be all the more carefully applied). Davies also provides short introductions to each author, along with an inkling of what it is to come in his selected story, and importantly he never gives the game away and doesn't veer off into the boring, professorial comparisons. He lets the stories shine.

It's a bit odd, but I'd give this book 5/5 for form, etc, even though none of the stories quite make it up to this rating. My favourite stories from the collection were all from the first half of the book. I was particularly surprised by the richness of Dickens' language along with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Chekov, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and look forward to reading more of their works.

Favourite stories:

The Black Veil
Charles Dickens

The Terribly Strange Bed
Wilkie Collins

The Bottle Imp
Robert Louis Stevenson

The Red-Headed League
Arthur Conan Doyle

The Stolen Bacilus
H.G. Wells

The Kiss
Anton Chekov

Selected quotes and nice bits of language:

The Black Veil  - Charles Dickens

"One winter's evening, towards the close of the year 1800, or within a year or two of that time, a young medical practitioner, recently established in business, was seated by a cheerful fire in his little parlour, listening to the wind which was beating the rain in pattering drops against the window, or rumbling dismally in the chimney. The night was wet and cold; he had been walking through mud and water the whole day, and was now comfortably reposing in his dressing-gown and slippers, more than half asleep and less than half awake, revolving a thousand matters in his wandering imagination."

"...stimulate him to fresh exertions"

The Terribly Strange Bed - Wilkie Collins


"The game was Rouge et Noir. I had played at it in every city in Europe, without, however, the care or the wish to study the Theory of Chances--that philosopher's stone of all gamblers! And a gambler, in the strict sense of the word, I had never been. I was heart-whole from the corroding passion for play. My gaming was a mere idle amusement. I never resorted to it by necessity, because I never knew what it was to want money. I never practised it so incessantly as to lose more than I could afford, or to gain more than I could coolly pocket without being thrown off my balance by my good luck. In short, I had hitherto frequented gambling-tables -- just as I frequented ball-rooms and opera-houses -- because they amused me, and because I had nothing better to do with my leisure hours." 


The Red-Headed League - Arthur Conan Doyle 

"As a rule, when I have heard some slight indication of the course of events, I am able to guide myself by the thousands of other similar cases which occur to my memory. In the present instance, I am forced to admit that the facts, are, to the best of my belief, unique."

omne ignotum pro magnificum - the unknown is always thought to be magnificent.

"And now, doctor, we've done our work, so it's time we had some play. A sandwich, a cup of coffee, and then off to violin land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and there are no red-headed clients to vex us with their conundrums."

"You reasoned it out beautifully," I exclaimed in unfeigned admiration. "It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true."
"It saved me from ennui," he answered, yawning. "Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me. My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Mushashi's Dokodo

Many years ago I read Miyamato Musashi's The Book of Five Rings. I've just discovered that the great Samurai also wrote the Dokodo shortly before he died.

The Dokodo ("The Path of Aloneness", "The Way to Go Forth Alone", or "The Way of Walking Alone") is a short piece listing Mushasi's precepts for a good life. For more background see this paper.

1. Accept everything just the way it is.
2. Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
3. Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.
4. Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
5. Be detached from desire your whole life long.
6. Do not regret what you have done.
7. Never be jealous.
8. Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.
9. Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others.
10. Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.
11. In all things have no preferences.
12. Be indifferent to where you live.
13. Do not pursue the taste of good food.
14. Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
15. Do not act following customary beliefs.
16. Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.
17. Do not fear death.
18. Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
19. Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.
20. You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honour.
21. Never stray from the Way.

― Miyamoto Musashi

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Quotes: Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma





Here are a selection of quotes and notes from the excellent book 'Why I am A Buddhist', which I reviewed yesterday.

- The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, ate meat - he even died eating meat. My Buddhist friends in Cambodia eat meat. Most Tibetan Buddhists eat meat. Meat, contrary to popular opinion, is not the problem for Buddhists. The problem is causing unneeded pain to animals....

- Zen is a Japanese permutation of a Chinese school, called Chan, which takes its name from the Sanskrit Dhyana - all of which mean 'meditation'. Generally speaking, Zen ignores all of the metaphysical and even moral aspects of Buddhism, and concentrates on meditative awareness. True meditative practice is focused, in its purest form, on the present moment. ...Making tea, shoveling snow, cooking dinner, and so on can all become quite transcendent (describes as a more meaningful state of extraordinary consciousness vs a metaphysical shift)  if we rigorously attend to the activity and refrain from thinking about the past and future.

- Buddhism made me think that the solution to suffering is not to run away from, or escape, this world, but to run straight at it even harder.

- Mindfulness is a meditation on the impermanence of all things (annica), but it is a systematic method. It proceeds sequentially through four domains: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feeling and sensation, mindfulness of our conscious thinking patterns, and mindfulness of our 'mind objects' (i.e., our beliefs and ideas).

- ... meditating on your own impermanence is the way to liberate yourself from a common delusion. We suffer greatly, the Buddha thinks, because we want our bodies to last forever and to always be beautiful, but they cannot. We cling to our bodies because we are clinging to immortality. In doing so, we make the error of thinking that an inherently impermanent thing will last.

- Our subjective feelings of pain and pleasure are also objects of our ego-craving tendencies. We seek to hold on to those feelings of bliss that come with intense pleasures like sex, food, drink, and even aesthetic pleasures. But we must, like Buddha, get a reality check about these transient joys. Accept them for what they are and enjoy them. But don't obsessively chase after them in a state of denial about their fleeting nature. 

- The Four Noble Truths:

1. All life is suffering (dukkha)
2. All suffering is caused by craving (tanha)
3. Letting go of craving liberates us from suffering (nibbana)
4. The Eightfold Path is the way to let go of suffering

On dukkha - The avenues by which these painful experiences travel - body, feeling, perception, disposition (will), and consciousness - are called the five aggregates (khanda).  ... The 'person' or 'self' is more identifiable with the five aggregates, or 'bundles of experience', than with a traditional 'ghost in the machine' type of soul. These aggregates are the organs of pleasure and pain, and it is in relation to pleasure and pain that human craving can begin to arise.

On tanha. Craving is a partly conscious, partly emotional, partly physiological 'knee-jerk' that starts chasing the sensation after it has entered the system. For example, it's not the sensual experiences that money affords us - fine food, fancy clothes, travel, new cars and the like - nor is it material objects that themselves that are problematic. It's the craving (tanha), which becomes obsessed with repeating and sustaining those experiences, that actually causes the suffering - in this case, of greed. Suffering flows from the clinging attachment that mistakes impermanent things and sensations for lasting and permanent realities. Attachment or craving is a kind of confusion in the mind and the heart, one that tries to capture something that inherently can never be captured.

On nibbana - The Third Noble Truth states that the cure for suffering is non attachment, or the termination of craving. Freedom is not the renunciation of all emotions and feelings, it's the ability to rise above the incoming sensations. You still feel pain and pleasure, but you no longer cling to these fluctuating experiences. ...Understanding and acting as if pleasure and pains are impermanent, like clouds forming and dissipating, leads to a liberation form our obsessions.

On the Eightfold Path - The Eightfold Path is a set prescriptive attitudes and activities that will lead to the extinction of suffering, it is the path to freedom. The path is divided up into three basic areas: ethical action or sila (right speech, right action and right livelihood);  mental training or samadhi (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration); and wisdom or panna (right view and right thought).

