religion

On The Better Angels of our Nature

I recently finished reading The Better Angels of our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined – by Steven Pinker.

Below are excerpts from this book that I found particularly insightful:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history…No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

Systemic cruelty was far from unique to Europe. Hundreds of methods of torture, applied to millions of victims, have been documented in other civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Hindus, Polynesians, Aztecs, and many African kingdoms and Native American tribes. Brutal killings and punishments were also documented among the Israelites, Greeks, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks. Indeed, as we saw at the end of chapter 2, all of the first complex civilizations were absolutist theocracies which punished victimless crimes with torture and mutilation.

He then outlined his three conditions for perpetual peace. The first is that states should be democratic. Kant himself preferred the term republican, because he associated the word democracy with mob rule; what he had in mind was a government dedicated to freedom, equality, and the rule of law…Kant’s second condition for perpetual peace was that “the law of nations shall be founded on a Federation of Free States”—a “League of Nations,” as he also called it…The third condition for perpetual peace is “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.”

An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy.

The vulnerability to civil war of countries in which control of the government is a winner-take-all jackpot is multiplied when the government controls windfalls like oil, gold, diamonds, and strategic minerals. Far from being a blessing, these bonanzas create the so-called resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty and fool’s gold. Countries with an abundance of nonrenewable, easily monopolized resources have slower economic growth, crappier governments, and more violence.

Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition…Another causal pathway is an increase in invitations to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike oneself.

Dangerous ideologies erupt when these faculties fall into toxic combinations. Someone theorizes that infinite good can be attained by eliminating a demonized or dehumanized group. A kernel of like-minded believers spreads the idea by punishing disbelievers. Clusters of people are swayed or intimidated into endorsing it. Skeptics are silenced or isolated. Self-serving rationalizations allow people to carry out the scheme against what should be their better judgment.

On a closing note:

Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.

A highly recommended read in the areas of sociology and psychology.

On Flow

I just finished reading Flow – The Psychology Of Optimal Experience – Steps Toward Enhancing The Quality Of Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “This book summarizes, for a general audience, decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience—joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow…This book tries instead to present general principles. along with concrete examples of how some people have used these principles, to transform boring and meaningless lives into ones fill of enjoyment.”

2- “What I “discovered” was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”

3- “From their accounts of what it felt like to do what they were doing, I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

4- “The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen. Instead of forever straining for the tantalizing prize dangled just out of reach, one begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living. But it is not by abandoning ourselves to instinctual desires that we become free of social controls. We must also become independent from the dictates of the body, and learn to take charge of what happens in the mind. Pain and pleasure occur in consciousness and exist only there. As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus-response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are controlled from the outside. To the extent that a glamorous ad makes us salivate for the product sold or that a frown from the boss spoils the day, we are not free to determine the content of experience. Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world.”

5- “Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized. As soon as it becomes part of a set of social rules and norms, it ceases to be effective in the way it was originally intended to be. Routinization, unfortunately, tends to take place very rapidly. Freud was still alive when his quest for liberating the ego from its oppressors was turned into a Staid ideology and a rigidly regulated profession. Marx was even less fortunate: his attempts to free consciousness from the tyranny of economic exploitation were soon turned into a system of repression that would have boggled the poor founder’s mind.”

6- “Over the endless dark centuries of its evolution, the human nervous stem has become so complex that it is now able to affect its own states, making it to a certain extent functionally independent of its genetic blueprint and of the objective environment. A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happy “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness. We all kn»now individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.”

7- “Whenever information disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals we have a condition of inner disorder, or psychic entropy, a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness. Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals.”

8- “Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasing complex that the self might be said to grow. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people. with ideas and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies. The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled. As the rock climber said, “You look back in awe at the self, at what you’ve done, it just blows your mind.” After each episode of flow a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills. Complexity is often thought to have a negative meaning, synonymous with difficulty and confusion. That may be true, but only if we equate it with differentiation alone. Yet complexity also involves a second dimension—the integration of autonomous parts. A complex engine, for instance, not only has many separate components, each performing a different function, but also demonstrates a high sensitivity because each of the components is in touch with all the others. Without integration, a differentiated system would be a confusing mess. “low helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony.”

