Saint Romuald

Saint Romuald lived over 1,000 years ago. He is venerated today in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

A couple of quotes from the short link below:

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.

link

I tend to see religions and beliefs as something like languages. Much of it is vocabulary and context.

I bet Romuald and Milarepa would have gotten along well and understood each other well.

 

Repost: How delusions are formed

Delusions must start somewhere.

A recent study (Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study) convincingly demonstrates that our responses to emoticons as simple as a colon next to a parenthesis :) are similar to our responses to real human faces.

Clearly, this response has been learned. No infant is born with that response and no one anywhere had it just a few decades ago.

Our tendency to respond to :) as a face arose with its use in email and texting. This response is now a well-established “public” response to a “public” semiotic. In this context, public means “understood and shared by many people.”

A public semiotic is a sign with wide currency. It is a unit of culture and often of language itself. We can see in the case of the emoticon :) that a new sign can arise due to unique circumstances and that that sign can come to have a deep meaning for many people.

The sign :) seems quite beautiful to me because it is very simple, very easily produced, and very telling about how our minds work. If the elements of the sign are reversed (: people no longer respond to it as a face, though of course we could learn to do that if the reversed sign were used that way more frequently.

I remember the first time I saw a derivative sign ;) and wondered briefly what it meant. If you had a similar experience, you may be able to remember how such a simple sign can bloom in your mind and go from something that is unknown to something of considerable significance in just a few seconds.

That is an example of the birth of a sign, the birth of a semiotic in your mind.

When the semiotic is public, we strive to learn what other people mean by it. When it is private—that is, with a meaning known only to us—there will be other, often very significant, implications.

What would a “private sign” be like? A straightforward example might be a code we use in a diary. Such a code would have at least one visual sign whose meaning is known only to us.

Another kind of private visual sign might be a facial expression that we have come to interpret differently from other people. My guess is everyone has a good many of these. That is to say, the “idiolect” of facial expressions we each use to understand other people is at least as various as different idiolects within a spoken language.

Now add tone of voice, posture, accent, word choice, topic choice, and so on to this mix. Each of those areas of communication uses signs that can and always will be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including private ones.

Now, consider how an individual may get lost in all this. If someone ever smiled at you as they hurt you, you may have learned to be suspicious in your interpretation of human smiles. Or you may employ your own smile in ambiguous ways.

Now consider all the signs of communication and how many possible interpretations there are. Then consider the study linked above which shows how deep our responses can be to something as trivial as the sign :).

One way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of communicative signs become too private and/or do not correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people. The other way we form delusions occurs when our interpretations of signs does correspond well with the interpretations employed by other people, but those other people are wrong.

In “public” situations—professional, commercial, business, school, etc.—it is fairly easy to communicate well enough based on established norms. But in interpersonal communication, you can only take “established norms” so far. At some point, you will have to understand your partner and be understood by them in much greater detail than “established norms,” or public semiotics.

Here is a newspaper article on the study linked above:  Happy days: Human brain now registers smiley face emoticon as real facial expression.

A moral argument gainst veganism

This post argues against veganism and in favor of the consumption of meat and dairy products.

The moral argument for eating meat and dairy products is simple. If we eat them, we contribute to the economy that gives these animals life. Since their lives have value to them, it is better for them to exist than to not exist. And also, if their lives have no value to humans (for food or other uses), then these animals will cease to be so numerous and will probably become extinct.

The moral argument for veganism is generally based on not killing. But if we don’t slaughter cattle for food, soon there will be no cattle. Veganism, to put it strongly, is arguing in favor of cattle genocide.

The vegan argument is based on the belief that the animals’ lives have value to the animals. If the animals themselves did not want to live, the vegan argument would not be strong. But if we accept that the animals’ lives have value to them, then raising them for meat or other uses benefits the animals as well as humans.

The strongest argument for meat eating asks that the animals be treated humanely while alive and slaughtered humanely when the time comes. But even if the treatment and slaughtering of these animals is not perfect, it can still be reasonably argued that it is better for them to have existed than to not have existed.

An argument for limited humaneness—that is, “just humane enough to make their lives worth living to them”—does not appeal to me but is probably sound, though clearly it is morally weaker than an argument for greater humaneness.

