Posts Tagged ‘Matthieu Ricard’

“tiny lights along the path of happiness”

September 29, 2011

Stayed up too late making exams and watching baseball. Cards win! Rays too. Wild!! They’ve captured the zeitgeist. For the Braves and Bosox, history has moved on.

Priorities are important, especially those bearing “World-historical” Meaning. Maybe I was too quick the other day to dismiss the parochial self-importance of those old St. Louis Hegelians. Probably not.

In SOL our higher immediate priority is to close the book on Matthieu Ricard’s version of Happiness, the final words of which we’ll ponder today before our first exam. (Think of it as a mini-retreat, like an MRI… or as an exhibition warm-up before the playoffs get serious. Just don’t stress about it. Look for loopholes, use language strategically, smile and laugh, and memento mori.)

He says in his pre-Buddhist French secular youth it never occurred to him to think of himself as happy, or even of wanting to be. But now,

The sense of flourishing I now feel at every moment of my existence was constructed over time… one can become enduringly free and happy…

That’s inspiring, even if “every moment of my existence” sounds a little exaggerated. And though some of us have picked a bit at Ricard’s vague exercise advice (“make your mind as wide as the sky… remain in the interval of nowness…” etc.), I for one come again to the end of this book feeling like I’ve spent valuable time in the company of a genuinely, serenely happy and decent human being. I believe him when he proffers his humble “deepest wish”

that the ideas gathered in this book may serve as tiny lights along the path of temporary and ultimate happiness of all beings.

That’s what a Bodhisattva sounds like. To dispel the misery of the worldRicard, finis

Our other priorities today: 1. regroup (and rededicate ourselves to the group concept, in the spirit of Hegel). 2. Vote for our November read. Here are the nominees, based on our last class:

  • Exploring Happiness (Bok)
  • Generosity (Powers)
  • Geography of Bliss (Weiner)
  • Selected essays culled from the Internet (Aristotle, Montaigne, James…)
  • How to See Yourself as You Really Are OR For the Benefit of All Beings OR Art of Happiness (Dalai Lama)
  • The Monk and the Philosopher (Ricard & Revel)
  • Existentialism and Human Emotions (Sartre)
  • Flow (Csikszentihalyi)
  • The Alchemist (Coelho)
  • Surprised by Joy (Lewis)
With so many nominees, there may be no clear winner (with at least half the votes) on 1st ballot. If so, we’ll have a 2d-ballot runoff between the top two or three choices. If a tie-breaker is then still needed, I’ll cast it.
It’s good to be King.

Our time is limited

September 27, 2011

“Our ground time here will be brief.” M. Kumin

In SOL today it’s our penultimate reading, before Thursday’s exam, of Ricard’s Happiness.  He tells us about being a guinea pig in Richard Davidson’s Wisconsin lab, in service of the insight that “the trained mind, or brain, is physically different…” Is it happier?

Well, those whose left prefrontal cortex throbs seem to be. It may not be the secret center of happiness, but it just might be the trigger. [Scientists Meditate on HappinessHappy Facts…”Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left”-Goleman nytTED]

Then, evolutionary altruism. “Cooperative behavior, apparently altruistic, can be useful to survival…” Never mind your selfish genes, what matters more are our magnanimous memes. [Biological Altruism, SEP] Each of us is “a note in the ‘great concert‘ of existence.”

And then, discussions of kindness, humility, optimism & pessimism…

the  pessimist starts out with an attitude of refusal, even where it’s totally inappropriate.

Which reminds me, this is Tuesday so we have a staff meeting. Like Ricard’s Bhutanese official (supposedly adminstering the nation’s Gross National Happiness), I know a philosopher or two who greet every agenda item with “No, no, no”.

The ultimate pessimism is in thinking that life in general is not worth living. The ultimate optimism lies in understanding that every passing moment is a treasure, in joy as in adversity.

Finally, praise for the “golden time” of full presence in the moment that is now. Let’s pause right now and look for that…

That was fast. Too fast, maybe. Maybe specious. In any case, Thoreau was right: you can’t kill time without injuring eternity. And Ricard’s right, isn’t he, to remind us that

Our time is limited; from the day we are born, every second, every step, brings us closer to death.

