Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Tale of the Bigot: Seven Virtues

A politician meets a member of the public, and after a friendly discussion about politics surrounded by media cameras, he gets into his car. Not realizing his microphone is still on, he proclaims the impromptu meeting a disaster, questions who put him up to it, and calls the lady he talked to "bigoted" because the question she’d asked him about immigration had piqued his annoyance. A bigot is "someone unreasonable attached to a particular creed, belief or party". Ironic, eh? That politician was our poor prime minister in the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown. He swiftly apologized, but let’s look over the seven heavenly virtues and see how in a blink of an eye he broke every single one of them, not to pore over his particular "gaffe", but because they are instructive of the flaws in politics generally. And moreover, as we look over them, we see how they are not merely surface flaws, but endemic to the political consciousness.
Lack of Faith
(Inauthentic Self-Consciousness) Judging how we are perceived by others instead of acting authentically. The lady he had met was satisfied, but he was worried... how would the press pick up on it?

Lack of Hope
(Negativity) Imagining that something is a disaster, aware of the sound-bites that the media might pick up on, the inauthentic politician who has lost faith in himself then takes on the media mindset as validating who he is, self-critical of every flaw in a quest for the appearance of polished perfection, breeding a culture of negativity. “It was a disaster.” The positive person, on the other hand takes away the positive in every situation, the light at the end of the tunnel, the point of agreement in any controversy, and from this starting point works towards the good.

Lack of Love
(Fake Friendliness) The politician pretends to listen, to care, to treat each person as real, asking about their lives and their dreams, but behind this façade of friendliness is often a complete disinterest, an unwillingness to engage at a deeper level. The only desire is to put forward the candy-coated slogans and arguments of party propaganda and to get the party or oneself elected.

Lack of Fortitude
(Lack of Responsibility) Blaming circumstances on others. “You should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It's Sue I think.”

Lack of Justice
(Dishonesty) Depending on the audience, we may well need to change our mode of delivery, but the underlying message should be the same. The politicians however goes out of their way to feign consensus, and where they cannot, they feel uncomfortable. “It's very nice to see you”, but behind the scenes he felt quite differently.

Lack of Temperence
(Bad Etiquette) Insulting someone behind their back, calling them “bigoted”. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Few are the great leaders who can keep their temper and don’t let power go to their head.

Lack of Prudence
(Name-Calling) To isolate an experience or thing we don’t like, to exaggerate it, to associate it with some other known object of dislike, a “bigot”. This is the disease of the mind, setting up likes and dislikes, constructing categories of good and evil, instead of seeing things for what they are. It is a false ethics born of a false logic of association. And arguably, it’s precisely what I’ve done in this blog! :^)

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Why Meditate? (Matthieu Ricard)

Extracts from a talk by Matthieu Ricard

As a Frenchman, I must say that there are a lot of French intellectuals that think happiness is not at all interesting. (Laughter) I just wrote an essay on happiness, and there was a controversy. And someone wrote an article saying, don't impose on us the dirty work of happiness. (Laughter) "We don't care about being happy. We need to live with passion. We like the ups and downs of life. We like our suffering because it's so good when it ceases for a while." (Laughter)

One of the most common confusions is between happiness and pleasure. But, if you look at the characteristics of those two, pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. Also, it is not something that is radiating outside. Like, you can feel intense pleasure and some others around you can be suffering a lot. Well-being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that actually pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that can come one's way. For you, that might be surprising. Can we have this kind of well-being while being sad? In a way, why not? Because we are speaking of a different level. Look at the waves coming here to shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave, you hit the bottom. You hit the solid rock. When you are surfing on the top, you are all elated. So you go from elation to depression, there's no depth. Now, if you look at the high sea, there might be beautiful, calm ocean like a mirror. There might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged.

So how do we proceed in our quest for happiness? Very often we look outside. We know, by experience, that we can be what we call "in little paradise" and yet, be completely unhappy within. The Dalai Lama was once in Portugal, and there was a lot of construction going on everywhere. So one evening he said, "Look, you are doing all these things, but isn't it nice, also, to build something within?" And he said, "Unless that – even you get high-tech flat on the 100th floor of a super-modern and comfortable building, if you are deeply unhappy within, all you are going to look for is a window from which to jump." So now, at the opposite, we know a lot of people who are in very difficult circumstances manage to keep serenity, inner strength, inner freedom, confidence. So now, if the inner conditions are stronger – of course, the outer conditions do influence, and it's wonderful to live longer, healthier, to have access to information, education, to be able to travel, to have freedom, it's highly desirable. However, this is not enough; those are just auxiliary help, conditions. The experience that translates everything is within the mind.

If we look from our own experience – anger, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, obsessive desire, strong grasping – they don't leave us in such a good state after we have experienced it. And also, they are detrimental to others' happiness. So we may consider that the more those are invading our mind, and, like a chain reaction, the more we feel miserable, we feel tormented. At the opposite, everyone knows deep within that an act of selfless generosity, if from the distance, without anyone knowing anything about it, we could save a child's life, make someone happy. We don't need the recognition. We don't need any gratitude. Just the mere fact of doing that, fills such a sense of adequation with our deep nature. And we would like to be like that all the time.

We know we're not always angry, always jealous, always generous. So, because the basic fabric of consciousness is this pure cognitive quality that differentiates it from a stone, there is a possibility for change because all emotions are fleeting. That is the ground for mind training. Mind training is based on the idea that two opposite mental factors cannot happen at the same time. So there are natural antidotes to emotions that are destructive to our inner well-being. So that's the way to proceed. Rejoicing compared to jealousy. A kind of sense of inner freedom as opposite to intense grasping and obsession. Benevolence, loving kindness against hatred. But of course, each emotion then would need a particular antidote.