- The Buddha rejects this (eternal soul) picture of reality...It has been argued many times, East and West, that the immortality of the soul is a requisite assumption for a moral society. 'If God does not exist, then everything is permitted', Dostoyevsky is thought to have said. ...The Buddha disagrees, and suggests just the opposite. Virtue that is based upon the promise of divine rewards and punishments is nothing but selfishness...a self-centered view of ethics and one that makes ethics derivative of the desire for self-preservation. ... Real compassion, he (Buddha) argues, is better than egocentrism... We are threads in a web of living relationships, each one connected to and dependent upon others. Our individuality, especially our supposed eternal individuality, is just a fiction. And it distracts us from seeing the suffering around us and prevents us form applying compassion. True compassion does not ask: What do I get out of it?

- Neurobiology, genetics, embryology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology are opening up new successful ways for us to understand ourselves and the environment. This engagement with the natural world is exhilarating. Studying the Book of Nature can be a spiritual endeavour.

- Unlike all the dualistic views, which see consciousness as luminous and possibly immortal power, Buddhism says that consciousness is always merged with body, sensation, perception and volition. Consciousness does not ride along in the body for a time, get out when the body dies, and then go on to Heaven, or reincarnate, or merge with the Brahman, or even vibrate into the undulating fields of blissful quantum consciousness. Consciousness and other aspects of mind (e.g., volition is bodily and mental) are always bundled with matter and perception - the five aggregates cannot be disentangled form reality.

- Reflection, habit and greater understanding of the brain can all help the Buddhist to retrain the mind, or at least slow the jumps from impulse to action. In that sense, Buddhism has always been a science of the mind. But it is not an unrealistic, naive celebration of the mind over everything -it is not a mystical subjective idealism.

- The Buddha claims that there is no evidence for a controller self, only the desire to be one. Once we give up on this exaggerated delusion of control we attain some degree of liberation - we stop trying to own everything; this is my experience, this is mine, this is I, this is myself.

- If there is a felt sense of self, and surely there is, then it is metaphysically like the shadow of a tree. If you remove the impermanent tree, there is no leftover shadow.

- Buddhism and science share a similar approach to phenomena, an approach that can be called naturalism. Naturalism rejects (or at least brackets) supernatural explanations of the world and its occupants. Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not find itself in the awkward position of having to reconcile metaphysical assertions of faith with the experimental findings of science.  ... First it is metaphysically agnostic (and practically atheistic) when it comes to God and the soul. Second, it is not a tradition of revelation, but an experimental approach to knowledge and truth.

- The Four Noble Truths, for example, should be considered as a testable hypothesis. Their truth or validity can be ascertained by anyone willing to run the experiments. Does detaching from craving actually reduce one's suffering?

- The Buddha goes so far in the direction of pragmatic empiricism that he even warns us to avoid dogmatising Buddhism.

- Life is sacred for Buddhists - all life, not just human life. But it is not sacred because a deity breathed life into it. Rather, any living thing is comprised of the five khandas and is therefore susceptible to pain and suffering. It is everyone's duty then, to understand their connection to all life and to imply compassionate action for the alleviation of the suffering. In Western religions, however, there is usually a yawning chasm that separates we humans from the nonhuman creatures. We are made in God's image. They are not. There is something miraculous about we humans. Buddhism does not share this species elitism, not do Buddhists believe that life can only happen miraculously.

- The cultural aspects of Buddhism are extremely diverse and have a very tenuous logical relation to its psychological and philosophical dimensions. It's no different in the West - one will search in vain, foer example, to find Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in the philosophical doctrines of Christianity, and yet they are significant aspects of Christian cultures.  ...despite Gautama's constant refrain, that he was only a man and not to be worshipped, he was nonetheless deified in almost every subsequent culture of Buddhism.

- Two glaring exceptions to this empirical approach can be found in the doctrines of karma and rebirth. Karma means 'action', but usually means the law of action that rewards good deeds with good consequences (the fruits of karma) and bad deeds with bad consequences. Rebirth (samsara) means 'to come again and again' and Westerners usually refer to it as reincarnation. Both these ideas are caught up in Buddhism and Gautama sued them frequently in his lectures, but they are much older ideas and date back to Vedic and Upanishdad Hinduism. In Hinduism, these ideas actually make more sense because Hindus subscribe to the idea of an eternal soul (Atman) that goes from one life to the next, creating and receiving karmic rewards and punishments.

Many Western and Eastern apologists for Buddhism do conceptual backflips to defend the reasonableness of karma and samsara. I see no reason to join them. There is no good evidence that karma, for example, is real. ..The idea that there is a cosmic force that functions like a law of nature and ensures that everybody eventually gets what they deserves seems more like wishful thinking than fact. I wish karma were true. But I also wish I  could fly and make myself invisible.

- Buddhism has a more obscure doctrine of rebirth. The soul does not go on after death, because there is no soul in Buddhism. ...the Buddha says we should understand that the give aggregates (khandas) continue on. Body, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness are like flowing streams of energy. They coalesce for a time and make up persons, but they keep flowing when persons cease. It is like our contemporary scientific idea of the conservation of matter - matter/energy gets rearranged but it does not disappear during these transformations. ..Perhaps the most famous analogy to make sense of this flowing rebirth model is the flame simile. When challenged on the coherence of his doctrine, the Buddha and subsequent philosophers  have described a candle or a lamp. Imagine that we light a candle and it burns for a time. Now we use the candle to light another candle and blow out the first. After a time we do the same with a third, forth and fifth candle. It does not make sense to, the Buddha suggests to ask whether it is the same flame at candle five as it was at candle one. It is not even the same flame as it burns on the first candle, as it is a dependent convergence of combustion processes.

- ..it is a lamentable fact that many later Buddhists fell back to a more Hindu notion of reincarnation. ...Here is my somewhat radical suggestion. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about either of these metaphysical doctrines - karma and rebirth. Yes, we hear Buddhists regularly intone such doctrines, but do they have any necessary connection to the Four Noble Truths? My contention is that they do not. They are leftovers from pre-Buddhist religion and found their way onto the Buddhist plate for cultural, not philosophical reasons.

- The idea, dominant in Daoism and Zen, is that one should try to find the natural way of doing something and then conform or align oneself to it, as opposed to forcing a human conventional effort onto some process. For example, the butcher should carve the animal at its joints, not in arbitrary locations. A sculptor should work with the grain of the wood, rather than against it. A martial arts master should find the most economic use of his energy, and turn his opponent's own force to his advantage. ...Finding this natural way is not effortless, but requires great work. Once it has been mastered, however, then one finds a unique presence of mind in these activities. The actions are turned into artistic expressions.

- ...Zen insight that one's whole life can be a kind of artwork. Attending carefully to one's actions and choices - owning them, so to speak - brings authenticity to life. Rather than a theological or moral approach, it is an aesthetic approach to meaning.

- After we have reached the bottom layer and grasped the emptiness of all things, then we return to daily life with new eyes. We no longer see the layers of metaphysical, political and ethnic nonsense that have accumulated like barnacles

- Let's remind ourselves of the purposes of mindful training. First, it is the freedom from unhealthy attachments to anxieties - simply put, peace of mind. But also, in mindfulness, one begins to realise that the ego (the self) is a habitual fiction - it doesn't really exist, so stop acting in a self-ish manner. Contrary to your everyday consciousness, you are not a stable being that exists through the past, present and future moments, you are just a temporary aspect of the flow of becoming.

- Our senses are drawn toward whatever is momentarily strongest. We are locked in an internal struggle - a roped-up, six animal tug of war.

- The tendency is always to focus forward in time toward the future, when we will get off work, or get our paycheck, or get our promotion, or whatever. For many of us, work is the time we spend waiting to live. But if you can sink down and be more present in your activity, then you will discover the subtle joys of quality labour and the oblique happiness that comes accomplishing something with excellence. ...If your work demands so little of your abilities that a chimp with a hammer could do the same job effectively, then you can't solve this problem by forcing yourself to 'be here now' all the time. It seems reasonable for you to want to 'be somewhere else now'. So, there has to be some Middle Way. The Zensters think you can make anything, including assembly-line repetition, into fulfilling meditation. Instead, I recommend some job that meets you halfway, by posing some real challenges for your to actualise your potential.

