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Tony's Thoughts
Sunday, 29 January 2017
Links

I've been having trouble updating my website lately, particularly with adding new and interesting links relevant to the essays. So, I'll add them here instead (this post might keep growing as I find more good stuff): https://www.thebuddhagarden.com/nirvana-meaning.html; http://buddhism.about.com/od/Existence/fl/Nirvana.htm; http://www.deikman.com/awareness.html; https://www.quora.com/Is-there-consciousness-other-than-object-consciousness; http://newbuddhist.com/discussion/4783/what-is-nirvana-what-is-consciousness; http://buddhasrealteachings.blogspot.com/2012/01/four-noble-truth.html;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

 


Posted by tonygalli at 1:27 PM EST
Updated: Monday, 10 April 2017 6:11 PM EDT
Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Now Playing: Book Recommendation
I heartily recommend a book I just finished - Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1572246952?keywords=buddha's%20brain&qid=1456441417&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1)

Posted by tonygalli at 1:12 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 25 February 2016 6:09 PM EST
Friday, 5 February 2016

Now Playing: Anxiety

The psychologist Richard O'Connor writes in his recent book Rewire that: "The truth is that feelings like happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment are not the normal resting state of the human mind (mild anxiety is), and we have to make a deliberate effort if we want to achieve these states."

I don't doubt this assessment. But the curious phrase here is "resting state." How can a mind (or brain) be at rest and yet anxious? Doesn't anxiety denote, or is associated with, activity in the nervous system, corresponding with subjective states (mind) of agitation, disturbance, and the emotional states of worry and fear?

I think here the author is drawing an analogy with electrical current, akin to neurons that electrically fire on and off, i.e. action and potentiation, in response to chemical triggers. In electro-dynamics, to be in a "resting state" simply means to not yet be activated, but constantly ready to be. So a neuron (or mind-state) at "rest" is the normal state that is ready (i.e. wired) to fire. It's not what I'd consider a relaxed state akin to muscles, that is, the opposite of tight, tense, contracted, and stiff, or subjectively, the opposite of anxious. 

A resting state of mind, here, further denotes only one particular state of consciousness - the awake and alert state. This is the mind in survival mode. As the body-mind is inextricably bound to its environment, we can see that patterns of movement, behavior, and changes in states of energy in the environment (stimulus) cause activity and movement in organisms (response). The body and brain respond mechanically, chemically, and electrically to their environment (really, more changes in states of energy, i.e. patterns of movement).

Content-wise, the mind while awake normally scans the environment for potential or actual threats, focuses on problems and solutions, attemps to understand, organize, and conceptualize patterns of sensation and perception, to predict and control its surroundings, and it desires.

The interesting thing is that the brain-mind does this even when there are no threats in the environment and no problems in the present-moment. It doesn't often feel placid or totally at ease even if there are no immediate stressors. That it continues to be activated when there are none of the typical stimuli in the environment it has evolved to attune to characterizes much of the human condition. Even in an ideally controlled environment, the mind is indeed often mildly anxious and/or bored (boredom itself is a stressor; see this episode of Mind Field for an interesting investigation of lack of stimulation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqKdEhx-dD4).

There are more relaxed states of mind, both while awake and asleep. During dreaming periods of sleep, one can be more or less relaxed (and emotions, experienced even more directly than during most of the waking hours, due to heightened activation of subcortical regions of the brain, can be intense and often unpleasant). But the most truly relaxed, undisturbed, state is deep dreamless sleep. The body and consciousness are truly both relaxed and at rest in deep dreamless sleep. The body repairs itself and heals during these periods. Not enough time in this state, or in REM dreaming sleep, weakens our immune system and impairs brain health, emotional wellbeing, and cognitive performance during the day.

However, all of our important, meaningful, and intentional activity happens while awake (not counting lucid or pellucid sleep). And the quality of the mind during this phase of consciousness reflects, and is reflected by, the quality of our overall lives.