So the exercise at the end of chapter 20 is urgent: remain in the interval of “nowness” as long as you can.

But, STUDENTS, leave time to study for Thursday’s exam.

And leave time as well to study and submit your  nominations for our November text(s). Mine, in no particular order:

  • Exploring Happiness (Bok) – Bok explores notions of happiness—from Greek philosophers to Desmond Tutu, Charles Darwin, Iris Murdoch, and the Dalai Lama—as well as the latest theories advanced by psychologists, economists, geneticists, and neuroscientists… a wealth of firsthand observations about happiness from ordinary people as well as renowned figures. This may well be the most complete picture of happiness yet.
  • Generosity (Powers) – The protagonist of this novel concludes: Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn
  • Geography of Bliss (Weiner) – Weiner travels the world in search of the happiest places. Many authors have attempted to describe what happiness is; fewer have shown us where it is, and what we can learn from the inhabitants of different cultures…
  • Selected essays from Aristotle to Montaigne to James…

A word more on the status of desire, when it’s much more than a negative emotion: The Rock.

A happy, meaningful, productive life

September 20, 2011

We come now, in SOL, to consider suffering, ego, and negative emotion as treated in Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness. And, again, to Martin Seligman. His new book, Flourish, is on our short list of candidates for November. We’ll be voting soon. [Guardian reviewHappiness Institute reviewnyt review]

Ricard clearly thinks more highly of the founder of Positive Psychology (in its latest American Psychological Association incarnation, as heralded by Seligman in 1998) than Barbara Ehrenreich did in Bright-sided.  In chapter 9 he writes:

[Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center at Penn] was an attempt to broaden psychology’s field of study beyond its longstanding traditional vocation to investigate and, where possible, correct emotional dysfunction and mental pathologies… While it is certainly important to treat psychological problems that handicap or even paralyze people’s lives, it is essential to note that happiness is not the mere absence of unhappiness… It is therefore necessary not only to rid oneself of negative emotions but also to develop positive ones.

Ricard gives credit where due, to William James’s Psychology. [WJ on Attention]

Buddhism prescribes rigorous training in introspection… This discipline is close to the concept of “sustained, voluntary attention” developed by William James… Buddhist meditators have found that attention can be developed significantly…

And, it can counteract the mental “poisons” of desire, hatred, delusion, pride, and envy. It can show us the door to inner transformation.

Seligman was featured in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. I think I begin to detect a pattern, in his public utterances, of backing away from Positive Psychology towards something he expects us to regard with greater favor. In this piece it’s “character,” supposedly built through adversity and setback.  What if the Secret to Success is Failure?:

David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City, went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised [him] by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and [Michigan psych professor Christopher] Peterson had just finished:“Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”

What’s “the ultimate product of good character”?:

A happy, meaningful, productive life.

By any other name, that’s a positive outcome.

Not yearning for autumn yet

May 25, 2011

The real secret of life is that there is no single secret. There, I’ve gone and let the cat out.

But, if there were one it might very well be what’s been called the gift of the present. I awoke this gorgeous morning– it’s a perfect 70 degrees Fahrenheit, calm and quiet by current standards, just the birds and a few early-bird cicadas and now a jet overhead– humming JT’s ballad and recalling Matthieu Ricard’s discussion of “golden time.”

Those whom summer’s heat tortures yearn for the full moon of autumn

Without even fearing the idea

That a hundred days of their life then will have passed forever

Buddha Shakyamuni’s epigrammatic poem is perfect for now, on the cusp of summer. It only really begins tomorrow around noon, when school’s finally out for the kids. We’ll do our best not to waste it.

Ricard, finis

October 8, 2009

MRicardA good place to finish, with Matthieu Ricard: “Remember that there are two kinds of lunatics: those who don’t know that they must die, and those who have forgotten that they’re alive.”

“Lunatic” sounds harsh. Being innocent and forgetful isn’t the same as being a loony, crazed, eccentric, unpredictable, pegged to the phases of the moon, obsessive with names and pets. Is it?