An objection to this overall argument might be that it is somehow wrong to raise a sentient being knowing that you intend to kill it. But when we take a pet into our home, we all know that the chances are we will kill it when it becomes too infirm to continue. Many people, myself included, argue in favor of euthanasia and even suicide for people who have reasonably concluded that their lives are no longer worth living.

When and if we have widely available lab-produced fake meat that involves no killing, would it still be morally right to raise animals for slaughter? My answer is yes and for the same reasons—those animals are being given a chance to exist and it is better for them, from their point of view, to exist than to not exist.

To some extent, the above arguments appear to support the Buddhist Theravada position that lay Buddhists can eat meat. And that monastics can also eat meat if the animal was not killed for them, if they did not see the animal being killed, and if they did not kill the animal themselves.

The Buddha ate meat and made these rules for monastics and himself. Mahayana Buddhism developed a vegetarian tradition because mendicancy was not feasible in China and other northern areas. Indeed, Mahayana Buddhists who consume dairy products and/or eggs are actually participating in industries that slaughter animals, for dairy cows and chickens are slaughtered as soon as they cease to be productive.

Based on the argument presented in this post, Mahayana Buddhists are right to consume dairy and eggs and wrong to eschew meat if there are not other factors (health, personal  taste, environment) being considered.

I have not covered environmental factors in this post because they bring in many other considerations that distract from the basic moral argument.

As for fish, it seems to me as of this morning that eating “wild caught” fish is not morally well-supported because our eating them does not support their existing. Wild fish would be better off without us eating them. Farm raised fish and hatchery fish, of course, would be better off existing before being slaughtered in the same way that beef cattle are.

Discussion of rebirth with Jim Tucker

This interview is quite good and well worth reading no matter what your perspective. (link to interview)

Tucker’s “main research interests are children who claim to remember previous lives, and natal and prenatal memories.” He is based at the University of Virginia.

I myself have past-life memories and understand that experiences like that can be difficult and/or frustrating to talk about with others, a point made in the linked interview.

In my view, it is impossible for a science which requires strict reproducibility to deal fully with memories of this type, which are specific to individuals and which obviously cannot be reproduced any more than any memory specific to an individual and contingent on them can be reproduced. Science can only reproduce phenomena that everyone can see.

I am fully cognizant of the materialist scientific paradigm and work. live, and reason within in it a great deal. At the same time, I cannot honestly tell myself that my own life experiences and memories, none of which are reproducible, have no value.

My guess is that redefining “materialism” to mean “physicalism,” a point not made in the interview, can help people who feel deeply rooted in the scientific world-view entertain other possibilities.

In a nutshell, physicalism means simply “obeying the laws of physics.” Since we can never be sure that we know all of the laws of physics and do not today even understand how the laws we do know hold together, physicalism can work as a sort of mind-opener for materialists, an avenue of unknowns that includes more of the deep realities of sentient existence without always consigning them to fantasy or superstition.

Repost: The five skandhas and modern science

A recent study on emotional response—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—indicates that the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness has it right.

From the study’s abstract:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.

Note that all important phrase “…before that information is consciously perceived.”

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.

Advanced training in meditation and mindfulness is probably necessary for most people to be able to observe the five skandhas individually, as they are actually “firing,” but it can be done. A good deal of Buddhist practice is based on being able to do that.

Though all brain imaging studies must be taken as provisional since the technology is not completely reliable, they still are providing us with some very interesting information worth considering.

The amygdala study cited above seems to confirm that people form significant emotional reactions to faces without being conscious of their reactions at all. In Buddhist terms, their reactions are (or take place at) the second skandha—sensation.

The skandha of sensation is defined as a reaction to a form that is either positive, negative, or neutral. That is, we either like, dislike, or don’t care about the form. In the amygdala study the form is the face that is flashed very briefly on a screen. The face appears so briefly, for just a few milliseconds, that it is not possible to actually “see” or be aware of having “seen” it.

I think it is fair to extrapolate from this study that we humans are forming sensations all the time without being aware of what we are doing. As the authors of the study say, the study “[suggests] that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.”

“…processing of social cues in the absence of awareness” is pretty good description of what the Buddha called delusion, especially if we realize that the delusions we “process” from forms arising outside of us are entwined with and not very different from delusions we process from forms arising within us.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation, thus, provides a way to observe and analyze our minds to prevent our becoming deluded by the tug of sensations that happen in the “absence of awareness.”

A few days ago, I reposted an essay that touches on this subject from a different angle and a different study: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots.