- Like Epicurus in the West, the Buddha claimed that it is better to train oneself to enjoy simple foods rather than fine gourmet meals, because economics, political and even weather changes could suddenly rob us of our exotic spices and delicacies. ..We are advised to focus on more stable and reliable sources of happiness: simple fare, friendships, family and intellectual cultivation. There is nothing inherently wrong with certain foods, pleasures or even wealth itself. There are only problems of attachment. ...Buddhism does not want you to be poor. ..Moderation is the successful path.

- Money is potentiality. So the dangers of craving (tanha) are palpable around the issue of money, and money itself is a primer-pump for zombie levels of appetite. We chase the money, and the money chases stuff. I'm not on a soap box here. I struggle with this daily.

- Money makes the illusion of self-sufficiency more persuasive, and we are lured into the erroneous belief that we are independent, autonomous, free and sovereign. But Buddhism disagrees and stresses the inter-dependence of all human, indeed all beings.

- On advancing marketing technology: As these insidious technologies increase, it will be interesting to see how well we can attain and maintain control over our cravings.

- First, integrity in an activity is how you own it - it's how you become the activity, or how you become the ingredient in the product you're making. Otherwise, you're just dancing with yourself outside the real action and pretending to be valuable. Second, becoming the activity is how you transcend your little ego - and that only happens when you're genuinely going for it, not when you're going through the motions. Finally, there is something inside you, that you carry around with you like a flame, when you have a hard-won set of skills. ...External acknowledgement can come and go, but the internal happiness that comes from skillful action is intact either way.

- Buddhism is a philosophy of moderation - the Middle Way. It's so devoted to human liberation that it is willing to give itself up, if it is getting in the way of human flourishing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book: Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma



Finally, I have found a book on Buddhism that hits all the right buttons for people interested in practical, Western Buddhism.

'Why I Am A Buddhist' is written in a simple, casual style with a strong personal slant, and the focus is on science and rationality (beliefs such as reincarnation and karma are also discussed in this context). Asma also writes on the the role of art as a kind of overlay to the pure rational side, noting its potential to heighten one's sense of connectedness and community, and its ability for taking people outside of themselves via the ecstatic experience.

All in all, this book proved highly engaging, easy to read, and dare I say it, enlightening. Having read quite a few books on Buddhism over the past year (it all started with an inspiring Coursera course on Buddhism and modern psychology), I feel I have developed an appreciation for the philosophical core of the system. I have deliberately veered away from the religious, historical and cultural aspects of Buddhism over this time, and have instead tried to focus on the useful and practical side of things. I should clarify to readers that I am not a Buddhist and probably will never be, not in any strict sense. However, I do believe quite firmly that the Buddhist outlook, along with its accompanying contemplative toolkit, has the potential to change the practitioner's response mechanisms and driving forces for their good and for the good, whether they are religious or non-religious.

Notes and quotes will follow in a sepate post

*****

Monday, December 22, 2014

Book: Buddhism in Ten - Easy Lessons for Spiritual Growth by A. Simpkins & C.Simpkins



This is a brilliant little book. The sections on Buddhist history and art didn't tickle my fancy but two-thirds of the book were spot on, with straight forward explanations that made concepts easy to grasp.

Buddhism began with Siddhartha Gautama (563 BC - 483 BC) as a way of thinking and not as a religion. While the religious and spiritual aspects have grown and evolved over time, the core focus remains on the four noble truths and on changing how you think by following the transformational eightfold path. Buddhism is all about 'waking up' to reality and it is this appeal to internal experience and cognitive development that I find attractive, along with idea that Buddhism is fluid framework that  should be left behind for findings more useful; the analogy of thinking of Buddhism as a raft is often used - once you have crossed the river with it, you don't need to keep carrying it on your back.


For more useful information go to : http://www.buddhanet.net/
Also see Sam Harris on why Buddhism should be done away with as a religion. I'm with him on most of his points, and also view Buddhism as 'nothing' more than a kind of contemplative science.

**** 1/2

Some notes and quotes 

The Four Noble Truths

These are at the core of Buddhism.

1. Recognise/Accept and face the suffering in life.
Trauma of birth, pain and discomforts of sickness, fear of death, suffer from things we dislike, suffer from separation from things we love.

2. Recognise the roots of suffering.
Contemplate impermanence and how lasting satisfaction is evasive.

3. Explore how to put an end to suffering.
 Appreciate things as they are, letting go of craving and the hating of suffering. Get the most out of the moment.

4. Define a method that will lead to an enlightened life, happy and free from suffering.
Buddha offered the eightfold path.

The Eightfold Path

Not about following in sequence, but about doing all together.

Right Views: About awareness of attitudes, evaluating attitudes and developing right attitudes. 

Right Intent: About examining your intent and motivations (wholesome?) and summoning the right intent. 

Right Speech: About listening to your internal speech, hearing the tones, words of yourself and of others, recognising obstacles to right speech, and changing toward right speech. (e.g. truth, harmony, vs criticising, gossip, etc). 

Right Action: Avoid destroying life, don't steal, etc (5 precepts)

Right Livelihood: Avoid causing harm, assess the work you do, work with awareness, etc.  

Right Effort:  Starts with resolve, a decision and a commitment (when you really want something you will usually try to get it); setting yourself for full engagement. Work is required to overcome 'blocking' habits. Training of attention is key. Practise focusing on one thing around your for a few minutes, and then direct the power of attention to the steps on the 8-fold path.

Right Mindfulness

- An approach to life, orientating yourself with alertness and complete presence, deepening your life experience (vs being foggy and vague and driven by impulse.)

- Involves being observational and non-judgemental, and not jumping to conclusions of others or yourself.

- Try observing yourself (physical + personality) factually and non-judgementally, in the moment. Pay attention to the details (posture, etc).

- Delve into mindful breathing. Benevolently observe mindfulness of feelings; pleasant (2ndry reaction: don't want to stop - clinging); unpleasant (2ndry reaction: want to stop - reject); neutral. Build awareness by noticing your feeling and thinking, your mental processes and perceptions. You can start to drop the -ve states. Think about the impermanence of your feelings. Emotions are an important part of living.

- Meditation can free us from our mental constructions, bringing us back to the emptiness.

Right Meditation

- Use to move to tranquility and emptiness. Clearing the mind. It is a calming pause in your daily activities that may be transformational.

- Try different types of meditation and see what works best e.g focus on breath, outer objects, guided, etc.

- Meditation is a skill that responds well to practice.

- Don't try, just do.

- Notice thoughts and let them go. Over time, your thoughts will slow down.

On Emptiness

- It (emptiness) is the absence of individual things as independent of everything else. ...It is not a negative quality, like something that is missing and should be there.'  

- 'Emptiness is the fertile ground for all that is. It is the shared essence that puts everything and everyone around us on an equal footing.

- 'Objects have a dependent existence, moment to moment, a temporary existence. But no timeless essence in a material world actually exists. Things don't just stop existing when they don't function or are outdated. Instead, objects change, moment to moment. The relationship between an object's elements and its use is all that there really is, with no timeless essence apart from the interdependency.'

- On Empty ego: ' Empty nature does not mean a loss of individuality. Everything exists at each moment, uniquely as it is.'

- On Empty ego: (Abe, 1995, 213) 'Realisation of egolessness is not something negative like losing one's self-identity, but rather is positive in that through this realisation one overcomes ego-centeredness and awakens to Reality.'