9- “There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better. For instance, feeling secure is an important component of happiness. The sense of security can be improved by buying a gun, installing strong locks on the front door, moving to a safer neighborhood, exerting political pressure on city hall for more police protection, or helping the community to become more conscious of the importance of civil order. All these different responses are aimed at bringing conditions in the environment more in line with our goals. The other method by which we can feel more secure involves modifying what we mean by security. If one does not expect perfect safety, recognizes hat risks are inevitable, and succeeds in enjoying a less than ideally predictable world, the threat of insecurity will not have as great a chance of marring happiness. Neither of these strategies is effective when used alone. Changing external conditions might seem to work at first, but if a person is not in control of his consciousness, the old fears or desires will soon return, reviving previous anxieties. One cannot create a complete sense of inner security even by buying one’s own Caribbean island and surrounding it with armed bodyguards and attack dogs.”

10- “As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.”

11- “The same situation holds true for the artist painting a picture, and for all activities that are creative or open-ended in nature. But these are all activities that are creative or open-ended in nature. But these are all recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them. In some creative activities, where goals are not clearly set in advance, a person must develop a strong personal sense of what she intends to do. The artist might not have a visual image of what the finished painting should look like, but when the picture has progressed to a certain point, she should know whether this is what she wanted to achieve or not.”

12- “As this example illustrates, what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising? control in difficult situations. It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.”

13- “In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”

14- “There is ample evidence to suggest that how parents interact with a child will have a lasting effect on the kind of person that child grow up to be. In one of our studies conducted at the University of Chicago, for example, Kevin Rathunde observed that teenagers who had certain types of relationship with their parents were significantly more happy, satisfied, and strong in most life situations than their peers who did not have such a relationship. The family context promoting optimal d experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them—goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous. he second is centering, or the children’s perception that their of parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job. Next is the issue of choice: children feel that the variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules—as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defenses. and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.”

15- “Without interest in the world, a desire to be actively related to it. a person becomes isolated into himself. Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness: “Gradually 1 learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.” There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an autotelic personality. In part such a personality is a gift of biological inheritance and early upbringing. Some people are born with a more focused and flexible neurological endowment, or are fortunate to have had parents who promoted unselfconscious individuality. But it is an ability open to cultivation, a skill one can perfect through training and discipline. It is now time to explore further the ways this can be done.”

16- “Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.”

17- “To realize the body’s potential for flow is relatively easy. It does not require special talents or great expenditures of money. Everyone can greatly improve the quality of life by exploring one or more previously ignored dimensions of physical abilities. Of course, it is difficult for any one person to reach high levels of complexity in more than one physical domain. The skills necessary to become good athletes, dancers, or connoisseurs of sights, sounds, or tastes are so demanding that one individual not have enough psychic energy in his waking lifetime to master more than a few. But it is certainly possible to become a dilettante—in finest sense of that word—in all these areas, in other words, to develop sufficient skills so as to find delight in what the body can do.”

18- “But for a person who has nothing to remember, life can become severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that “rote learning” was not an efficient way to store and acquire information. As a result of their efforts, rote learning was phased out of the schools. The reformers would have had justification, if the point of remembering was simply to solve practical problems. But if control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort. A mind with some stable content to it is much richer than one without. It is a mistake to assume that creativity and rote learning are incompatible. Some of the most original scientists, for instance, have been known to have memorized music, poetry, or historical information extensively.”

19- “External forces are very important in determining which new ideas will be selected from among the many available; but they cannot explain their production. It is perfectly true, for instance, that the development and application of the knowledge of atomic energy were expedited enormously by the life-and-death struggle over the bomb between dited enormously by the life-and-death struggle over the bomb between Germany on the one hand, and England and the United States on the little to the war; it was made possible through knowledge laid down in more peaceful circumstances—for example, in the friendly exchange of more peaceful circumstances—tor example, in the friendly exchange of over to Niels Bohr and his scientific colleagues by a brewery in Copenhagen.”

20- “The bad connotations that the terms amateur and dilettante have earned for themselves over the years are due largely to the blurring of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. An amateur who pretends to know as much as a professional is probably wrong, and up to some mischief. The point of becoming an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals on their own turf, but to use a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills, and to create order in consciousness.”

21- “At the same time, it would be erroneous to expect that if all ill jobs were constructed like games, everyone would enjoy them. Even the mos favorable external conditions do not guarantee that a person will 1 be in flow. Because optimal experience depends on a subjective evaluation of what the possibilities for action are, and of one’s own capacities, it happens quite often that an individual will be discontented even with a potentially great job.”

