Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Surfing Life's Waves

In his book Conquest of Mind, Eknath Easwaran compares life to an ocean whose waves we can learn to surf with an expert’s skill acquired through experience tempered with meditation and other key elements of a viable spiritual practice. He writes in his introduction of watching two surfers. One is an expert who rides the waves with effortless grace. The other is a beginner who is awkward and keeps getting thrown from his board but gets back up and tries again and again, improving a little each time as he applies the lessons learned from his previous attempts. It’s a beautiful metaphor.

But I suspect that just as I would be the surfer unable to learn from his mistakes and prone to repeating those mistakes until I either gave up in frustration or was crippled or drowned before I could give up, so I fear that my efforts to surf the ocean of life would meet the same fate. Is this the primary reason why I don’t even try?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Does Life Have Meaning Without a God?

Over at Integral Options Café, William Harryman has written another beautiful entry, this time expressing his “existential angst” over feeling crushingly insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things if not for his Kierkegaardian (see picture above) “leap of faith” that life is not absurd but has meaning because it’s one “with an intelligence as vast as that whole amazing Kosmos…[an] intelligence [that] is in no way male, female, or anthropoid; that said intelligence is compassionate and loving--the embodiment of a divine Eros--rather than vengeful and motivated by jealousy and power.”

This is how I replied to him:

Is life truly "absurd" unless one believes in a loving and compassionate intelligence as vast as the Kosmos? I don't believe in such an intelligence, but I don't find life absurd. I DO believe in an Ultimate Reality, but It is simply the unified totality of existence--a Thich Nhat Hanhian "Interbeing" with conscious aspects--and not a kind of all-pervasive intelligence that cares what happens to me or this planet. Would I find life absurd without this belief? I don't think so. I think I would still find joy and meaning in everyday living and loving and in the quest to learn as much about this world and universe as I could, even if there were no heaven or nirvana at the end of my earthly existence.

William replied that he was referring to an intelligence not unlike the “unified totality of existence” to which I alluded and that, while he was expressing his feelings of the moment, he couldn’t be sure what or how he would feel in the future. I think I understand where he’s coming from. I too have sometimes felt the need to believe in a more personal divinity that actually gives a damn about me and the rest of humanity, even if it’s not “out there” but, instead, comprises the deepest essence of my own being. And I’ve tried like hell at times to embrace this belief. Today I happen not to feel it necessary to believe this way. But who knows how I’ll feel tomorrow or next month or next year, especially if I or my loved ones face extreme hardship. Besides, enough people, including some I respect a great deal, appear to believe in a benign Kosmic intelligence that I should not be too quick or decisive in dismissing the possibility of its existence.

Yet, how do I keep my mind open enough to perceive this intelligence if it actually exists without making myself too gullible to falsehood?

Friday, February 24, 2006


I used to have a picture on my wall of a famous bodybuilder named Sergio Oliva. Beneath it, I wrote the caption: “In commitment, we dash the hopes of a thousand potential selves.” I don’t remember where the quote came from, but it often comes to mind when I see bodybuilders, Olympic athletes, and others who devote enormous amounts of time and effort to various pursuits, especially if they fail to achieve the success they desire.

Last night, I watched a program on
TLC about a bodybuilder named Gregg Valentino who used massive amounts of steroids to develop his arms to freakish extremes well beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. Compared to him, Arnold Scharzenneger had arms like toothpicks even at his biggest. It seems that Valentino and many bodybuilders may suffer from a psychological disorder that is virtually the exact opposite of anorexia. Even when they are bulging with rippling muscles, they look in the mirror and see themselves as pitifully small and weak looking, and they redouble their efforts (and their steroid consumption) to build bigger and better muscles. Valentino took this to the point of almost dying from massive infection from steroid injections and other serious health problems, and he developed a physique so monstrously malproportioned and ugly that not even a mother could love it.