Can be.

Or it could just be the distracted condition of the average media-swilling consumer in our entertainment-besotted pop culture, amusing ourselves to death while booing Simon and snubbing Dave and fretting about who the judges will favor in the “reality” competition.

“Accepting death as a part of life serves as a spur to diligence and saves us from wasting our time on vain distractions.” Front the fact, hear the rattle in your throat, crank up the realometer. But I’m not so sure most of us still crave reality in the raw, the way Thoreau said he did. He seemed sane enough, though plenty eccentric too. I don’t think he named his critter-friends at Walden “Eric,” though he did claim the solitude-easing company of the stars and the raindrops and the “sweet and beneficent society of Nature.”

Ricard endorses Epicurus’s glibly-dismissive attitude towards death: it is “nothing to us, since when we exist death is not yet present, and when it is present, then we do not exist.” Seneca’s smarter to advise treating the end as something, not nothing, and to realize that living in utter denial of death is not really living at all. But neither is an unrelenting, morbid fixation on mortality. As  Jennifer Hecht will soon tell us, we must acknowledge death and look it square in the eyes. Then, if we’re wise, we’ll turn our backs on the eternal dark and get on with living in the light. Of course that includes celebrating the lives of precious departed loved ones.

But I’m afraid I find Ricard again given to soaring over-statement when he says “life has been slipping away day after day, and if we have not learned to find meaning in its every passing moment, all it has meant to us is wasted time.” Every passing moment? That would be some batting average. Appreciating every moment indiscriminately is not wise, it’s goofy.

Just a final comment, though it would be fun to go back a few chapters and think some more about longevity, “gross national happiness,” brain plasticity, and the experience-defining essence of attentiveness (Ricard again invokes William James on this). This is a richly-suggestive book that I’m sure I’ll  continue to speak with, although I still don’t know how to make my mind as wide as the sky. I’m trying.

My last thought on the Buddhist “path” is a question, trivial perhaps, but a definitive answer might be of the greatest practical utility to me. I just want to know why it’s supposed to be better to sit when you meditate.

The Rock

October 6, 2009

“Some emotions make us flourish, others sap our well-being, others make us wither.”

No kidding. I’ve been talking up the positive emotions, and so does Ricard just a few paragraphs on: “positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire” to include joy, interest, contentment, and love.

Great. But a friend reports his 10-year old daughter’s recent diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and the attendant emotions are just as you’d expect: “feeling stuck, tired, angry, & not much fun to be around.” I have a 10-year old too, I’m sure I’d be every bit as demoralized and debilitated by that news as he is. There are moments in life when overt demands to flourish ring false.

I’m not about to advise my friend to buck up and be happy. That would be insensitive and probably counter-productive. But I wonder if I’d be able to tell myself that, were we to find ourselves in his family’s  situation.

Ricard mentions William James’s concept of “sustained, voluntary attention“– the key, for James, to free will, self-determination, and ultimately to happiness itself. (Winifred Gallagher just wrote a great big book on this.) When life snaps you over the head with a two-by-four, can you still turn your attention away from “disturbing” emotions to positive, nurturing thoughts? I know, Buddhist meditators can do it for hours on end. But Buddhist meditators, afflicted by many forms of suffering and denial, still tend not to have 10-year olds with Type 1 diabetes. Or is that an outworn, culturally-confused stereotype?

Maybe it is. Buddhists in America especially come in all shapes, sizes, and domestic situations. But I’m afraid the “calming” exercise in this chapter is not a lot more specifically instructive to me than the earlier advice to expand my mind. “With a deep feeling of appreciation, think of the value of human existence and of its extraordinary potential for flourishing. Be aware, too, that this precious life will not last forever…” Carpe diem? Memento mori? I think Hallmark could do better.

In general I have nothing but admiration for such sentiments, which come to me in almost precisely this form and with some considerable frequency– usually on sunny days when I’ve placed myself in my own form of meditative receptivity, while hoofing it around and watching the thoughts rise and fall.