Different systems of Indian Yoga (including heterodox systems like Buddha Dharma and Jainism), not to mention other Asian systems such as Taoism, have means of training the mind, and show us how the mind, even during the waking phase of consciousness, can get out of the rut of perpetual anxiety and other unpleasant states (e.g. anger, jealousy, shame, obsession, etc.) Contemplation works on not just the delibilitating forms of anxiety that clinicians and psychiatrists are trained to relieve, but even the normal, every day type that plagues most of us.

This seems like an extraordinary claim, and as Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I don't know if the evidence is "extraordinary," but there certainly is evidence from medical and psychological research that meditation (or spiritual contemplation) helps with stress. And traditionally, the evidence, especially in Yoga and Buddhism, comes from a progressive system of inner (even outer) confirmation by the practicing yogi.

Yoga postulates that there is a fourth state of consciousness (called Turiya) that is like deep dreamless sleep, except that the person is entirely awake. In this state, one of aware, but there are no objects, so to speak, to be aware of. The normal frames of reference that exist in spacetime cease to apply.

That is a big claim, and yet some practicing meditators have claimed to have experienced a timeless, pure presence while awake (it may be exactly the same during deep dreamless sleep, yet, we can't seem to form a memory of it, or what it's like, while awake, whereas mystics and contemplatives do seem to remember consciously slipping into it).

Let's suppose such a state of mind is even possible (it may not be, admittedly). This would be a brain with very little activity, or perhaps less erratic activity. This would be a mind that is not only calm, but clear, able to reflect like a mirror. The mind does not have to do anything to be aware, awareness is its natural state.

In this mirror-state, reflection and that which is reflected are one. Everything is seen objectively (wisdom), and there is no agitation or aggression. It may be passive (the word passive related to pacific, meaning "peaceful," and indeed this would be an ultimate peace), though there is the activity of reflecting. Yet there is no conflict between reflected and reflector. There is no obstruction or any obstacle preventing reflection.

Subjectively, such a state is free of emotional turmoil, and there is no desire for peace or happiness when that is already experienced as the default state.

That, to me, would be true rest. And we can each get a taste of this when we notice the space between in-breath and out-breath when the body is still, and between the passing of one thought and the arising of another.

Some say that in that space there is a sense of bliss that's already available.

To quote Nisargadatta Maharaj:

"Be fully aware of your own being and you will be in bliss consciously. Because you take your mind off yourself and make it dwell on what you are not, you lose your sense of well-being, of being well... True happiness is spontaneous and effortless."

And also: "He (the yogi or gnani) is happy and fully aware that happiness is his very nature and that he need not do anything, nor strive for anything to secure it. It follows him, more real than the body, nearer than the mind itself."


Posted by tonygalli at 6:18 PM EST
Updated: Friday, 24 March 2017 5:14 PM EDT
Sunday, 5 October 2014

Now Playing: Excellent Book
I highly recommend Sam Harris's new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (http://www.samharris.org/waking-up). If you consider yourself "spiritual but not religious," and also have an interest in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, this is the book for you!

Posted by tonygalli at 11:48 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 25 February 2016 6:08 PM EST
Monday, 4 March 2013

Now Playing: More About Stress

This is from a psychology textbook Lifespan Development (5th Edition, Turner & Helms):

"Stress can be defined as the common non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it, be it psychological or physiological. Stressors are external events or conditions that affect the equilibrium of the organism. Put another way, stressors are those situations placing the person in a stressful state. For some, stress is self-imposed; that is, some persons worry about what never happens. Some common stressors include fatigue, disease, physical injury, and emotional conflict. The latter might include tension and frustration. Day-to-day stressors might include financial worries, relationship worries, pollution, pressures at work, and so on. Obviously, stressors become very individualized, and a number of them may be working together at the same time. One person's stressor may be viewed with indifference by someone else. In this sense, one person's poison may be another's pleasure (Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Noshpitz & Coddington, 1990).

