The Philosophy of Success - Mark Twain As Antithesis

June 30th, 2010

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Last week I had my first introduction to the layered world views of Buddhism. Apparently there are six of them, each one introducing a little more more enlightenment than the one before.  Those aspiring to inner peace can ease themselves along the way by meditating on each worldview in turn and practicing its lessons in everyday life.

I got to hear the first two during a yoga class Dharma talk. I apologize to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike if I’m paraphrasing poorly:

Worldview one: Everything changes, or nothing stays the same.

Worldview two: The present moment is what it is and we can do nothing to change it. (Although how we respond to the present moment affects the next moment and the next.)

If something can immediately start to be dwelled upon I immediately began to dwell upon the practice of these worldviews. They seemed to have something to say about every frustration or concern traveling through my mind at the time and about every tricky situation I encountered from that point forward.

I was anxious, for instance, about the ongoing process of approvals at the New York City Department of Buildings (for our renovation) — the Buddhist worldviews helped me realize that I could not change the delays and hurdles, but that they would change with time. My daughter failed her chemistry regents and had to sign up for summer school — I was able to reassure her that this was not the end of the world, as it might seem, but just a modification to her plans for the summer, and a chance to get to learn a bit more about chemistry. And the England soccer team were knocked out of the World Cup after playing several lackluster games of soccer — a mediocre performance for my home country’s national squad; something of a tradition of late.

But while watching a PBS documentary about Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was born) I realized that not only frustrations and hurdles but successes and satisfactions are fleeting and illusory.

Mark Twain’s life story provides a template through which to understand the weaknesses of the capitalist, consumerist worldview that we generally find ourselves stuck in: The perceived rightness of our aspiration for wealth, power, leisure, fame.

Twain denounced and reviled at these aspirations through his words but sought them endlessly in his deeds. He was not a hypocrite, I think, but a man conflicted, unable to reconcile his pleasure in material success and its trappings with his philosophical wisdom about the ultimate futility of striving mercilessly to fix anything that would inevitably change.

He made a fortune, built a beautiful home, surrounded himself with his loving and beloved family, and in the process set the seeds for losing it all (by financial overreaching).

The first two Buddhist worldviews teach us that not only must we practice acceptance and humility in failure and frustration, but also in success and satisfaction. Once I have succeeded in surmounting the feudal bureaucracy of the NYC DOB I will become a landlord and a homeowner with all of the challenges and hurdles that will bring. Once my daughter has passed her chemistry regents she’ll be focused on getting into college. Once England has a successful soccer team again… OK, if England ever has a successful soccer team again its successes won’t last forever (that privilege is reserved for Brazil).

Mississippi Steamboats

Mississippi Steamboats

Near the beginning of the PBS Mark Twain documentary we learn that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) started his adult life working on steamboats up and down the Mississippi river. He loved it. He was diligent. He worked his way up to the position of pilot. He earned more than the president. Each day on the river opened up new worlds for him and he never tired of the 1200 mile weeks-long trip ferrying passengers and cargo. It was all he wanted to do. Life on the river was like living a dream.

After 12 years on the river the civil war intervened and Twain was forced to move on for a while. He never went back. The rest of his life was full of ultimately frustrated striving.

Twain’s life can be viewed as the mirror image of Siddhartha’s life. Twain started from humble origins, achieved great satisfaction and happiness as a young man traveling up and down the river, but left that behind for a later life of fruitless searching for happiness in wealth, fame and comfort. Siddhartha began with wealth and comfort and moved on to strive for happiness and satisfaction, finding it as a ferry pilot on the river.

If only we could reach back in time and introduce Twain to the first two worldviews of Buddhism. Read the rest of this entry »

Serious Souls: The Philosophy of Purpose

March 10th, 2010

A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen

A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen

In A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen give us a movie that refuses to be chewed, never mind digested. This is intended to be a compliment. A Serious Man has the substance of gristle. After gnashing on it for a while we try to remove it for inspection, hoping that nobody notices that we’ve bitten off something we can’t masticate.

Perhaps this impenetrability is the point. What could be more true to life than a work of art that defies explanation. Do the Coen brothers understand A Serious Man? I don’t know. Do they have theories? Perhaps. Are these theories exhaustive? Who knows.

The protagonist in A Serious Man, a middle-aged, married college professor up for tenure, starts looking for an answer, a solution, as the life he thinks he has begins to crumble. His pathetic fate, as far as we can tell, is both at once entirely his own fault and entirely unavoidable. In the Coen brothers’ universe being good, being serious provides no defense against catastrophe. And so it is in the real universe.

Thus are we thrust us headfirst into a contemplation of the philosophy of purpose as if into an oven.