- Emptiness as the Middle Way: 'The multitude of things that seem to exist are actually impermanent experiences, empty of any true existence. But even though things don't exist in a lasting, absolute sense, they do have a temporary existence. The world of reality is more than mere appearance. It is there momentarily, in the present moment, just not for all time. Since everything is ultimately nonexistent, but also temporarily existing, a Middle Way, or mean, comes into being.
The Middle Way is a shift in perspective to the center. Seek the balance point. When you return to the center and work out a solution from there, you are not trapped any narrow biases, and you do not need to avoid potential problems. For a moment, stay in the center and let go of commitment to any particular perspective. Form the foundation of the center, you can build a new adjustment. Then change is possible.'

- Emptiness leads into suffering, and emptiness also shows the way out of suffering.

- Tranquility arises from emptiness...you do not need to be held back by what has been, because all things change and evolve. ... People sometimes worry that tranquility will be boring. But a tranquil mind is not a motionless mind. Rather, it means being free from obstructions, unhampered by inner pressures. The tranquil mind can be active or quiet - whatever is needed to meet life, fully and dynamically.

On Meditation and Craving

- 'A calm, enlightened mind creates a calm, enlightened world.'

- Meditation helps to overcome attraction to pleasure and aversion to pain. We can use it to learn detachment and experience emptiness.

- 'Wisdom is found by entering the void'. Emptiness brings awareness. You kind of need to travel through the darkness vs avoiding the difficulty of confronting the void. Emptiness is the source of calm and quiet. Enjoy the process as it unfolds. 

- The  number of things we need to have is small and number of things we want to have is large. This is a source of craving. When you have craving, sit down and meditate and see if the pull is reduced. Observe and question why you have the craving and work through it - you developed the craving, so you can detach from it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book: Zen Meditation by David Fontana




My main hang up with Zen is that its rejection of knowledge and intellectual application makes it very difficult to swallow. As the above book states, in Zen 'Little time is wasted in philosophical discussion and the amassing of knowledge...'. The BBC's page on Zen also states that "Zen practices are aimed at taking the rational and intellectual mind out of the mental loop, so that the student can become more aware and realise their own Buddha-nature. Sometimes even (mild) physical violence is used to stop the student intellectualising or getting stuck in some other way" and  "Zen is concerned with things as they are, without trying to interpret them."

That said, I musn't knock it too heavily. After all, Zen, like Buddhism, emerged well before man had a meaningful appreciation of how science can light up our understanding of the world and its wonders. In this relative dark age, perhaps achieving an 'awareness' of universal oneness was the most we could ask for. In today's era however, I would look to incorporate scientific understanding with deep Zen like contemplation, to get the best of all worlds.

Here are some take-away points from this okay-ish book on Zen:

- Zen comes from within Buddhism but is said to be 'outside the teachings'.

- Zen meditation is concerned with sartori or enlightenment (a glimpse into the nature of existence). The sartori experience should be treated as any other and not sought directly. It is but progress on the Zen path. The feeling of separateness from the world, or self-containment, is a block to this.

-  Soto zen focuses on zazen (seated meditation) and Rinzai zen on cryptic statements that aim to produce sudden enlightenment.

- Zen mediation is about attaining a state of mind similar to the 'flow' experience from a hobby i.e. total absorption.

- Zen accepts reincarnation and has monasteries (it was not a monastic tradition in the beginning) and reverence for Buddhist scriptures, but the emphasis is on the present moment. Worship and iconography play a minor role.

- Theoretical knowledge is no substitute for experience. Teachings are only fingers pointing to the moon, and must never be mistaken for the moon itself.

- Zen increases compassion by gaining an experience and appreciation of the connectedness of people and nature. The less we feel in conflict, the more we can live in peace in the world.

- Zen expression can be found in a garden, in making tea, in a haiku, in a place. The emphasis is on simplicity, unity or harmony with nature, natural beauty, calmness, rejection of elaborateness, attention to detail, emptiness and stillness.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book: Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen



Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen is a great introduction to the principles of Buddhism, a way of thinking that is centered on the realisation that humans have set ourselves up to never be satisfied.

The one aspect of the book I take issue with is the how Hagen describes the notion 'right view', which he says is the idea that we can see reality for what it is if we strip away our conceptual thinking and if see with actual experience rather than what we think.  The idea states that we are already enlightened with this underlying truth and we have the capacity to see this unshakable reality, and in so doing we can achieve a certain freedom of mind, which is a step too far for my rational way of thinking.

To me, the awareness aspect is about no more than being present, and living a richer, balanced, calmer life. It is not about tuning in to an underlying reality beyond to me is about contemplative appreciation for the interconnectedness, ephermal and interchangeable nature of  everything - I agree that this is not a underlying truth that we can fully appreciate just by thinking; it takes learning and contemplation both.

In contrast, the author states that:  'Liberation of mind is realising that we don't need to buy any story at all. It's realising that before our confused thought, there actually is a Reality. We can see it. All we have to do is to fully engage in the moment as it has come to be."  This is a step too far in my eyes, as there is no ultimate reality beyond our senses that we can tune in to, and reality is different for each of us (at the extreme, animals see the world completely differently to us, and one perception isn't necessarily 'truer' than another). He also states that 'To explain Reality is to box it up and cart it away. It's to ignore the reality for the map.' I can't buy into this. Surely our understanding of concepts such as impermanence are enriched by our understanding of the moving of atoms, natures cycles etc. .

Despite this little critique, this is a cracking book.
 
****1/2

- When Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, 'Awareness'. ...It's not about belief, doctrine, formula, or tradition. It's about freedom of mind.

- Buddha is not someone you pray to, or try to get something from. Nor is Buddha someone you bow down to. A buddha is simply a person who is awake - nothing more or less.

- Buddhism is not a belief system. It's not about accepting certain tenets or believing a set of claims or principles. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's about examining the world clearly and carefully, about testing everything and every idea. Buddhism is about seeing. It's about knowing rather than believing or wishing or hoping.

- The message is always to examine and see for yourself.

- The point of Buddhism is to just see - that's all.

- The buddha-dharma does not promise to make our lives problem-free. Rather, it urges us to examine the nature of our problems, what they are and where they come from. The buddha-dharma is not an armchair philosophy. It isn't pipe dreaming. It's about getting down to basics and acting on them.

- Generally we think of a journey as involving movement and direction, either going out somewhere in the world or else leading inward, into the self. But in Buddhism our journey must go nowhere - neither in nor out. Rather, ours is a journey into nearness, into immediacy. Our journey must be to awaken here and now, to awaken to here and now. To be fully alive we must be fully present.

The question is: how do we do it?

In order to experience the answer to this question for yourself, you must come to three realisations. First, you must realise that life is fleeting. Next, you must understand that you are already complete, worthy, whole. Finally, you must see that you are your own refuge, your own sanctuary, your own salvation.

- You don't have to look 'over there'. You don't have to figure anything out. You don't have to acquire anything. And you don't have to run off to Tibet, or Japan, or anywhere else. You wake up right here. In fact, you can only wake up right here. ...The table is spread before you.

- For example, suppose you notice, 'I'm craving pizza now'. That's fine. Just notice it. But we don't usually stop there. Rather than just seeing, we act upon what we notice instead: 'I shouldn't be wanting pizza. I must stop this desire for pizza.' This very reaction is more craving. We're desiring an end to desire. We're doing the usual thing again - reaching for, insisting, grabbing. This is bondage, not freedom. This is a subtle but crucial point.

- This is not a call to complacency or inaction. To act or not to act is never the question. You can't help but act. The question is whether you see. The entire issue rests on this.