22- “A community should be judged good not because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges. Similarly the value of a school does not depend on its prestige, or its ability to train students to face up to the necessities of life, but rather on the degree of the enjoyment of lifelong learning it can transmit. A good factory is not necessarily the one that makes the most money, but the one that is most responsible for improving the quality of life for its workers and its customers. And the true function of politics is not to make people more affluent, safe, or powerful, but to let as many as possible enjoy an increasingly complex existence.”

23- “Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal. There are three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations: 1. Unselfconscious self-assurance…2. Focusing attention on the world…3. The discovery of new solutions.”

24- “THE AUTOTELIC SELF: A SUMMARY – 1. Setting goals…2. Becoming immersed in the activity…3.Paying attention to what is happening…4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience.”

25- “But complexity consists of integration as well as differentiation. The task of the next decades and centuries is to realize this underdeveloped component of the mind. Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and from the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality. The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account. Recognizing the limitations of human will, accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, we should feel the relief of the exile who is finally returning home. The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual’s purpose merges with the universal flow.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

Flow

On Freedom In Exile

I recently finished reading Freedom In Exile – The Autobiography Of The Dalai Lama.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The fundamental precept of Buddhism is Interdependence or the Law of Cause and Effect. This simply states that everything which an individual being experiences is derived through action from motivation. Motivation is thus the root of both action and experience. From this understanding are derived the Buddhist theories of consciousness and rebirth.”

2- “It was not until I was given my majority that I realised how important my education was and thereafter began to take a proper interest in my studies. Today I regret my early idleness and always study for at least four hours a day. One thing that I think might have made a difference to my early schooling is some real competition. Because I had no class-mates, I never had anyone to measure myself against.”

3- “At the same time, I gave a short discourse on a religious text which I generally selected for its relevance to whatever else I had to say. I continue to use this formula right up to the present day. I find it a good way of showing that religion has a lot to tell us. no matter what situation we find ourselves in. However, I am better at it now than I was then. In those days I lacked confidence, although it improved every time I spoke in public. Also, I found, as every teacher does, that there is nothing like teaching to help one learn.”

4- “Still, I took note of the Buddha’s teaching that in one sense a supposed enemy is more valuable than a friend, for an enemy teaches you things, such as forbearance, that a friend generally does not. To this I added my firm belief that no matter how bad things become. they will eventually get better. In the end, the innate desire of all people for truth, justice and human understanding must triumph over ignorance and despair. So if the Chinese oppressed us, it could only strengthen us.”

5- “The more I looked at Marxism, the more I liked it. Here was a system based on equality and justice for everyone, which claimed to be a panacea for all the world’s ills. From a theoretical standpoint, its only drawback as far as I could see was Its insistence on a purely materialistic view of human existence. This I could not agree with. I was also concerned at the methods used by the Chinese in pursuit of their ideals. I received a strong impression of rigidity. But I expressed a wish to become a Party member all the same. I felt sure, as I still do, that it would be possible to work out a synthesis of Buddhist and pure Marxist doctrines that really would prove to be an effective way of conducting politics.”

6- “For this reason I have always been open to the discoveries and truths of modern science. Perhaps this was what tricked Mao into thinking that my religion practices were nothing more to me than a prop or convention. Whatever his reasoning, I now knew that he had misjudged me complete!”

7- “As I stood praying, I experienced simultaneously great sadness at not being able to meet Gandhi in person and great joy at the magnificent example of his life. To me, he was – and is – the consummate politician, a man who put his belief in altruism above any personal considerations. I was convinced too that his devotion to the cause of non-violence was the only way to conduct politics.”

8- “On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with Truth, Justice and Courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail in regaining freedom for Tibet.”

9- “This deepened my conviction that it is vital for there to be dialogue between Buddhism and Marxism, where it survives, as indeed there must be between all religions and any form of materialist ideology. The two approaches tn life are so obviously complementary. It is sad that people tend to think of them as being in opposition. If materialism and technology really are the answer to all of humanity’s problems, the e most advanced industrial societies would by now be fill of smiling faces. But they are not. Equally, if people were meant only to be concerned with matters of spirituality, we would all be living joyously all according to their religious beliefs. But then there would be no progress. Both material and spiritual development are required.  And humanity must not stagnate, for that is a kind of death.”