Most stress experts (e.g. Insel & Roth, 1991, Smith & Smith, 1990; S.E. Taylor, 1991) maintain that different categories of stressors can be established. For example, social stressors reflect our interaction with others and might include such conditions as crowding, noise, or social pressures to conform. Psychological stressors create mental stress and encompass, among others, frustration, conflict, and anxiety. Physical stressors create physiological demands on the body and might include hunger, thirst, heat, cold, injury, pollutants, toxicants, or poor nutrition. Finally, endemic stressors are those situations that produce 'passive stress' because they can't be controlled, such as inflation or the destructive presence of nuclear arms.

Stressors should thus be viewed as conditions producing bodily turbulence or some type of reactive change that triggers bodily reactions. But we must acknowledge, too, that both good and bad can interfere with teh body's equilibrium and create stress. Eustress, or positive stress, occurs when the body's reactive change is put to productive use. For example, athletes often use the anxiety or tension in their bodies before a game as a method of psyching themselves up for the competition. Some researchers, such as Charles Caroll and Dean Miller (1990), feel that eustress provides interest, comfort, and excitement to life. It helps us concentrate better, focus our efforts, and reach our peak of efficiency. In fact, too little stress actually contributes to what is a boring and joyless existence.

Distress, however, is harmful and unpleasant stress. It occurs when the body and mind are worn down from repeated exposure to an unpleasant situation. In this respect, stress can affect the body's overall immunity, nervous system, hormone levels, and metabolic rates. Whe one's emotional state leads to real physical illnesses, the disease is called psychosomatic (psycho=mind, soma=body). Such disorders include hypertension, headache, arthritis, rheumatism, peptic ulcers, obesity, backache, skin disorders, impotence, menstral irregularities, and possibly even some types of heart ailments (Rice, 1992; S.E. Taylor 1991)."

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_A_and_Type_B_personality_theory
http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/general+adaptation+syndrome

The concern of Buddhism, of course, is not merely with physical health. Distress (or strain) is the acute problem that medical science and clinical psychology addresses. Buddhism, rather, deals with consciousness as a whole, that which is subject to constant stressors. Even eustress, from the Buddhist point of view, while contributing to an alert state of mind that is motivated to act (a useful, and interesting, state of mind) is not necessarily the same asNirvana (unbinding, full release) or Bodhi (awakening - calm, clear, unbiased, and awake).  


Posted by tonygalli at 6:58 AM EST
Updated: Friday, 24 March 2017 5:28 PM EDT

Now Playing: The First Noble Truth
What is the central idea of the Buddha's First Noble Truth?

I prefer to call it (dis)stress, although that doesn't convey the full range of uses of the Pali term used, "dukkha." But it is a reasonable enough translation of dukkha. Another, more literal, translation might be "friction," and a more accurate term to use might be "painful tension." Etymologically, it might also mean "disquiet" or "unsteady," and this is certainly related to the connotation of a bumpy ride, and the change inherently in life. 

The most literal translation of dukkha would be "bad hole," which describes a misaligned wheel axle, but that phrase is not particularly helpful (unless one keeps in mind the other Buddhist metaphor for this teaching - the turning of the wheel of truth, set in motion, which connotes movement towards a better goal).

Basically, dukkha refers to all conscious states that have an edge, that feel rough, sharp, contracted, constricted, and limited [to a self]. Dukkha -- biologically, behaviorally, phenomenalogically -- conditions us, and without it, we are released into a bliss and feel free. This is not freedom as typically imagined, the common fantasy of having certain contigent conditions in the world met or overcoming outer obstacles as such, but is a direct sense of freedom that in ordinary life-circumstances is inconstant and fleeting.

The actual discourse in which the Buddha explained it didn't state that "life is pain." That's how just it's been presented to non-Buddhists, mostly by Western scholars. Instead, he lists all aspects of life that are painful. The closest he came to saying that life itself is painful is that all (normal) association between sensory, cognitive faculties and the outer world is dukkha. But he makes it clear that clinging is the cause of dukkha, not life itself. The noble truths are thus an analysis of dukkha and its release.

The full sutra is here:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.

It's also worth noting that Hans Selye, the scientist who coined the term "stress" in English to describe a biological phenomenon (a concept taken from physics), said that it was a poor translation of his idea; a better word, for its negative effects on organisms, would be strain. More about him here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Selye.