- If we're not careful, we make our lives busy, complicated, and unnecessary. We fill ourselves with a sense of vacancy and meaninglessness. Our minds become complicated by petty details and wants, and we become ever more confused. But in our quiet moments, we sense that no freedom lies in maximising petty choices. It's the wrong game plan...and we know it.

- Recall that everything we see, hear, feel, and think is in constant flux and change. Nothing endures. We long for permanence and as a result we suffer, for we find none. There seems to be only this coming and going, coming and going, this unending arising and ceasing.


- If we satisfy one craving, another arises to take its place.

- ...just follow the breath. As you do, thoughts will arise. Don't be bothered by them. Don't think they're bad, or that you shouldn't be having them. Don't try to drive them away. If you leave them alone, they'll depart of their own accord. This is how to 'cease all the movements of the conscious mind'. You cannot do it by direct application of will.

If you find you've been distracted by thoughts and feelings, and have forgotten your breath, just come back to breathing. There's no need to scold yourself that you wandered away. To scold yourself is to wander away again.

...As you meditate, all kinds of self-comments may arise: 'There I go again' or 'I can't do this' or 'I'm not very good at this' or even 'I'm not sure I'm doing this right'. These comments are quite normal. Observe them, and let them go - they will depart, if you let them.

Don't strive for some special state of mind. There is no special state of mind. If you strive for some special state of mind you'll only disturb your mind.

- The deep, hollow ache of the heart arises from a life in search of meaning. But it's by our very desire to find meaning that we create meaninglessness. The very idea of looking for purpose and meaning arises from our deluded thought.

- We shouldn't make the buddha-dharma in to something holy, something to put up on a gilded pedestal in a prominent place.

The path simply reminds us of how we're engaged in the world. It's like the raft that carries us to the opposite shore. We use it to a point, then leave it behind. Once the stream is crossed, we leave the raft for someone else. We don't need to lug it around. It will only burden us.

- Whatever you can point to - a physical thing, a person, a though, an emotion - all are without self. All of them change. Even memory shows nothing but flux and change. There's nothing, no component of mind or body, that isn't in constant flux. Whether we talk about our physical body, or the bodies of the natural world - animals, plants, stones, lakes, raindrops, stars - or the objects of our purposeful world
- chairs, windows, milk cartons, and sewing needles - we find nothing but flux and change. Every atom, every minuscule part of the universe, is nothing other than movement and change. The same is true of our mental experience, our feelings, thoughts and images.

It's an indistinguishable fact of experience - of our direct, immediate perception- that all things are empty of self. Yet we think and believe and act and hope otherwise. It's by holding onto this notion of self - and we hold it most dear - that we live in defiance of Reality.

This is the means by which we suffer, and suffer greatly. It hurts to defy Reality.

- We experience dukkha because, not seeing the true nature of things, we long for something permanent, something that doesn't change. Yet our actual experience provides nothing but change.

Because of this basic confusion, we long for something we can get our hands on. We want to hold it, to cling to it. What we love, we want to last. What we hate, we want to get rid of forever.

Because of change, however, what we hate can't be forever kept away, but returns. Because of change, what we love doesn't remain, but surely fades. If we'd only relax, we'd notice that, because of change, what we love continues to appear, and what we hate never lasts forever. We'd also observe that there's no abiding self to be either pleased or damaged.

This is what we have to see - that all is flux and movement and flow. It's because we believe there's some static being in the midst of all this - an imagined permanence we call 'I' - that we suffer dukkha.

- Waking up to Truth isn't painful. It's through our confusion about Reality that we suffer, not through Reality itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book: Living the Mindful Life by Charles T. Tart



The author of this book isn't quite on the same plane as me when it comes to mindfulness - he's a few more notches toward the New Age spectrum. Nevertheless, there is lots of good stuff to take away from this book. In particular, Tart provides particularly useful explanations on the value of mindfulness, which can be difficult to capture in words. The author also reminds us that doing the practice (being mindful and practicing meditation) is not the hard bit. Doing it is simple. The hardest bit is remembering to remember to be mindful, particularly in our daily lives.

***

Quotes


- What then is it that mindfulness brings? It allows all the warring and fragmented aspects of ourselves to settle and become friends ... Nyoshyul Khen Rinpoche calls mindfulness 'the fortress of the mind' and 'the friend of wisdom', for in its magical simplicity come a presence and a peace which are sane and grounded, clear, joyful, and awake, and full of compassion and wisdom.

- When I first began to teach in the West, I found to my surprise that many spiritual practitioners today lack the knowledge of how to integrate their meditation practice with daily life. It cannot be said too strongly or too often: to integrate meditation in action is the whole ground and purpose of meditation.

- We do not need the slightest bit of mindfulness to get through everyday life; we can run totally on automatic.

- Mindfulness practice, in its purest sense, is simply this: be aware of what is, what is here in this moment. In formal mindfulness meditation practice, such as vipassna meditation, you do not attempt to change or improve what is, you try to refrain from judging it.

- Many situations in our lives require more depth, but unless we've developed the capacity to be more present, more mindful, we won't recognise these situations.

- One way it (meditation) can be understood psychologically, is as trying to practice disidentification. When you are doing vipassna meditation, for example, you are told to just watch whatever comes up - sensations, thoughts and emotions-with equanimity, without following after them, without analysing them, without craving some and rejecting others. You are practicing disidentification.

- In our ordinary state of mind, multitudes of things come up, and things we are conditioned to identify with automatically grab all or most of our attention and energy....

- The other side of formal meditation practice ... that is that as you discover your own essence and begin to bring it out there is a basic security that develops. There is a basic liking of yourself that slowly grows, a basic, essential confidence.

I almost said self-confidence, but I deliberately did not. It is not a confidence in your ordinary self so much but rather a confidence in something much greater than your ordinary self.  All these elements we have spoken of far - disidentification, greater ability to focus, self-remembering - can combine to put you on a much more secure footing, so that you do not have to desperately get approval from people. Then you can be genuinely nice to people - or firm when it's needed- without getting caught up in the need for approval.

- De Ropp said that we can imagine our minds to be like a medieval walled city, and access to the town is controlled through one main gate. Like any town, there are different sections. There are art galleries, museums, and theaters on one part, markets in another, a manufacturing district, universities in another part, and there are also slums.

The things that happen to us in life are like travelers coming to the open gate of the town. Ordinarily, travelers wonder in and out as they will. Life happens to some of us. Some of those travelers will come in and give a useful lecture at a university, and we are richer for it. Some bring supplies we need to exist. Some of them are, so to speak, emotional provocateurs who come in and agitate.

Doing this sensing, looking, and listening is analogous to having a watcher at the gate, who sees travelers coming and makes some discriminating judgements about them. For certain travelers he opens the gates wide, but for other travelers he closes them. In order to intelligently select which 'travelers' are allowed to enter, you have to be present. These people can come up to the gate very suddenly, and if you are looking away for even a second, they may slip inside.

- Learning to be more present, more mindful, more attentive, can lead to a lot of moments of vividness, of beauty, of satisfaction, and of insight...Gradually you develop a wider psychological space to live in...

- Don't Be Too Hard On Yourself: You are going to do it, and you are going to do it "wrong". You are going to do it again, and again you will do it wrong. I must emphasise this, We are people. If we could do things perfectly, we would not be here learning about mindfulness. So you are going to do to the practice and you are going to do it wrong. And you are going to do it again and you are going to do it wrong, over and over and over, but you gradually learn something.

- I have been trying to cultivate mindfulness, especially the self-remembering kind, for a number of years, with varying degrees of success. One of the most interesting observations I and others doing the practice have made about it is that it is not all difficult to be mindful in most circumstances. A tiny effort, a small shift of attention is all it takes. What is difficult is to remember to remember.