10- “There was certain amount of truth in what the picture was saying. Such facts should not be shied away from. Every religion has the capacity to do harm, to exploit people as this image suggested. This is not the fault of the religion itself, but the fault of the people who practise it.”

11- “These experiences of support, freely given by people from the industrially advanced nations, have confirmed my basic belief in what I call Universal Responsibility. It seems to me to be the key to human development. Without such a sense of Universal Responsibility, there can be only unequal development in the world. The more people come to realise that we do not live on this planet of ours in isolation that ultimately we are all brothers and sisters – the more likely is progress for all humankind, rather than for just parts of it.”

12- “Above all, he (Merton) helped me to realise that every major religion, with its teaching of love and compassion, can produce good human beings.”

13- “Overall I have found much that is impressive about western society. In particular, I admire its energy and creativity and hunger for knowledge. On the other hand, a number of things about the western way or lire cause me concern. One thing I have noticed is an inclination for people to think in terms of’black and white’ and ‘either, or’, which ignores the facts of interdependence and relativity. They have a tendency to lose sight of the grey areas which inevitably exist between two points of view. Another observation is that there are a lot of people in the West who live very comfortably in large cities, but virtually isolated from the broad mass of humanity. I find this very strange—that under the circumstance of such material well-being and with thousands of brothers and sisters for neighbours, so many people appear able to show their true feelings only to their cats and dogs. This indicates a lack of spiritual values, I feel. Part of the problem here is perhaps the intense competitiveness of life in these countries, which seems to breed fear and a deep sense of insecurity.”

14- “Whilst on the subject of the spread of Buddhism in the West, want to say that I have noticed some tendency towards sectarianism amongst new practitioners. This is absolutely wrong. Religion s should never become a source of conflict, a further factor of division n within the human community. For my own part, I have even, on the basis of my deep respect for the contribution that other faiths earn make towards human happiness, participated in the ceremonies of other religions. And, following the example of a great many Tibetan lamas both ancient and modern, I continue to take teachings from as many different traditions as possible. For whilst it is true that some s schools of thought felt it desirable for a practitioner to stay within his or her own tradition, people have always been free to do as they think fit. Furthermore, Tibetan society has always been highly tolerant o of other people’s beliefs. Not only was there a flourishing Muslim community in Tibet, but also there were a number of Christian missions which were admitted without hindrance. I am therefore firmly in I favour of a liberal approach. Sectarianism is poison.”

15- “In my call for negotiations on the future status of Tibet, I expressed my wish to approach the subject in a spirit of frankness and conciliation, with a view to finding a solution that is in the long-term interest of everyone – the Tibetans, the Chinese and ultimately all people on earth – my motivation in all this being the possibility of contributing to world peace through regional peace. I said nothing merely to criticise the Chinese. On the contrary, I want to help the Chinese in any way that I can. I hoped that my suggestions would be useful to any way that I can. I hoped that my suggestions would be useful to them (although, with regard to the future of Tibet, I nowhere spoke to the question of sovereignty) and Peking moved swiftly to denounce my speech in strong terms.”

16- “However, in as much as I have any political allegiance, I suppose I am still half Marxist. I have no argument with Capitalism, so long as it is practised in a humanitarian fashion, but my religious beliefs dispose me far more towards Socialism and Internationalism, which are more in line with Buddhist principles. The other attractive thing about Marxism for me is its assertion that man is ultimately responsible for his own destiny. This reflects Buddhist thought exactly. Against this, I set the fact that those countries which pursue Capitalist policies within a democratic framework are much freer than those which pursue the Communist ideal. So ultimately I am in favour of humanitarian government, one which aims to serve the whole community: the young, the old and the disabled, as much i as those who can be directly productive members of society.”

17- “I believe that this suffering is caused by ignorance, and that people, inflict pain on others in pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through cultivation of altruism, of love, of compassion, and through the elimination of anger, selfishness and greed. To some people this may sound naive, but I would remind them that, no matter what part of the world we come from, fundamentally we are all the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic needs and concerns. Furthermore, all of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals. That is human nature. The great changes taking place everywhere in the world, from Eastern Europe to Africa, are a clear indication of this.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

Freedom in Exile