I sometimes wonder if there aren’t a lot of Greg Valentinos walking around out there. Maybe they aren’t bodybuilders. Maybe they’re freakishly overdeveloped in their chess playing skill, their ability to do tricks with a yo-yo, or their skill at meditating themselves into trances amazingly impervious to pain or to the outside world. Maybe most of these individuals are involved in pursuits that don’t endanger their physical health the way Valentino did his. Maybe some of them will even reap fame and big paychecks from their accomplishments. But one wonders what their unbelievable level of commitment to one narrow pursuit has cost them in terms of overall development of themselves as human beings and, ultimately, in happiness.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Manifesting the Higher Self

William Harryman has the kind of talent and motivation to produce the kind of blog I wish I had. His Integral Options Café is a remarkable combination of style and substance, beauty and sagacity. It’s one of my favorite blogs, and I try to read it every day. Yesterday, he posted the following quote from Ken Wilber that has resonated with me ever since:

One of my favorite exercises from Quaker prayer gatherings is: "Let the next sentence out of your mouth be from your very highest self." Everybody gets quiet at that point! But that's the kind of attitude we want to bring to these dialogues. New structures in consciousness are being laid down right now--they are just faint footprints on the face of the cosmos. So your behavior, to the extent that you live up to your highest, is actually creating structures that future humanity will inhabit. Therefore, choose your acts very, very carefully. Make sure that the next action you take comes from your highest self. Make sure that the next thing that you say comes from your highest self. Then there's hope for the future. Those structures are already being laid down. God is laying them down; Spirit is laying them down--through us. So we have to become appropriate vehicles for Spirit to lay down the very structures that humanity is going to inhabit. And if we don't, that is a guilt we will carry with us for eternity.

I left the following comment:

Make our next words and deeds come from our highest self. What a wonderful idea! It sounds so obvious and simple that you wonder why everyone hasn't been saying and doing it long before this. But maybe it's such an obvious and simple idea that it's been utterly elusive until a sage like Wilber comes along and expresses it aloud. Now that he has done so, let's see what we can do with it.

Yes, let’s see what I and all of you who read this can do with it today and every precious day and moment for the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Iran and Nuclear Weapons

There’s a lot of talk in the media about stopping Iran by whatever means necessary from developing nuclear weapons. I can understand the international concern. Who wants a country with more than its share of influential Muslim fanatics and led by a president who says Israel should be wiped off the map making nuclear bombs and possibly selling or giving some to Osama & Company?

But, having said that, I wonder what right the USA or any other nuclear power has telling Iran that they shouldn’t or can’t join the nuclear elite. “We have ours, but you can’t have yours,” doesn’t strike me as being very fair or as carrying a lot of moral weight. I suppose we could say that we don’t want nuclear weapons in the hands of Muslim nutcakes, but why should the biggest and deadliest nuclear arsenal in the world be held by the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons against innocent people, and why should they lie under the command of a simpleminded Christian fundamentalist like George Bush?

What it seems to come down to is that if the world or some part of it has the might and determination to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it will do so or spark a cataclysmic war trying. But as long as those who are trying to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons already have them themselves, they lack a certain moral standing to take the action they do unless and until Iran threatens to use these weapons against others in unjustifiable ways. So far, I’m not aware of them having made any such threats. Of course, it’s pretty difficult to threaten to use weapons one says one doesn’t even have any intentions of developing.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Psychology and Free Will

I’ve long wondered how one could be Christian (or Muslim or Jew) and believe in psychology at the same time. For it seems to me that psychology is the science that studies mental processes--including volitions--and behavior and the conditions that cause them, whereas a cornerstone of Christianity (and Islam and Judaism) is free will. Thus, psychology says that every human choice is caused by antecedent conditions, whereas Christianity says that human choices are not caused by antecedent conditions. That is, no matter what interacting biological, social, cultural, and psychological conditions existed at the time someone made a particular choice, she could have made a different choice than the one she actually made, and if that same set of interacting conditions were to somehow recur, the person in question could choose differently than she did the first time.

This is how I expressed this idea in a recent
post to an online forum:
Psychology is the scientific study of mind and behavior. Science presumes that all events have causes which, in turn, have causes, and so on. Thus, psychology presumes that all human mental phenomena, including choices, and all behaviors are caused by something, which, in turn, are caused by something else. Now if choices and acts are caused, they are the inevitable effects of their causes and not free to be other than what they are given the causal conditions giving rise to them. Yet, Christians, on the other hand, believe in some kind of mysterious free or uncaused and uninevitable will that is not caused by anything other than a free--i.e., undetermined--agent. And uncaused human mentation and behavior is not amenable to scientific--i.e., psychological--study and therefore seems incompatible with the fundamental assumption of psychology that human mentation and behavior can be studied scientifically. Thus, I don't see how one can truly be Christian and truly believe in psychology at the same time.

In a subsequent post, I tried to express the argument above the following more concise, logical form:
(1) Science is the systematic study of phenomena and
their causes.