We elected Barack Obama because he is a serious man, a man with a purpose. His purpose is to make things better for America and for the world we live in. (Many people would dispute this, I’m sure. But I’m not writing for those people, so that doesn’t matter. If you agree with me, you know what I mean.) We were sick of being presided over by a bunch of people with other purposes at heart, purposes less altruistic and noble.

As the Coen brothers wryly point out, having a purpose is no protection against the universe. As we have seen over the past year Obama’s purpose in all its forms has been undermined, denigrated, thwarted, and diminished at every turn.

But does this mean that there is no substance to purpose? Does the universal irony of inevitable failure, disintegration, and death mean that having a purpose has no purpose?

Cold Souls - Paul G And A Soul

Cold Souls - Paul G And A Soul

To answer that question I turn to another interesting movie I saw recently - Cold Souls. In Cold Souls those burdened by a heavy, angst-ridden soul can have it removed. Life without a soul, it turns out, becomes much lighter and more fun for some. What use is a soul if we only suffer it? The movie asks. But as Paul Giamatti discovers, he misses his soul, he misses the ballast of that inner weight.

And there is the answer, lying like a penny on the sidewalk, waiting to see whether it will be picked up. If we have a purpose, if we perceive a meaning, then this perception has substance. Refuting or ignoring that purpose and meaning denies the substance.

By analogy, physicists have shown that the apparently solid matter that fills the universe is not as solid as it seems. Not only is all material substance made up of tiny particles that are mostly empty space, but the tiniest components of matter present themselves as waves of electromechanical energy when we try to pin them down in space.

And yet to deny that the material world has practical substance would be to deny all of the information of our senses.

Matter is an illusion, but it is a meaningful, reliable illusion, one which shapes and defines our physical experience of our lives.

Having a purpose is the existential equivalent. Demonstrably irrelevant and illusory until we accept that it shapes and defines our spiritual or psychological purpose. This goes beyond cognitive dissonance. Denying purpose is as real as perceiving a mathematical absolute only to try to disprove it. Read the rest of this entry »

Valentine’s Special: Paper Heart & The Philosophy of Love

February 14th, 2010

Paper Heart - Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera

Paper Heart - Charlyne Li, Michael Cera

We’d had the NetFlix DVD of “Paper Heart” sitting next to the TV for a couple of weeks, never quite summoning up the necessary enthusiasm to stick it in the player and watch it. (I’m sure that others are familiar with this phenomenon — the movie malaise of not knowing whether one will enjoy the experience enough to justify the time spent watching.) “Well,” said my wife eventually, “Shall we just get it over with so that we can send it back.” Since she put it that way…

For me, Paper Heart turned out to be well worth the time spent. It is a mindful movie. The participants set out to make a quirky, deliberate, deliberative movie, and achieve their aim. Just when you think that no movie can avoid cliche one pops up that proves you wrong. (This has been a bonanza week for such movies — Paper Heart, A Serious Man, and Cold Souls. More of which in future posts.)

Paper Heart follows Charlyne Li on her examination of the question “does love exist.” She claims never to have felt love and to feel herself incapable of love.

In her pursuit of an answer two fascinating philosophical concepts pop up:

1. Is it possible for a person to find true love for another when the love is not reciprocated?

2. Is it possible for someone to lack the capacity for love (even though love, in general, exists)?

A positive answer to the first question might be rather unromantic, but I would say it is the correct answer.  If we consider true love, as opposed to infatuation, objectively we see that it represents an overwhelming interest in the well-being of another person. Here I use the term “well-being” very broadly. It includes their health and welfare, and their growth and blossoming. Our love reflects our understanding and awareness of the positive forces of life onto the object of our love.

This description is entirely one-sided. It doesn’t call for a reciprocation. Of course, it’s much more likely for us to be able to love someone and continue loving someone who reciprocates our love. But that’s beside the point.

And what about lacking the capacity for love? By our definition of love this would either mean that someone doesn’t perceive the positive forces inherent in life, or that someone perceives them but doesn’t or can’t reflect them onto another person.

So then, in fact there can be several reasons why someone would lack the capacity for love.

a. Life experience may have brought them to the point at which they can’t appreciate the positive things in life: Someone who has suffered misfortune, cruelty, or chronic depression, for instance.

b. Their disposition may make them incapable of reflecting positive feelings about life onto another person. A narcissist or sociopath, for instance.

But Charlyne was interested in something slightly different. She wondered whether something in a person’s brain chemistry might inhibit their ability to love. Why not? Despite appreciating life and other people the chemical impulse to love, for some, may be absent… An interesting thought. Read the rest of this entry »

Inglorious Decision Makers

January 25th, 2010

Quention Tarantino - Inglorious Basterds

Quention Tarantino - Inglorious Basterds

On Friday night my wife and I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Having enjoyed much of Mr. Tarantino’s previous work (Pulp Fiction, in particular) I was anticipating with great relish another dose of his enormous flair for form, pacing, humor, dialog, color, and hubris. He did not disappoint. Bloody, violent, and disturbing, yes, but a great treat all the same.