- The qualities that make the retreat situation so good for initially learning mindfulness are, unfortunately, poor ones in terms of generalising the practice of mindfulness to everyday life. ..We have not practiced mindfulness in phone calls, during decision making, while reading mail, and so on, so it is not surprising that these situations do not make it easy for us to be mindful.

- One response to he deadness of ordinary life, to the shallowness of living in samsara, in a consensus trance, is to seek out danger. ...In certain dangerous sports, for example, like skiing to the limit or auto racing, you must be present to the physical world. ..You are forced to be present.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Princess Bride by William Goldman - a re-read


I've just finished reading "The Princess Bride" for the second time, having read and reviewed it back in 2012. It's just as good the second time around. There is something special about this book, about the way it's written, the length, the commentary, the mix of characters and adventures, everything about it is just right. 

*****

Quotes

- This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
"Has it got any sports in it?"
"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."

- "Excuses are the refuge of cowards", the Sicilian (Vizzini) interrupted.

- But in fact, the King was barely hanging on, could only rarely tell day from night, and basically spent his time in muttering. He was very old, every organ in his body had long since betrayed him...

- Buttercup's mother was a gnarled shrimp of a woman, thorny and worrying...

- "Who are you?", he (Inigo Montaya) screamed.
"No one of import. Another lover of the blade"

- And in the open, unthinkable as it was, the man in black was superior. Not much. But in a multitude of tiny ways, he was of a slightly higher quality. A hair quicker, a fraction stronger, a speck faster. Not really much at all.
But it was enough.
 
- The next morning, Inigo began the track down. He had it all carefully prepared in his mind. He would find the six-fingered man. He would go up to him. He would simply say, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montaya, you killed my father, prepare to die" and then, oh then, the duel.

- “When I was your age, television was called books.”  - W.Goldman

- “Now what happens?" asked the man in black.
"We face each other as God intended," Fezzik said. "No tricks, no weapons, skill against skill alone."
"You mean you'll put down your rock and I'll put down my sword and we'll try to kill each other like civilized people, is that it?”

- “Why do you wear a mask and hood?"
I think everybody will in the near future," was the man in black's reply. "They're terribly comfortable.”

- And that's when she (Edith, giving advice to W.Goldman) put her book down. And looked at me. And said it: "Life isn't fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it's a terrible thing to do. It's not only a lie, it's a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it's never going to be."

-  “I could give you my word as a Spaniard," Inigo said. "No good," the man in black replied. "I've known too many Spaniards.”

- “Let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book: Principles of Taoism by Paul Wildish


 
I picked this book up in a local charity shopm, looking to enrich my understanding of Taoism and expecting much of what it had to say to resonate with my broader outlook on life. A few parts did echo with various aspects of Buddhism that I buy into, but there was way too much mystical and astrological content that is in outright conflict with my views. I was expecting more of a practical nature but the emphasis on historical scholars and texts, and even this material was not particularly well written. Instead, I had to go back my Tao of Pooh quotes to restore my interest in the central ideas of Taoism, which this book muddled up. Nevertheless, I still walked away with some useful ponderings (see below).

**

Appealing points, quotes and thoughts:

- The overall idea of following a Middle Way is something I find attractive, as is the notion of working with the flow ("The Water Course Way"), where the individual reacts to their environment appropriately but also harmoniously (wu-wei), instead of always going against the grain, which would make for a draining existence. "Wu-wei is ...is energetic when required, but always relaxed and never pushed to the point of stress or strain". While this outlook suits my nature, I am not sure that nature and environment should be treated so completely exogenously; afterall, so much of the 'nature' around us is the work of men who have gone before. Instead I would modify the outlook somewhat by analysing siutations in terms of paths of least resistance and most resistance, putting aside whether they are 'natural' or not, and trying to be mindful of investing energy in change in the appropriate circumstances. From this modified perspective, a person could still apply a long-term lens to man-made situations and apply the principles of we-wei accordingly.

- The book states that Taoism gives no independence to the soul, and emphasises a healthy mind and body as the primary means to achieving peace.

- "Lao-Tzu declared the Tao to be the One that is eternal, natural, and spontaneous, and which can never be named or described. It is the the primordial potential that predates creation and all existence. It is the undifferentiated void that exists as pure spirit...The Tao is thus an abstract concept, not an ethical principle, and is therefore unknowable, beyond description, eternal and unmeasurable". Me: This really doesn't help...on the one hand it sounds like baloney from a science perspective, but on the other hand perhaps I am not grasping the meaning.

- Taoism places an emphasis on stillness. The author notes that 'any activity we pursue for the cultivation of the health and well-being of the body...must be balanced by remaining still and quieting the mind.'

- When discussing wu-wei, the author describes it as an unconscious instinctive action that is skillfully applied, like riding a bike or driving a car. Here he notes that the martial artist trains himself until the actions of the body become second nature, or at one with nature. My issue here is that the actions are the work of effort, be they efforts in training or in the heat of the action. Either way, they will start of as uncomfortable until they are repeated over and over that they become natural i.e. we are making the unnatural natural. For consideration here is also the fact that mindful becomes mindless when trained to the point of automated, reflex action.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book: Wait - The Useful Art of Procrasination by Frank Partnoy



"Wait - The Useful Art of Procrasination", by Frank Partnoy, contains some good material but is way too broad and disjointed. I was expecting more around procrastination in particular, as my book was sub-headed 'The Useful Art of Procrasination', but this topic isn't discussed directly until about 150 pages in. Note, the above image has the broader sub-header 'The Art and Science of Delay', which is more accurate. The problem of breath is that while Partnoy provides interesting comments on his chosen topics, which include subjects as diverse as sports, high-frequency trading, and dating, most fields or pursuits include delay as a key element, e.g. cooking, driving, shooting, hunting, reading, exams, etc, and these would haven't looked out of place in the book.

** 1/2

Notes

- Timing is a skill, both an art and a science, that involves gut instinct, expertise and trial and error. Broadly speaking, we tend to react too quickly. Generally, it is favourable to wait until the last possible moment. 

- David Foster Wallace is quoted on how the return of serve in tennis is a largely unconscious reaction, given the speed of the ball, yet the service returner appears to have processed and responded to a cascade of information: 'Temporally, we're more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.'

On reaction times in tennis: Visual reaction time is about the same for all of us, at approx 200ms. This is the 'seeing' bit, which needs to be followed by the 'physical reaction' bit. The hitting of the serve takes around 300ms. Connors practised returning really hard serves and developed 'fast eyes' (zoning in on the ball and translating this into a quick attack) and quick muscle response times, executing his  return that little bit faster than most. This created a relative liberation from the time constraint vs the competition, giving time to either return earlier or to go slow and pick spots (i.e. going fast in order to go slow).  Note, professional servers can disguise their serves so the returner can't predict ahead of time, thus, it's not about faster visual reaction times but about quicker physical reaction times.

- Look to optimise latency, not minimise it i.e. not just about being quickest but about being right.

- Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist, proposed adding slack to complex systems. Financial market regulators use circuit breakers forcing traders to step out of the moment.

- Be wary of the simplification of Blink. Debunks idea of super thin-slicing e.g. making decisions in the first two seconds. Some decisions are rightly snap decisions but more complex decisions require more time. It is a continuum. It can be useful to pause to consider biases, stereotypes, etc and adjust accordingly.

- Panic can turn experts into amateurs.

- Procrastination. We all do it and there is no unifying theory. It may be rational or irrational, or a bit of both.

- A great quote from Michael Lewis on procrastination:
'...I get up, take my child to school, then come back to my office and usually procrastinate until I panic, and then I write. I procrastinate to a point where I'm filled with self-loathing and then I start writing. It's usually a state of self-loathing that gets me going.'