(2) Psychology is the science that studies the
phenomena and causes of the phenomena of mentation, including will, and

(3) Free will is uncaused will.

(4) Therefore, psychology and free will are

(5) Christians believe in free will.

(6) Therefore, Christianity and psychology are

Again, I don’t understand how Christians can believe in psychology. Nor do I understand how so-called forensic psychologists can testify for the prosecution in court that someone could have chosen not to commit a crime but went ahead and did it anyway. How could any psychologist or psychiatrist worthy of the name testify to such a thing? As far as I’m concerned, the legal definition of “insanity” as not knowing right from wrong or as being unable to avoid wrongdoing would seem to apply to the psychological and psychiatric understanding of ALL criminal acts. That is, from a psychological or psychiatric perspective, how are ALL criminal acts not insane?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ethical Dilemmas

One of my favorite TV programs is 24. I know that it’s unrealistic that one organization, CTU, and one person, Jack Bauer, could succeed in saving the nation from diabolical terrorist plots so many times and all in a twenty-four hour period, but it’s still exciting TV about highly skilled people and an extraordinary hero triumphing over evil time and again.

In the most recent episode, CTU,
Jack Bauer, and the president of the United States are faced with a terrible ethical dilemma. Russian separatists, angry that their plot to use a deadly nerve agent against the Russian government and people has been foiled by elements in the U. S government, are determined to exact revenge by using the gas to inflict heavy casualties on the American people. They have many canisters of the gas, and they decide to use the first in a shopping mall filled with a thousand men, women, and children. Jack Bauer is working undercover with two of the terrorists preparing to unleash this gas in the mall. CTU, the president, and, ultimately, Jack Bauer must decide whether to allow the terrorists to kill the people in the mall with the gas so that these terrorists can maybe be followed back to the other terrorists and the remaining canisters of gas, or to stop them in their tracks. Of course, if they’re stopped, the other terrorists will be able to use those other canisters to kill perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.

What should the president decide? What would you decide if you were the president? The president decides to sacrifice the lives of the relative few for the lives of the many, and CTU concurs. But Bauer, who has seen the faces of the would-be victims of this attack up close and personal, is in a position to overrule the president’s decision or to go along with it and allow the terrorists to do their deadly deed. What should he do? What would you do?

I can think of an analogous real life situation that took place during World War II. Allied intelligence had broken the German code and knew when the Germans were planning to destroy ships carrying passengers and supplies from allied countries. The allies could have used this info to save those ships and many lives, but if they did, the Germans would know that their communications were being deciphered and greater harm could result than was prevented. The Allies decided not to tip their hat, and many innocent people lost their lives.

I would hate to be in a position of having to decide what to do in cases such as this, but I love to see fictional stories posing these kinds of
ethical dilemmas and to grapple with them in my mind and heart. Part of the attraction I find in this is that there seem to be no clear-cut answers. While part of us hungers for clarity and certainty, it would seem that part of us loves ambiguity and uncertainty. At least part of ME does.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I Feel Offended

I usually like to post entries where I am the one doing most of the talking instead of just quoting or linking to others. But now that I’m becoming busier with school and other matters, I seem to have less time to write as much as I’d like. Yet, I still like to post something interesting to me and hopefully to you almost every day. So, today I’d like to post a satirical piece by Sonia Mikich that I think addresses the Muhammad cartoon controversy with delightful astuteness. To pique your interest, here is a brief passage from her article:

Zealots are nailing veils onto the faces of my sisters in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are busy hanging women, homosexuals, adulterers and non-believers.

But human rights, women's rights and the right to liberty are the most exalted in the history of humanity; this is the tradition in which I was raised. Values that make the world better and more peaceful.

I demand that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Indonesia and Egypt apologise to me. Otherwise I am unfortunately forced to threaten, beat up, kidnap or behead their citizens. Because I am somewhat sensitive about my cultural identity.

I feel offended.

Fanatics are blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, marvellous cultural monuments.

But art is an expression of universal beauty and innocence to me. It is a value that makes the world better and more peaceful.; this is the tradition in which I was raised.

I demand that Hamas, the spokesman of the French Muslims and the Director of the Al-Azhar-University apologise to me. Otherwise I will never spend a holiday at the Taj Mahal, I will call for a boycott of Palestinian fruit and I will set the embassies of Tunisia, Qatar and Bangladesh on fire.