I had two philosophical issues with the movie. One quite limited and aesthetic, and the other raising a broader question. The first I will explain by saying that I prefer solid wood to veneer. Veneer inserts a fiction between the viewer and the object. Solid wood permits the viewer to see the object for what it is. Tarantino’s script rewrote certain important, nay critical, aspects of the Second World War. While a pleasing veneer from a plot perspective, his choice seemed to me to be unnecessary.

The second issue had to do with something more fundamental. Ends and means.

The script bristled with rousting “let’s stick it to those krauts” moments with its eponymous hand-picked cadre of scalping killers bent on instilling rampant fear in the ranks of the German army. But once or twice I wondered whether Tarantino didn’t perhaps want us to feel just as uncomfortable about the brutality of the good guys as he did about the brutality of the bad guys. (If so, the movie perhaps ventured into new moral territory for Mr. Tarantino, who has previously cleaved to the open plain of moral expedience.)

The Inglorious Basterds slaughter and scalp and leave bloody mark on their victims, and we root for them, don’t we? I mean they’re fighting against the Nazi’s, after all. Later we see the self-important Nazi sharp-shooter hero turned actor picking off allied soldiers in a Goebbels propaganda movie and we’re supposed to feel disgust for him, aren’t we? After all, he’s fighting the allies.

After a while there’s so much wanton mayhem on both sides that we begin to lose sight of who holds the moral high ground. I was confused. I got the feeling that perhaps Mr. Tarantino was confused.

Top (left to right): Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor. Bottom: Kennedy, Stevens, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas.

Top (left to right): Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor. Bottom: Kennedy, Stevens, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas.

But that’s not what I really set out to write about. I really set out to write about those inglorious basterds the conservative supreme court justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito. As written about in the NY Times, their recent majority decision on campaign finance puts the free speech rights of corporations and other organizations on a par with that of individuals, opening the door to an increase in corporate money in politics.

Lead dissenter, Justice Stevens pointed out that no new principle required overruling two major campaign finance precedents. “The only relevant thing that has changed since” those two decisions, he wrote, “is the composition of this court.”

The conservative justices sought to equalize the rights of corporations and individuals. But surely the freedoms of corporations or organizations should be distinguished from those of individuals rather than equated to them?

Society affords certain rights and privileges to its individual members by virtue of the fundamental equality it wishes them to have. This is eminently sensible. But to say that corporate entities inherit these same rights by default rests on nothing but a sleight of hand. Corporate entities or other organizations serve society only as far as they don’t impose on the general rights or wants of society. That’s why corporations are regulated, so that we can keep them in check.

The right of free speech implies the voice of an individual conscience expressing itself. Where in a corporation would you find that individual conscience? If it’s in one person, then let that person speak. If it’s in a board room, then let those board members speak. If it’s in the shareholdings, then let those shareholders speak.

Let’s be frank, corporate free speech implies corporate special interest. Permitting it willy nilly in politics further dilutes the voice of the average American citizen.

“While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Justice Stevens, “few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

Bravo, Justice Stevens. Read the rest of this entry »

The Philosophy of Moving

January 7th, 2010

Paul Bowles’ “Points In Time” (highly recommended) contains the story of a wise man and teacher who removes himself from society by leaving town for a solitary spot in the wilderness. Pursued by his disciples who beg him to return and quiz him on the reason for his move he answers by taking a glass and filling it with water from the ocean: The water in the glass, now removed from the turbulent froth of tide and rocks, stands still.

Not all moves promise such peace. Some moves seem to disturb a settled state and throw us into disarray - both physical and psychic. I’ve just been through one such move.

After seven years establishing the insidious sediment of deliberate acquisitions and passive accumulations the act of wrapping it all up and putting it into the back of a moving truck (or three) comes as a shock to the system. It forces one to face the weight of one’s material load. And once the trucks have departed and trundled off (in our case) to long term storage, it reminds one that one can go quite happily about with a couple of bags and a credit card. Could it be that we didn’t really need all of that stuff?

Nature, inherently, involves motion. Our existence involves space in three dimensions and time. Time intrinsically requires motion, and motion intrinsically begets time. A universe without motion would be static and timeless. And a universe without time would be… well, in fact, would not be.

For human beings, time and motion take on higher-order paradoxical significance. Modern life is fast-paced. Self-reflection requires mindfulness and quieting the mind. Lack of motion implies sloth. Routine can be numbing or reassuring.

The act of moving inevitably stimulates experience. And this insight, I now realize, prompted me to write this post.