And what lessons could I take from the book?
- Practice hard to improve reaction times
- Consider the optimal time to wait and decide. 
- Consider importance of slack in complex systems, even in timetables.
- Trading: widen stops and don't over trade.
- Keep in mind the trade-off between time and cost, and complexity.
- Snap reactions - pause and consider biases.
- Be mindful of decision making under stress.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book quotes: A Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Here is my collection of quotes and notes from Carl Sagan's wonderful "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark", a book that should be compulsory reading in science classes everywhere.

 Carl Sagan

In hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural times, human life expectancy was about 20 to 30 years. That's also what it was in Western Europe in Late and Medieval times. It didn't rise to 40 years until around the year 1870. It reached 50 in 1915, 60 in 1930, 70 in 1955, and is today approaching 80 (a little more for women, a little less for men).

The sword of science is double-edged. Its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility - more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective ... Mistakes are becoming too expensive.

Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for (like those attributed to comic book heroes today, and earlier, to the gods).

Trotsky (1933): "Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in magic powers of signs and exorcisms...Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters."

Every time a scientific paper presents a bit of data, it's accompanied by an error bar - a quiet but insistent reminder that no knowledge is complete or perfect. It's a calibration of how much we trust what we think we know. If the error bars are small, the accuracy of our empirical knowledge is high; if the error bars are large, then so is the uncertainty in our knowledge. Except in pure mathematics nothing is known for certain (although much is certainly false).

The most each generation can hope for is to reduce the error bars a little, and to add to the body of data to which error bars apply. The error bar is a pervasive, visible self-assessment of the reliability of our knowledge.  You often see error bars in public opinion polls ('an uncertainty of plus or minus three percent', say). Imagine a society in which every speech in the Congressional Record, every television commercial, every sermon had an accompanying error bar or its equivalent.

Again, the reason science works so well is partly that built-in error correction machinery. There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. The openness to new ideas, sifts the wheat from the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend - substantively and in depth.

Don't waste neurons on what doesn't work.

Michael Faraday warned of the powerful temptation 'to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them...We receive as friendly that which agrees with [us], we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense"

...if we don't practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.

The lust of marvellous blunts our critical faculties.

...everything hinges on the matter of evidence. ...The more important we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People makes mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they're seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren't there.

Keeping an open mind is a virtue -but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out. Of course, we must be willing to change our minds when warranted by new evidence. But the evidence must be strong. Not all claims to knowledge have equal merit.

The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premises or starting point and whether that premise is true. Among the tools:

- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the 'facts'.
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight - 'authorities' have made mistakes in the past. ...Perhaps a better way is to say that in science there are no authorities, only experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that disproves Darwinian selection among 'multiple working hypothesis', has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way-station on the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea.
- Quantify. ...what is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course, there are truths to be sought in many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) - not just most of them.
- Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypothesis that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle - an electron, say, in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof?

Control experiments are essential / Variables must be separated / often the experiment must be done 'double-blind. Any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do:

- Ad hominen - Latin for 'to the man', attacking the arguer and not the argument.
- Argument from authority
- Argument from adverse consequences (e.g. the defendant must be found guilty; otherwise, it would be an encouragement for other men..)
- Appeal to ignorance - the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true.
- Special pleading
- Begging the question/assuming the answer (e.g we must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime, or the stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors.
- Observational selection ...or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses.

Sagan writes: My favourite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War Two with US flag officers:
So and so is a great general, he was told.
'What is the definition of a great general?' Fermi characteristically asked.
'I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.'
'How many?'
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
'What fraction of American generals are great?'
After some more back and forth they settled on a few percent.
But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32, which is about three per cent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles, purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles?

- Statistics of small numbers (e.g. they say 1 in 5 people is Chinese. ...I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Or I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.)
- Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (e.g. being surprised that half of the population are below average).
- Non sequiter - Latin for 'it doesn't follow' (e.g. our nation will prevail because God is great. Often results from failing to recognise the alternative possibilities.
- Post hoc, ergo procter hoc - Latin for 'it happened after, so it was caused by'. e.g. before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons.
- Excluded middle, or false dichotomy - considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities. e.g. either you love your country or you hate it.
- Short-term v. long-term - a subset of the excluded middle. we can't afford to educate kids / feed malnourished children. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets.
- Slippery slope - e.g. if we allow abortion in the first few weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant.
- Confusion of correlation and causation (e.g. a survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with a lesser education. Therefore, education makes people gay).
- Straw man - caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack.
- Weasel words e.g. calling wars 'police actions', 'armed incursions', 'protective reaction strikes', 'pacification'.

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world, not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

Part of the success of the tobacco industry in purveying this brew of addictive poisons can be attributed to widespread unfamiliarity with the baloney detection kit, critical thinking and the scientific method. Gullibility kills.

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge , even to ourselves, that we've been taken.

Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlour magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious and economic issues in every nation.

There are many better responses than making the child feel that asking deep questions constitutes a social blunder. If we have an idea of an answer, we can try to explain. Even an incomplete attempt constitutes a reassurance and encouragement. If we have no idea of the answer, we can take the child to the library. Or we might say: 'I don't know the answer. Maybe no one knows. Maybe when you grow up, you'll be the first person to find out.

There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a question to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.

Bright children are a national and world resource. They need to be cared for, cherished, and encouraged. We must also give them the essential tools to think with.

Ignorance feeds on ignorance. Science phobia is contagious.

Given our manifest human limitations, what is surprising is that we have been able to penetrate so far into the secrets of Nature.

'We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not the more consoling' - Henri Poincare (1854 - 1912)

We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the discoveries that will drive the economy and safeguard our lives.

If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're putty in the hands of those in power. But if citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.



Friday, December 12, 2014

Book quotes: The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

As promised, here are a selection of quotes from this magical, one-of-a-kind book.
 


From "The Book of Disquiet" by Fernando Pessoa:

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I'll be living quietly in a house somewhere in the suburbs, enjoying a peaceful existence not writing the book I'm not writing now and , so as to continue not doing so, I will come up with different excuses from the ones I use now to avoid actually confronting myself. Or else I'll be interned in a poorhouse, content with my utter failure, mingling with the riffraff who believed they were geniuses when in fact they were just beggars with dreams, mixing with the anonymous mass of people who had neither the strength to triumph nor the power to turn their defeats into victories.

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"What has become of those people who, just because I saw them day after day, became part of my life? Tomorrow I too will disappear from Rua da Prata, .... Tomorrow I too - this feeling and thinking soul, the universe I am to myself - yes, tomorrow I too will become someone who no longer walks these streets, someone who others will evoke with a vague: 'I wonder what's become of him?' And everything I do, everything I feel, everything I feel, everything I experience, will be just one less passer-by on the daily streets of some city or other. "

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Today, suddenly, I reached an absurd but unerring conclusion. In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I'm nobody, absolutely nobody. When the lightning flashed, I saw that what I had thought to be a city was in fact a deserted plain and, in the same sinister light that revealed me to myself, there seemed to be no sky above it. I was robbed of any possibility of having existed before the world. If I was ever reincarnated, I must have done so without myself, without a self to reincarnate.

I am the outskirts of some non-existent town, the long-winded prologue to an unwritten book. I'm nobody, nobody. I don't know how to feel or think or love. I'm a character in a novel as yet unwritten, hovering in the air and undone before I've even existed, amongst the dreams of someone who never quite managed to breathe life into me.

I'm always thinking, always feeling, but my thoughts lack all reason, my emotions all feeling. I'm falling through a trapdoor, through infinite, infinitous space, in a directionless, empty fall. My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.