Posted by tonygalli at 6:54 AM EST
Updated: Friday, 24 March 2017 5:32 PM EDT
Saturday, 17 March 2007

Now Playing: Redirect

I know I haven't worked on this blog in a while. I didn't plan on it. However, I thought if anyone was still coming here I should probably redirect them to the new blog I've been working on: http://tonygalli.wordpress.com/ 

Enjoy!


Posted by tonygalli at 9:02 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 8 February 2016 1:07 PM EST
Monday, 18 September 2006
Farewell?

I’m leaving the country for a while. This will probably be my last blog entry for some time, I don’t know how long.

 

No matter how much you love America, you have to face the facts. There is a growing debt, a huge trade deficit, and every day billions are spent on a military occupation of a country bogged down in sectarian violence. The war is beset by ill-defined objectives and virtually no strategy to achieve them. China’s population, wealth, and infrastructure are growing, and they are now a major player in the oil game (they also own a large share of our government bonds to help pay for the war in Iraq). In fact, it’s because of restricted access to oil in the past, during and after the Cold War, that they’re not growing faster. And the threat of al Qaeda, well… we all know about that.

 

For past empires, these types of conditions led to ruin. Given the individualism and ultra-hedonism in American mainstream culture, in tandem with reactionary, cultish religious fundamentalism, it’s hard not to conclude that the US is going the way of Rome. American dominance won’t last forever. I can only hope that the dwindling power and influence of America will not lead to international anarchy, and that America will be able to shape up internally as a result.

 

Whether America will crumble in my lifetime or not has little, if anything, to do with my going abroad. My decision is based upon personal circumstances and motivations (though my financial situation is certainly related to what’s going on in the macrocosm).

 

For over a century the US has been the land of opportunity. The right amount of space, capital, and resources make it very attractive to immigrants. As the debate over the swarm of illegal immigration from Mexico makes clear, we are still a primo destination for many. Irrespective of our social freedom, a wonderful constitution and bill of rights (which unscrupulous politicians never stop trying to shred), coming to America for many is simply a business decision. Sometimes our decision to let in political refugees has been a mixed blessing (we’ve harbored terrorists from Cuba because they were anti-Castro). We can be proud, however, that innocents who needed asylum from torture or persecution (religious, political, ethnic, etc.) have found safe haven in the US. Still, that doesn’t change the reality that America excels in economic power, and therefore attracts the bulk of its population for that purpose. As long as you’re willing to work, you can make money here. Sending a day’s worth of earnings back an immigrant’s home country, due to the conversion rate alone, can feed a family for a week in some countries.

 

The US has an immigration problem while some places have an emigration problem. This is proof to some that America is number 1. I have spoken to immigrants who love America, because things are so much better here than in their home countries, and I have also spoken to those who are miserable here, but aren’t able to leave. Commentators who assume that western-style finance capitalism is the absolute best system to live under do not even consider the possibility that some people, through no fault of their own, do not prosper under it, and that, perhaps in the future, if not now, there will be better alternatives.

 

Love it or leave it

 

I’ve often been irked by that statement. Are those two sentiments diametrically opposed? I can’t mention our problems and express dismay over the direction our country is going without being an ex-patriot? There are certain things I hate, and certain things I love. There are things I can appreciate anywhere, or hate anywhere.

 

I have expressed my patriotism by trying to make a positive contribution to American society. And if I live elsewhere, I can contribute, as best I can, to that society as I see fit. I’m not leaving America because I hate it. I can’t say that I’m brave, either. I’m not renouncing my American citizenship. As much as we’re hated, being an American citizen still comes with benefits and respect (or fear) in the world.

 

But I'm not frightened of going outside of the US either, even in the area I'll be in (South Central Asia). I'm excited, really. Some people never leave the US, or won't even consider it, because of their mental isolationism, the "golden cage" as the Peruvians say. But several Americans have admitted to me how they wish they could do what I'm doing, if they had the chance. I have that chance now and I'm taking advantage of it. How more American could I be?