What I still want to understand is how Buddhists and other serene folk summon such comfort and joy when the days and nights are dark and long and the news is heartbreaking. We’re passionately “attached” to our children, we grieve when they suffer, we curse the impersonal universe that dispenses weal and woe so indifferently, and at such moments feel anything but appreciation for life’s maldistributed “potential.” (Is that what Heidegger meant by “presence in the mode of absence?”) At such moments, what we want is to be dealt a new hand… not to be urged to be effusively grateful for the crummy old one.

And we’re going to need a better “exercise,” there’s not much consolation in this one.

Chapter Ten, to Ricard’s credit, picks up the challenge. “There’s no question here of ceasing to love those whose lives we share.” No, there’s not.

“As for anger, it can be neutralized by patience.” Again, details here are wanting. But this is key, if only I could figure out how to make it fit my psychological  locks: “You are overwhelmed by a sudden tide of anger… But look closely. It is nothing more than a thought… It is a temporary condition, and you do not need to identify with it.”

But when conditions objectively “suck,” as my friend observes, shouldn’t we identify with the emotions that express our sharp revulsion? It feels like the right response–not the most pleasant, not the happiest, not the healthiest, just the right one. Why is that wrong? Why are we entitled to stuff those emotions and opt for the positive ones, when conditions do not elicit them spontaneously?

Of course, liberation from anger at the moment it arises would be wonderfully soothing– to me. It would not mitigate a little girl’s anguish, would it?

But is the point, rather, that even righteous anger does no good and might do harm? That begins at last to speak to me, as did the Oklahoma City Dad’s refusal to endorse Timothy McVeigh’s execution (ch12). One more death, one more angry act of retribution, eases no one’s pain.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” leaves us all blind and gummy.

Once again, though, the exercise does not work for me. “Don’t unite with the anger… keep on just  observing [it], it will gradually evaporate under your gaze.” Yes, eventually we’ll all evaporate. Just now, though, when the anger is a tight little knot and the world does not feel much like home, is observation the best response? It might be. But it feels like a waste of perfectly good adrenaline.

schopenhauer1Ricard quotes “the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer,” and his coupling of striving and desire. The Mark_Twainimplication is that desire always frustrates, is  “everywhere impeded,” always struggling, fighting, suffering. We can escape desire, or suppress it. But Mark Twain said the best way to conquer temptation is to yield to it. Is that not, sometimes, a gratifying strategy? (I don’t know what Shania says about desire, that’s whose image Google wanted me to put here. You prob’ly did too.)

As for dismantling hatred and hostilities: Buddhists and cheek-turning Christians have much to teach us all about this. I confess I simply do not comprehend the sensibility that is capable of feeling love and compassion for even the most hateful and hostile others, simply because they too “strive to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.” I suppose I am deficient in fellow-feeling. I hope I would refrain from calling for Tim McVeigh’s head, but I don’t feel bad about not extending to him the love and compassion I feel for my kids. Should I? Please explain.

My reflections on this book began with some quibbles about renunciation. Ricard is explicit, now, in denying my presuppositions: “Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness… saying no to all that is pleasant… Genuine happiness– as opposed to contrived euphoria– endures through life’s ups and downs.” And smooths them out? “We can get off the endless roller coaster of happiness and suffering.” That’s fine, I’m not that fond of roller coasters anyway. And I’m very fond of Ricard’s next authorial citation: “Simplify, simplify.”

But I still think William James has had the sharpest insight into our correct default position on the question of desires: fulfill as many of them as we can, erring on the  side of the presumption that more (not fewer) satisfactions will raise the sea level of our happiness.

william-james“Take any demand however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not. The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way. The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all.” The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Is this wrong? If you read it as an excuse for narcissistic, ego-grabbing, non-reciprocal, non-altruistic selfishness, read on:

“Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor. It would be a tragic constitution, because the rock’s inhabitants would die. But while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life, whose active energy would have no limit but the intensity of interest in each other with which the hero and heroine might be endowed. We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock.”