And I, I myself, am the centre that exists only because the geometry of the abyss demands it; I am the nothing around which all this spins, I exist so that it can spin...

-

Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us...

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I want a rest from, to be other than, my habitual pretending.

-

After his third lion, the lion hunter loses interest in the hunt.

 


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Everything that was ours, simply because it was once ours, even those things we merely chanced to live with or see on a daily basis, becomes part of us. It was not the office boy who left today for some part in Galicia unknown to me, it was a part, vital because both visual and human, of the very substance of my life. Today I am diminished, no longer quite the same. The office boy left today.

Everything that happens in the world we live in, happens in us. Anything that ceases to exist in the world we see around us, ceases to exist in us. Everything that was, assuming we noticed it when it was there, is torn from us when it leaves. The office boy left today.


-

No one likes us when we've slept badly. The sleep we missed carried off with it whatever it was that made us human. ... All day I've dragged my feet and this great weariness around the streets. My soul has shrunk to the size of tangled ball of wool and what I am and was, what is me, has forgotten its name.

-

There are some deep-seated griefs so subtle and pervasive that it is difficult to grasp whether they belong to our soul or to our body, whether they come from a malaise brought on by pondering on the futility of life, or whether they are caused rather by an indisposition in some chasm within ourselves - the stomach, liver or brain. How often my ordinary consciousness of myself is obscured by the dark sediment stirred up in some stagnant part of me. How often existence wounds me to the point that I feel a nausea so indefinable that I can’t tell if it’s just tedium or an indication that I’m actually about to be sick! How often…

My soul today is sad to the very marrow of its bones. Everything hurts me - memory, eyes, arms. It’s like having rheumatism in every part of my being. The limpid brightness of the day, the great pure blue sky, the steady tide of diffuse light, none of this touches my being. I remain unmoved by the autumnal breeze, that still bears a trace of the forgotten summer and lends colour to the air. Nothing means anything to me. I’m sad, but not with a definite or indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there, in the street strewn with boxes.

-

Sometimes when I raise my heavy head from the books in which I keep track of other people's accounts and of the absence of a life of my own, I feel a physical nausea.
We live through action, that is, through the will...What's the point of calling myself a genius when in fact I'm just an assistant book-keeper? When Cesario Verde had himself announced to the doctor not as Senhor Verde, commercial clerk, but Cesario Verde, poet, he was using one of those expressions of futile pride that stink of vanity. Poor man, he was never anything but Senhor Verde, commercial clerk.

The poet was born only after he died, because it was only after his death that his poetry came to be appreciated.

To act, that is true intelligence. ...Success means being successful, not just having the potential for success. Any large area has the potential to be a palace, but where's the palace if no one builds there?

-

Condillac begins his famous book with the words: 'However high we climb and however low we fall we never escape our feelings.' We can never disembark from ourselves.

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It is a rule of life that we can and must learn from everyone. There are serious matters in life to be learned from charlatans and bandits, there are philosophies to be gleaned from fools, real lessons of fortitude that come to us by chance and from those who depend on chance. Everything contains everything else.

 

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I deliberately seek out the longest distance between two points. I've never had a talent of the active life. I always bungled the gestures no one else gets wrong; what others were born to do. I always want to achieve what others achieved almost casually. Between myself and life there have always been panes of opaque glass, undetectable to me by sight or touch; I never actually lived life according to a plan, I was the daydream of what I wanted to be...

-

No one imagined that there was always another by my side, the real me. They never doubted my identity with myself.

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I look for myself but find no one.

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I'm playing a card that belongs to some ancient and unknown suit, the only remnant of a lost pack. I have no meaning, I do not know my value, I have nothing to compare myself with in order to find myself...

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I isolated myself and, in isolating myself, exacerbated my already excessive sensibility. ...And thus, with my sensibility heightened by isolation, I find that the tiniest things, which before would have no effect on me, buffet and bruise me like the worst catastrophe. I chose the wrong method of flight. I took an awkward short-cut that led me right back to where I was, compounding the horror of living there with the exhaustion of the journey.

-

I've never managed to see myself from the outside. There is no mirror that can show us to ourselves as exteriors, because no mirror can take us outside ourselves. We would need another soul, another way of looking and thinking. If I were an actor captured on film or could record my speaking voice on disc I'm sure that I would still be a long way from knowing how I seem from the outside because, whether I like it or not, record what I will of myself, I remain stuck here inside the high-walled garden of my consciousness of me.

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Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value it may have. The dreamer is a distributor of banknotes and these banknotes are passed around the city of his spirit just as they would be in reality. What does it matter to me if this paper money of my soul can never be converted in to gold, since there is no gold in the factitious alchemy of life?

-

Direct experience is the subterfuge, the hiding place of those devoid of imagination.
...Things only acquire value once they are interpreted. Some men, then, create things in order that others, by giving them meaning, make them live. To narrate is to create, whilst to live is merely to be lived.
To belong to something - that's banal. Creed, ideal, wide or profession; we would not feel so proud of it if we realised that it is just the string we're tugged along by. No, no ties, not even ourselves!

-

Happiness exists outside itself.
There is no happiness without knowledge. But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know one is happy is to know that is passing through happiness and is, therefore, soon obliged to leave it behind. In happiness, as in everything, happiness kills. Not to know, however, is not to exist.

-

That is what I believe, this afternoon. Tomorrow morning it will be different, because tomorrow morning I will be different. What kind of believer will I be tomorrow? I don't know, because to know that I would already have to be there. Tomorrow or today not even the eternal God I believe in now will know, because today I'm me and tomorrow he perhaps may never have existed.

-

Happy the man who demands no more from life than what life spontaneously gives him and guides himself with the instinct of cats who seek the sun where there is sun and, when there is no sun, find what warmth they can.  ....Happy the man who renounces everything and from whom, therefore, nothing can added or subtracted.

-

I feel I am always on the eve of awakening. Beneath a suffocating welter of conclusions I struggle with an outer covering that is me. I would cry out if I though anyone could hear. ...I'm like someone engaged in a random search for an object no one has yet described to him. We play hide-and-seek alone.

-

Did I say I re-read these pages? I lied. I daren't re-read them. I can't. What good would it do me? It's some other person there. I no longer understand any of it...

-

I have so completely divested myself of my own being that to exist is to clothe myself. Only disguised am I myself.

-

Sometimes amidst the accumulated banality of my literary work stored randomly in various desk drawers, I come across things I wrote ten or even fifteen or more years ago. And many of them seem to have been written by a stranger; I don't recognise myself in them. Someone wrote them and it was me. It was me who felt them, but in another life from which I have awoken as if from another's dream.

-

Alone I am hemmed in by multitudes. I have nowhere to flee to, unless I were to flee to myself.


-

If there is one thing life gives us, apart from life itself, and for which we must thank the gods, it is the gift of not knowing ourselves and of not knowing one another. The human soul is an abyss of viscous darkness, a well whose depths are rarely plumbed from the surface of the world. No one would love themselves if they really knew themselves and thus, without vanity, which is the lifeblood of the spirit, our soul would die of anaemia. No one knows anyone else and it's just as well, for if we did, be they mother, wife, or son, we would find lurking in each of them our deep, metaphysical enemy.

-

In the masked ball that is our life, we're content to put on the lovely clothes that are, after all, what matters in the dance. We are the slaves of lights and colours, we launch ourselves into the dance as if it were truth itself...

-

Fate gave me only two things: some account books and the gift of dreaming.

-

There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.

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I'd woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.

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Everything around me is evaporating. My whole life, my memories, my imagination and its contents, my personality - it's all evaporating. I continuously feel that I was someone else, that I felt something else, that I thought something else. What I'm attending here is a show with another set. And the show I'm attending is myself.

-

I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me.