Another way is to try to find a general antidote to all emotions. Look at anger itself; it looks very menacing, like a billowing monsoon cloud or thunder storm. But we think we could sit on the cloud, but if you go there, it's just mist. Likewise, if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track. So this is the principal of mind training. Mind transformation, that is the very meaning of meditation.

The brain was thought to be more or less fixed. All the nominal connections, in numbers and quantities, were thought – until the last 20 years, thought to be more or less fixed when we reached adult age. Now, recently, it has been found that it can change a lot. A violinist, as we heard, who has done 10,000 hours of violin practice, some area that controls the movements of fingers in the brain change a lot, increasing reinforcement of the synaptic connections. So can we do that with human qualities? With loving kindness, with patience, with openness?

So that's what those great meditators have been doing. Some of them who came to the labs, like in Madison, Wisconsin, or in Berkeley, did 20 to 40,000 hours of meditation. They do, like three years retreat, where they do meditate 12 hours a day. And then, the rest of their life, they will do that three or four hours a day. They are real Olympic champions of mind training. (Laughter) So what did they find? Here is the preliminary result, which I can show because it's already been shown. The bell curve shows 150 controls, and what is being looked at is the difference between the right and the left frontal lobe. In very short, people who have more activity in the right side of the prefrontal cortex are more depressed, withdrawn. It's the opposite on the left side: more tendency to altruism, to happiness, to express, and curiosity and so forth. So there's a basic line for people. And also, it can be changed. If you see a comic movie, you go off to the left side. If you are happy about something, you'll go more to the left side. If you have a bout of depression, you'll go to the right side. Here, the -0.5 is the full standard deviation of a meditator who meditated on compassion. It's something that is totally out of the bell curve. Some meditators are able, also, to control their emotional response more than it could be thought. Like the startle experiments, for example. If you sit a guy on a chair with all this kind of apparatus measuring your physiology, and there's kind of a bomb that goes off, it's so instinctive response that, in 20 years, they never saw anyone who will not jump. Some meditators, without trying to stop it, but simply by being completely open, thinking that that bang is just going to be just a small event like a shooting stars, they are able not to move at all.

Mind training matters. This is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul; this is something that's going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most: the way our mind functions. Controlling our mind is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.

The blog & comments were originally published on Buddhist Travelers

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Olivia Ruiz - La Petite Fable

Lyrics in French & approximate translation below... does it make any sense? Only a little, but I love it.

De la belle et la bête je suis les deux
Mon antre est une vaste comédie
Je suis seule malgré l'ombre de vos yeux
Le silence attire ma folie
Cendrillon j'ai rayé ta citrouille
Avec l'aiguille de ton talon dodu
Comment être vraie quand on me souille?
Mon pied nacré a besoin d'être nu

J'ai donné mon corps au diable
Enfin j'ai sauvé mon âme
Je m'enfuis de la fable
Je ne ressens pas de blâmes
Le vilain meurt, reste le beau
C'est ma vie de château

J'ai fini par tout perdre et tout gagner
Ne me jugez pas, apprenez moi
Je suis entière, je suis hantée
Ne me regardez pas, vivez moi
Moi je suis la petite princesse, fière
Sans parures et sans couronnes
J'ai vu le serpent, la faiblesse
C'est toute nue que je me donne

J'ai donné mon corps au diable
Enfin j'ai sauvé mon âme
Je m'enfuis de la fable
Je ne ressens pas de blâmes
Le vilain meurt, reste le beau
C'est ma vie de château

Je me fou de ce que l'on raconte
Ma vie est là si cela vous chante
Je suis sortie, grandie de ce conte,
Moi je ris, je bondis et je chante.

A Little Fable
Of beauty and the beast, I am both.
I reside in a vast comedy,
Alone, but for the shade of your eyes,
And the silence brings out my folly.
Cinderella, I've done away with your pumpkin
With the spike of your buxom heel.
How to be true when I am maligned?
My mother-of-pearl foot needs to be bare.

I gave my body to the devil,
In the end, I saved my soul,
I am running away from the fable,
I do not feel to blame,
The villain dies, the handsome prince remains.
This is my life in a fairytale castle.

I finished by losing everything and winning everything.
Do not judge me, learn about me.
I am whole, I am haunted.
Do not look at me, live me.
I am the little princess, proud,
Without finery and without garlands.
I saw the serpent, the weakness,
And it is in nakedness that I give myself.

I gave my body to the devil,
In the end, I saved my soul,
I am running away from the fable,
I do not feel to blame,
The villain dies, the handsome prince remains.
This is my life in a fairytale castle.

I could not care for what they say.
My life is there if it enchants you.
I have left, grown out from this tale
And I laugh and I leap and I sing.

For some reason the lyrics remind me of 
'The Lord of the Dance', 
here played on the harp by Mary O'Hara.

Finally, a little joke from a man of fable, the legendary mathematician Paul Erdös:

Monday, 12 April 2010

Easter in Spain

After a cold spring week by the sea
Of blankets, jumpers, coats and tissues,
Out collecting pine cones for the fire
And reading curled up beside its warmth,
Suddenly the first days of summer
Descend hot upon the Spanish coast,
Dazzling brightness of the midday sun,
The beach scattered with its worshippers,
The orange and red shirts of children,
Shouting, running, playing in the sand
And beyond a low wall, a woman
Behind her bicycle, sunbathing.
A beautiful photo that would make,
I thought as I passed and looking back,
I saw her raise her face to greet my smile,
A flowering rose of passion’s joy and pain,
And because I had not captured her
On my camera like the sunrise,
I felt this need to do so with words.
Is that good service for poetry?