Our emotions and desires need not pull us apart. They can bring us together, here at The Rock. We just gotta follow the rules,barney_fife keep our cool, resist pointless anger, and practice a little tough love (as well as loving-kindness) with the rule-breakers. Don’t be spiteful and immature. (And, don’t get a swell-head like Goob did once.) Ol’ Barn had it all figured out. “Frood wrote a book about it, Andy.”

“I I me me mine”

October 1, 2009

Humming the Beatles again… “First we conceive the ‘I’… then we conceive the ‘mine’…” But, enough about me; what do you think of me?

What is this precious ego we’re so fixated on? An “artificial entity,” frozen by concepts, “hiding inside a bubble. “Ego-grasping and self-importance are the best magnets to attract suffering.” The cure? Burst the bubble, dissolve the self, admit your inescapable inter-dependence upon other people and upon nature. Selfhood is entirely relational, you do not stand apart and alone and cannot subsist independently.  You are not the center of the world, but we’re all parts of the great network of relations without which there would be no world.

This all sounds healthily humbling, but I worry about slipping too far to the other extreme: from overweaning self-aggrandizement to abased self-loathing and misanthropy. The “great man/woman” view of history is hard to shake. How many truly impressive  achievements have been notched by people without an assertive sense of self? Our supposedly selfless heroes and humanitarians know very well who they are and what they represent. They wear their benefaction proudly and prominently. Why not?

But Ricard says we too quickly conflate ego and self-confidence. Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, he claims, all displayed inner confidence without an oversized ego to match. I’m skeptical.

But let’s concede the larger point that self-regard can too  easily degenerate into  selfishness. Does it then follow that we must repudiate all egotism as mean and corruptible? Or can we effectively monitor and regulate our respective projects of self-creation, with a will to responsibly serve the common good while chasing one’s personal dreams? If we do not retain those projects, how can we muster the ambition to pursue our goals?

These are rhetorical questions, to which Buddhists reliably respond: “If the ego were really our deepest essence, it would be easy to understand our apprehension about dropping it. But if it is merely an illusion, ridding ourselves of it is not ripping the heart out of our being, but simply opening our eyes.”

OK, then, I will consider it.

I will. My mind is open. Buddhism’s appeal is to a mind at a time.

But is there still room here for a Kantian transcendental ego, anEyeball4 Emersonian transparent eyeball, an I large enough also to mean we? “Where did ‘we’ go?!”

What becomes of subjectivity on this view? And what, then, of the life-quickening personal enthusiasms predicated on “what’s inside a person”? Do they count? Can the literally-selfless human spirit still exhilarate for no special reason at all? (“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration…”)

Ricard 4Those jumping monks of Tibet Ricard showed the TEDsters: were they jumping for joy, on springs of delight? Or was that part of a routinized, ritual, meditative daily practice?

As usual, my questions far exceed my certainty. These are tentative concerns, not conclusive criticisms. But I’d not be happy to think that the cost of our serenity was the end of natural uplift and “transparency.”

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances-master or servant, is then a trifle, and a disturbance. I am a lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I have something more connate and dear than in the streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. Emerson, “Nature

So what I wonder is: do selfless transparent eyeballs write books, deliver lectures, and inspire the generations? Do they leave us a reverberant, singular note, when they’re gone? “Happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of [the] diminution and abridgement” of death.


September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.


September 24, 2009

Matthieu Ricard begins Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by trying to rehabilitate an idea I confess I’ve always looked down on: renunciation, “a much-misunderstood concept.” It’s not about giving up anything good or beautiful or meaningful, he says; it’s about “freedom from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions,” and “meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

So it doesn’t parallel “negation,” is in fact an affirming state of mind? Joyous, even? It will be a stretch for me to make that connection, I thought joi de vivre was a condition requiring active, energetic, integrative and positive movement– none of which are normally connoted for me by the word “renounce.” But I’m listening.

Here’s an illustration of how I’ve tended to think about renunciation: “The purity of [the Jamesian concept of ] pure experience,” I wrote, ” is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die… you can reach a state of consciousness called ‘clear consciousness’ in which the mind is perfectly lucid, without being caught up in discursive thoughts.” We can reach such a state, but James does not advise futile efforts to stay there. Life presses forward.”