I expect understanding for this at the very least – my feelings are absolute and must be expressed globally.

I feel offended.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Christianity's Impotence

One of my many criticisms of Christianity has been that most people who call themselves Christian do such a lousy job of living up to the principles of their faith that it casts the truth and power of their faith in serious doubt. When I stated this recently in a message forum, someone replied:

No Christianity is not flawed at all. It is the people that are flawed and refuse to give up their lives of sin to be a true Christian follower of God's.

This is how I replied:

I disagree. I believe that conventional Christianity--what most people worship from reading the Bible or going to church--teaches about a God who doesn't exist; a Jesus who wasn't what he's supposed to have been and still be; a posthumous heaven and hell that are fictional and, in the latter case, obscene; notions of human nature, will, and sin that are absurd; and countless other things that are either implausible or ridiculous. Thus, it's no wonder that Christianity fails to persuade modern non-believers to embrace it, and to inspire self-professed believers to live by its principles.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Disgrace of Islam

Some European papers ran a cartoon of Muhammad wearing a bomb on his head and Muslims are on the warpath. Not all Muslims, mind you, but more than enough to strengthen my conviction that Islam is a sorry excuse for a religion. It isn’t just that so many Muslins all over the world are calling for wholesale jihad and beheadings when they’re not busy rioting or burning buildings. It’s also the fact that few prominent Muslim clerics have denounced the violence and that those who have appear to have been ignored by the raging masses.

Do these self-righteous zealots believe that this cartoon harms the great Allah? Wouldn’t that make Allah a pitifully weak excuse for a God? Do they believe it harms Mohammed? How so? They obviously see the cartoon as an insult to their faith. But why can they not see that they and the incredibly intolerant and unspeakably violent behavior they support or in which they engage directly are the biggest insults to their faith?

I try to respect everyone and everyone’s faith, but I struggle to restrain myself from holding Islam in utter and complete contempt. I see it as an essentially primitive and barbaric religion promoting primitive and barbaric behavior with built-in
barriers to its evolution into anything even faintly resembling a genuine wisdom tradition, its Sufi offshoots notwithstanding. If I’m wrong, let Muslims prove it by acting like people of God rather than bloodthirsty savages or de facto abettors of fanatical intolerance and savagery through their habitual silence.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Jules is a likable young Parisian mail carrier who does his job on a moped. He’s a peculiar mixture of idealistic innocence and hard-boiled realism. He’s also an opera fanatic benignly obsessed with black opera star Cynthia Hawkins. His obsession is so powerful, in fact, that he surreptitiously makes a bootleg recording of one of her performances with a high quality tape recorder and then steals one of her gowns and later pays a black prostitute to have sex with him while she wears the gown.

But little does Jules realize that his already unconventional life is about to become wildly and dangerously complicated. For two Taiwanese businessmen happen to be sitting behind him while he’s taping the diva’s concert, and they make it very clear to him afterward that they WANT that tape and will go to almost any lengths to get it. Why? Because Cynthia Hawkins doesn’t believe in recordings. She believes that capturing her singing on tape robs it of something precious and constitutes a kind of “violation” tantamount to rape. So, Jules’ pristine recording is a priceless commodity for unscrupulous persons who, unlike Jules, want to exploit its commercial potential.

Yet, this is the least of Jules’ difficulties. For one day while he’s delivering the mail, a desperate woman drops a cassette tape in one of his moped saddlebags just before she’s murdered, and some very sinister characters are determined to get it back and make absolutely sure that young Jules never tells anyone what’s on the tape. When the police become aware of this, poor Jules finds himself pursued by crooks, cops, and murderers.

Fortunately, he befriends a beguiling Vietnamese waif and her mysterious boyfriend who has a thing for Zen-like reflection and real talent for ingenious subterfuge, and he also enjoys a wonderfully sweet romance.

When I first saw
Diva in the theater in 1981, I was bowled over by its mesmerizing music, visual style, unconventional storytelling, and quirky characters. I wasn’t bothered in the least by the fact that it was a French film with English subtitles. That just gave it more authenticity, as did real-life opera star Wilhelmenia Fernandez as the diva. I also liked Frédéric Andréi as Jules, Richard Bohringer as Gorodish and, especially, Thuy An Luu as Alba. I have seen the film several times since then and enjoyed it just as much if not more each time.

Diva is one of my favorite films of all time. I give it an A+.