Posted by tonygalli at 11:42 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 8 February 2016 1:02 PM EST
Friday, 15 September 2006
Soft Bigotry Deciphered

I was in the doctor’s office the other day and perused the June issue of Newsweek. I was actually looking for another article, but happened to come across George Will’s commentary on black militancy, dependency, and the soft bigotry of lowered expectations, based on a book by black writer Shelby Steele.

 

Will correctly hit upon a problem in American society in which people look for excuses to deflect personal responsibility (and guess what, white people do it all the time, not just those pesky minorities “looking for a hand out”).

 

But there is a lot wrong with this commentary. Identity politics does not hold that biology, or identity, is destiny because of a said groups’ inherent characteristics, but because of outward circumstances. It presumes that society can change, and so can the lives of those seeking more freedom, autonomy, or what have you. When it comes to race, assuming that it's a valid category and not just a social construct, biology can be destiny, a destiny of disempowerment. It doesn’t have to be. To be fair, identity politics can degenerate into a regressive psychology. (No matter how much is given, it’s not enough, society will always be wrong, because its purpose is to serve the needs of an infantile ego with unlimited wants.)  If it’s true that black militants and white liberals polluted the civil rights movement by defining black people as a collective, then why do the same thing and put the onus on black people as a whole? Rather than saying that black people should be more responsible for their behavior, we should just say that individuals period should own behavior.

 

According to Will, Steele's book argues that racism in the life of a black person today is an event but not a condition. This means that the playing field is fair, even if there are unfair events (and life is unfair for everyone, in equal proportions). Granted, racism is not as bad now as it once was. There are still outright racists, who sometimes harass minorities or commit hate crimes, but these incidents happen randomly and are condemned by the mainstream, unlike the days of yore.

 

The problem is that there are events in the lives of minorities that happen so regularly they often go unnoticed. There are inconveniences, which individuals cope with in different ways, such as taxis passing black people by while these same cabs pull over immediately for a white person, or black people being followed around in stores. The reality show “Black. White.” (I generally hate reality shows, but this one was one of the few interesting sociological experiments) outlined this. For example, the only black couple in a bar was also the only one asked for pay upfront with a credit card. If you are going to say that if the majority of crime wasn’t done by blacks, they wouldn’t be subjected to these conditions, you are doing the same thing you just blamed liberals for – treating blacks as a collective rather than on an individual basis.

Discrimatory events, whether random or regular, don't necessarily cause an individual to commit a crime. It may or may not be a contributing factor, depending on the case. That doesn’t even matter; it’s wrong because no one should go through that.

 

Worse than this, though, is being discriminated against in the job market, in housing (good neighborhoods usually = good schools for children), and for other benefits. This is more than just a trifling inconvenience.

To say that this isn't structural because it's (usually) not done on purpose by those in power who discriminate, and not part of some deliberate plan to disempower minorities misses the point. 

 

There is an unfair burden. In order to disprove a large standing assumption that a certain minority group is inherently inferior – morally, intellectually, spiritually – some take it upon themselves to be better just to be equal. Even though it's not PC to say outloud in American society today that a race is inferior, it's not a stretch to say that many Americans still believe it. Those in the majority might not want to believe that a race is inferior, but when they see certain behavior on the street or see criminals on the news they have enough evidence that, in their minds, lends truth to the stereotypes. Therefore, some minorities try to overachieve in order to overcompensate.

 

This can have two effects. One, it puts an extraordinary stress on the overachiever, maybe even causing that person to snap. To a racist, this is just more proof that the race is inferior, because even the good ones go bad. If he or she screws up, it can’t just be a person making a mistake, it’s a black person doing it. If a white person screws up, it might be because of other signifiers, but whiteness is not one of them. The second effect is that some of the overachievers might go out of their way to denounce others of their race in order to fit in.

 

Might Steele be an example of this? I don’t know. I wouldn’t say this is in the same vein of Bill Cosby’s criticism. I sense that Cosby really cares about the plight of black people, even if he views it as largely their fault. Steele is more focused on an ideology. Since he advocates individualism, this is less about the plight of black people as a whole, which, categorically, is considered dehumanizing anyway, and probably more about the author himself. He doesn’t want to be judged for being black, but on his individual merits.