Renunciation, in other words, has always seemed to me to mean something like stagnation, torpor, ennui, even suicide. But I stand ready and receptive to Brother Matthieu’s correction.

meditate-on-a-mountainBut I also note that some advocates of renunciation are quite frank: it means “losing interest in life’s activities… letting go of all desires and attachments… turning inward instead of constantly being focused outward.” This is the diametrical contradiction of Russell’s advice in Conquest of Happiness. Happy people of my stripe take an active interest in the  far-flung “outward” world. Is there some reason I’m missing, why we can’t honor our inner subjectivity while also caring about people, places, and things out there?

It’s not, they say, about “going off to meditate on a mountain and escaping the world.” But Ricard opened his TED talk with that enticing Tibetan mountain view. It sure looks, at the very least, like holding the world at arm’s length. It looks like detachment, when engagement seems the more responsible attitude. Is this just semantics?

Then, Ricard gently disputes Henri Bergson’s view that the vagueness of “happiness” is a virtue, allowing us each to interpret its meaning as we see fit. He wants to be more precise.

Can we agree that the Sage of Konigsburg, dutifully bearing the world of pure and practical reason on his back, following his impersonal imperatives and acting categorically for all humanity, was badly mistaken when he said happiness must be “rational and devoid of anyKant personal taint.” Taint?!

can kantThis is one of the nubs of the issue, for me. Personal values, predilections, enthusiasms, interests, idiosyncracies, peccadillos… these are our delights. For us to abandon them for the rational, impersonal, categorical (etc.) out of a sense of duty to the Moral Law and Reason for its own sake, is not to pursue happiness, it’s to denigrate happiness as peripheral to more important things (to be ascertained by always supposing that our choices must legislate for all, imperatively, impersonally, and categorically).  Kantians can help us remember not to denigrate the common world, and bless them for that. But if happiness  is not, at the end of the day, about personal satisfactions and my individual flourishing (and yours), I say it’s over-rated. It is, though. So it isn’t. Critique that, Immanuel.

This looks like a more promising formulation: happiness is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind… not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” And the stoic element of Buddhism is prominent here too: “while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” I’m prepared to take that possibility as axiomatic, though it seems impossible to “prove.” No problem.

I think Ricard must (to his credit) be a walker, with his example of a perfectly happy pedestrian “walking through a serene wilderness, [with] no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.” Yep, that’s precisely the feeling behind my goofball smile, if you ever spot me ambling down the street or around the lake. (Kant was a daily walker too, I wonder what his problem was.)

But that’s not the whole nine yards, “the difference between these flashes… and the immutable peacefulness of the sage is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of the needle and the limitless expanses of outer space.” So it’s vast, cosmic. I’m familiar with the flash, and find it readily repeatable. But I wonder how I’d do as a sage.

Better than Sartre, I hope. We’ve already seen that he has no use for what he regards as the silly American pursuit of happiness. He makes me sick. Nauseous. Dukkha-filled. Redundant. Superfluous. Suicidal. Well, he would if I swallowed his Nothingness nostrums.

Jean_Paul_SartreIn fairness, Sartre is expressing the state of mind of the pre-Existentialist hero who has yet to take full personal responsibility for creating his own essence, when he says “we hadn’t the slightest reason to be [here].” He’s quite clear, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that fashioning one’s own raison d’etre is a worthy and meaningful undertaking. He’s also quite clear in subverting that activity through the concept of “bad faith.” No wonder he sat around in bars smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes, suffering logorrhea and the “wicked world syndrome.” (And I suppose I might, too, if the Nazis occupied my country.)

“Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions,” and Ricard says it is also an undistortive window on reality. My framing question remains: can I have some without disengaging from responsible activity and involvement in the world? Windows are good. So are doors.

So: how to begin to meditate. I love the instruction to just “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts… do not be bothered by them.” I do it every day. But I don’t sit first, I walk out the door and I keep going. Works for me. But what works for you?