Here is a pretty good article on the study cited above: Friend Or Foe? Even When Faces Are Not Clearly Visible, Your Brain Unconsciously Makes Judgments.

Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya (On Right Speech)

….[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”

Source

translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Buddhist morality and signaling

The five precepts of Buddhism are no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or irresponsible use of alcohol.

These moral guidelines are for non-monastics.

I think most of us tend to think of the five precepts as being about the material world. After all, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and getting drunk are all rooted in actions of the material body. Even lying issues forth from the mouth of the body.

But what if we look at the precepts differently? What if we view them as fundamentally signals that issue forth from the mind?

If we look at them that way, then lying, which is often glossed as the least important of the five precepts, becomes the most important.

The reason is that lies send bad signals forth from the mind. And surely killing, stealing, misconduct, and getting drunk are the baddest of bad signals. Each one is a form of lying.

In a post I put up just yesterday, Ethics, morality, I outlined a simple way to understand morality as that which reduces error and increases efficiency of mental signals, both internal and external (those exchanged with others).

In Buddhism, the great barrier to enlightenment is a confused, deluded mind. Anything that generates delusion or confusion, which lying surely does, is counterproductive. While anything that reduces delusion is good.

Buddhism, of course, recognizes the need for occasional lies—such as sanitizing the truth for children—but we really do not need to lie very often. We do not always have to say everything we think or tell anyone anything they want to know; we can easily and truthfully sidestep issues like that by simply saying we would rather not say.

In a very important way, clear signaling—honest signaling—is the foundation of all morality.

Psychedelics, human rights, and Buddhism

People have used psychedelics in spiritual practice for at least 5700 years, pre-dating all major organised religions. (Source: Protecting the human rights of people who use psychedelics)

My guess is early Buddhists used psychedelics as these substances were clearly available at that time and well before. A careful reading of the fifth precept indicates to me that the Buddha is talking only about alcohol, either fermented or distilled, and not psychedelics. I am not advocating the use of illegal psychedelics, but rather agreeing with the author of the linked quote that they have a long and respected place in religious practice and are not nearly as dangerous as is generally assumed among lawmakers. I also agree that it is not the business of government to legislate plants or tell people what they can or cannot put into their bodies, especially when far more good than harm arises from many of these substances.

Mindfulness and FIML

Here is one definition of mindfulness from the Buddha himself:

And what, monks, is the faculty of mindfulness? Herein, monks, a noble disciple is mindful and is endowed with the highest prudence in mindfulness; he is one who remembers and recollects even what is done or said long ago. This, monks, is called the faculty of mindfulness.

— S V 197 (Source)

This short film illustrates another definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness can mean many things, but central to the definition is deep and abiding awareness of what is actually going on, what is actually being thought and perceived, what is being said and what is being heard. Buddhists practice basic mindfulness in ways shown in the film, but we can also be mindful of how we communicate, how we listen and how we speak.

How can we be mindful of how we listen and speak? One way is to pay attention to ourselves. But if we only pay attention to ourselves, we will become solipsists or narcissists. We can also pay attention to others, but how do we normally do that?

Most people pay attention to others by using heuristics as Anderson Cooper does in the film linked above. He is very sophisticated, smooth, pleasant, and surely a good listener. But what that really is is an act, a professional mixture of American semiotics and American heuristics, slightly individualized in Cooper.

Cooper is not deeply aware of the people he is interviewing, though he may be moved by what they say. At best, he can only be aware of what he hears and how he interprets that. Similarly, the mindfulness master in the film, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is not a mind-reader. He cannot be any more deeply aware of others than Cooper can, or than others can of him. Yes, some people have more life experience or are smarter than others, but this only increases their deep awareness a little bit, if that. It might even lead them to worse deep awareness.

The only way to be deeply aware of another person—to be deeply mindful of what they are saying or hearing—is to ask them. And the only way to do that deeply is to do FIML.

If you just ask in the usual ways and they just answer, you will experience an exchange like the one in the film. Interesting, but there is no profound subjective data coming from either Cooper or Kabat-Zinn.

If we rely exclusively on cultural heuristics like those in the film to interact with our closest friends, we will succeed in interacting with them solely on that level*. And when we are restricted to that level, as most of us are, we cannot be deeply mindful of any other human being.