I think that's fair, everyone has a right to be respected as an individual. The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also believed in meritocracy. But Dr. King also pulled no punches when criticizing the realities of structural racism, poverty, and even American imperialism. He may have had ties to the Communist Party USA, and was considered a threat not only to racists but to the greater power structure. He was investigated by the FBI, and some members of his family even believe that they had a hand in his murder.

 

However, I think "guilt-politics" can only go so far. I happen to think reparations for slavery are a very bad idea, even if well-intended. It is true that many in power today got there because of a legacy of family advantages, benefitting from both racism and colonialism. Even some conservatives admit that much. But individuals today should not take credit or blame for the sins of their ancestors or the injustices experienced by them. Instead, the focus should be on real instances of systemic racism that still exists, whether de facto segregation, racial profiling, or voter fraud and intimidation. I’m on the fence with affirmative action. If universities are required to eliminate it, then I think they should also eliminate family legacies.

 

While Will's commentary makes some fair points, in the hands of some this line of reasoning serves another purpose. It’s like when white people say “I’m not racist because I have a black friend.” It’s easier to shame black people as a whole if you hide behind a black person who agrees with you.


Posted by tonygalli at 10:19 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 5 October 2014 11:56 AM EDT
Thursday, 14 September 2006
Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning City

A few days ago I watched most of "When the Levees Broke," Spike Lee’s excellent documentary about the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

 

One thing the movie revealed is an underlying contempt for New Orleans. The outpouring of aid from compassion fatigued American citizens, a great example of a generous people in terms of private philanthropy, to New Orleans has unfortunately done little to alleviate their situation.

 

Why this contempt? Is it because it’s a city with a raucous history of bawdy fun or its liberal racial- mixing? Maybe during the Victorian era this would be true, but today you can hardly say that American mainstream culture is not oriented towards fun or pluralism. Maybe it’s because they are an overwhelmingly Catholic city in a Protestant majority country. Then again, I believe that’s true of Chicago as well. Or maybe it’s because of its French roots. The history of America involved the competition of three antagonistic European empires for land and resources – the French, the British, and the Spanish. Anti-French sentiment goes back hundreds of years. A more obvious explanation is the fact the a majority of the city is American-American. Certainly the high crime rate of New Orleans might explain why it’s not held in high regard, as well as its rampant poverty. We would like to forget that these are major factors of the larger American society. If the wealthiest country in the world can’t take care of its own, what does that say about us? Classism, racism, and to a lesser extend anti-French/Catholic sentiment, might be factors. Or maybe it’s something else.

 

The Konye West incident was a key moment in the film. At a benefit raising event, he went off script on national television and told us how he really felt – “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” If this was just a natural disaster, and everyone involved – politicians, the army core of engineers, FEMA - did as much as they could to prevent this disaster, it would be primarily a day of mourning, and shouldn’t be politicized by Democrats or Republican foes to score points. But it is political and it is a time for finger-pointing. Those who were supposed to protect the people of New Orleans failed them. It wasn’t because of a lack of money. This is a deliberate result of a political ideology that holds that the federal government should be involved as little as possible in the lives of American citizens. It translates as contempt for the weak and the actualization of life-boat ethics. Normal life is, for the most part, not a life boat. It’s not until people are put in life-boat situations that it becomes “dog eat dog” and the “might makes right”. Barbara Bush’s comment about Katrina victims making out well is telling. What’s more telling is her response to the victims. She gave money to business start-ups only if they bought her son’s software.

 

One commentator in the movie noted that Louisiana provides about 30% of America’s oil and gas, in addition to other resources, but the profits go to energy companies rather than the citizens of the state. Major corporations located in this state provide no revenue for it either. Sound familiar? Just imagine if the people of Louisiana decided to secede from the federal government. Not that they would win that fight, but it would certainly be understandable. I don’t advocate for war to gain independence, but if they ever decided to govern their own affairs and take care of their own, I’d say “vive le révolution!” 


Posted by tonygalli at 1:30 PM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 17 March 2007 9:09 AM EDT

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