We can be mindful of what they are wearing what we think they said or meant or felt, but not them. Only FIML gives us deep access, mindful access, to others. And in the sense that how we communicate with others affects how we communicate with ourselves—how we understand ourselves—we can only become deeply aware of ourselves if we practice FIML with at least one other person. FIML might even be called “dynamic mindfulness.”

______________________

* Adding quantity—many exchanges with another person—does not fix the problem. Your relationship will look and feel more complex, but it still is not one characterized by deep awareness.

Sex, desire, and the meditation on “uncleanness”

This article—The Problem With Sex According to Buddhism—provides a good overview of how traditional Buddhism has viewed sexual behavior. Generally, the modern way of looking at it is sexual behavior should not harm anyone and should not lead to unwanted entanglements.

Overcoming excessive or obsessive desire for anything, not just sex, is an important part of Buddhist practice. Most of the time most of us know what is excessive in most situations. Guidance from a “wise friend” can help when there is doubt.

Contemplating the “uncleanness” of any excessive desire has been praised through the centuries by countless Buddhist practitioners. Contemplating the “uncleanness” of something means to contemplate its negative aspects. If you cannot get over your obsession for motorcycles, for example, contemplate their expense, danger, the trouble of maintaining them, etc. This kind of contemplation will tend to decrease desire by balancing it with real-world considerations.

The “uncleanness” contemplation is intended to be used to overcome excessive desire or greed. It is not advised for anyone experiencing depression or despair as it may worsen these conditions. More on this topic can be found here.

Saving lives versus releasing captured animals into the wild

The Buddhist practice of releasing captured animals into the wild to gain merit (for the one doing the releasing) is generally a bad practice. Captured animals are often fatigued or not suited to their new wild environment.

In Buddhist countries animals are sometimes deliberately captured just so practitioners can release them (after paying for them). Clearly, that is a preposterous activity.

Most American Buddhist are aware that thoughtless release does more harm than good, but the basic idea is appealing. Why not save a life if you can?

If you want to save lives without doing any harm, a cat collar might be a better choice than releasing goldfish into the East River (this has happened), where they promptly died.

Here is an article about a collar that seems to work well: Study finds cat collar can save songbirds.

You can get one for your own cat or get a few to give to others. BTW, I have no economic interests in these collars and do not know the people involved in making them. It just looks like an easy way to save precious songbirds.

Morality and mistakes

Moral growth requires mistakes.

Ikkyu, the Zen poet monk, wrote: “Satori is mistake after mistake.”

“You” are not your worldly biography, which is unknowable, but rather the moral being that has learned through worldly experiences.

“You” are not your moral mistakes, which can be worn like shackles, but rather what you would do now if you were faced with those decisions again.

You cannot have gotten to that point without the mistakes you have made.

7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally

…We feel so bad about ourselves when we think about the injustices and tragedies to which we are likely to be contributing to with our actions or omissions that we prefer not to think about it, and distract our attention with more pleasant matters… Guilt makes people associate morality with negative emotions, and these do not draw us closer to ethical behaviour, they distance us from it. If we associate everything that has to do with ethics with negative emotions, it is not surprising that so many people seem to feel aversion to any speech or argument that mentions ethics. Morality can be pleasurable, it can draw us closer to others, and it can contribute to having a more meaningful and happy life, but for this to be possible we must learn how to enjoy it, and feeling bad about ourselves will not help. (7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally)

This excellent piece is aimed at a Western audience conditioned by centuries of religious guilt. The Buddhist tradition carries much less of a burden of guilt but also comes to similar conclusions about morality and ethics. In Buddhism, an appropriate sense of shame is considered essential for moral behavior. But the word shame as it used in the Buddhist tradition does not carry the same sense that it would in the Western tradition. Shame in Buddhism means the feeling and awareness that one has done wrong. The linked essay uses the word regret instead of shame, and from there follows a formula similar to the Buddhist one:

the desire to have acted differently, the intention to repair the damage done, and the determination that in the future one will not act similarly.

In Buddhism, once one has experienced shame (regret), one should apologize if possible to the person(s) or animal(s) one has offended, explain (but not excuse) to them why one did the offense, make amends to them if possible, and vow not to repeat the same action again.

I linked the essay above because it is well-done, is similar to Buddhist thinking, and because it makes a good case for people to see morality as a happy thing, a thing that frees us from lower subjective and self-righteous states. The real you is not the bad thing(s) you have done but what you would do today if faced with the same decision.