Whether we go out for a walk, or pack up and move on from seven years of history, changing our circumstances puts us into new circumstances. And new circumstances confront us with new experiences.

I’ve noticed that I am keenly aware of my new surroundings. We haven’t moved far; I was already quite familiar with our new neighborhood before we came to live here, and yet I feel as though I am inhabiting a new world, knee-deep in an alien culture. Each time I leave the house and walk down the block I examine and dissect the subtly unfamiliar sights and sounds of storefronts, church bells, and passersby.

Even the garbage piles intrigue me. What are the unwritten by laws around here for putting your trash out on the sidewalk for collection?

This open and engaged state of the mind in motion, I think, emerges from the very nature of our existence as mobile creatures in a changing world. Our minds respond intensely to change because if they didn’t we wouldn’t have survived.

A recent finding by neuroscience pioneer Fred Gage would seem to underscore this. Gage has discovered that our DNA is not, as had previously been thought, identical in every cell of our body. Where does it differ? In the brain. Gage postulates that this flexibility in the brain’s DNA has evolved as a way of ensuring that we can best meet life’s unpredictable challenges as we age. See DNA Brain Differences

I apologize for the wandering nature of this post. But I like that it’s brought me here. All of philosophy is experience. And all of experience is the mind in motion.

PS. For a little bemusement, read this Op Ed by Nicholas Kristoff, paid for by the Costa Rican tourist board - Read the rest of this entry »

The Philosophy of Happiness… And Unhappiness

December 23rd, 2009

The NY Times reports on a study published in Science magazine that correlates objective measures of quality of life across the nation, state by state, with subjective self-reporting of happiness. The conclusion? Objective measures of quality of life correlate very strongly to the subjective measures of happiness. Sunnier, more easily livable states rank higher on the happiness scale.

As a state, New York has the unhappiest people, according to the survey. But if you’re a New Yorker don’t plan on moving out of town as a strategy for improving your happiness — Connecticut and New Jersey place second to last and third to last respectively. It’s as if the region lies under a big gloomy cloud.

The report though got me thinking about the philosophy of happiness. To ask someone to rank his happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, for instance, measures not his or her subjective happiness level, but his or her consciously evaluated perception of his or her happiness. Do these measures correlate? And what is the philosophical foundation by which we place our level of happiness on an arbitrary scale?

As always when faced with a basic philosophical conundrum I ask myself how Socrates or Plato would approach it.

The form of happiness seems related to the form of the good. We instinctively know goodness when we see it, but it is only by evaluating the bigger picture of what will serve us or society or existence in the long term that we can meaningfully evaluate goodness. So too, I think, with happiness.

Let me explain. First we must ask whether happiness can be said to me meaningful beyond being a state of mind or spirit. Is happiness intrinsically an end in itself, or can it be said to serve a purpose to us as organisms, as people in a society, and as a species?

If we simply conclude that happiness derives from some quirk of human and animal nature and serves no greater purpose than its own result, then we can end the inquiry here. But this seems short-sighted.

Surely something so rife and debilitating as happiness must have appeared as an evolutionary appendage to the human spirit for a reason.

And what about its corollary feelings - unhappiness or misery or depression - surely these serve a purpose, too?

I have come to understand that unhappiness is as necessary to the human spirit as happiness. Unhappiness results from a friction between how we’d like things to be and how they are. The outcome of this friction is the necessary heat required to effect a change. And the evolutionary purpose to this chain reaction is the overcoming of obstacles to our persistence.

So, unhappiness is not only a necessary condition, it is a useful and fruitful condition. Unhappiness, so long as it doesn’t defeat us, gives us the spiritual will and gumption to do something positive.

Happiness, on the other hand, arises out of satisfaction with the status quo. The evolutionary purpose of happiness is to induce a torpor of the problem solving spirit. “Don’t worry!” our happiness tells us, “Everything is fine; nothing to worry about.” Happiness tends to have a sedative impact on the human spirit.

So, in a ranking of happiness New York falls at the bottom of the list. So what? In a ranking of unhappiness, in a ranking of persistence and doggedness, of force of will in the purpose of overcoming obstacles, New York would come out on top… The lop-sided survey failed to ask the most basic question — is happiness necessarily a better condition than unhappiness. Surely us New Yorkers understand that life isn’t meant to be easy. Read the rest of this entry »

Please Use Good Health Practices

November 20th, 2009

YMCA Good Health Advisory

YMCA Good Health Advisory

Above every water fountain at the YMCA there is a sign affixed to the wall, which reads: “Please Use Good Health Practices.”  The sign, of course, should read: “Don’t put your mouth on the spigot.”

Herein we have a ready symbol for the current health care debate. As the government wrestles over a bill to overhaul the healthcare system we fear that instead of a clear remedy we will end up with an ill-crafted obfuscation.

The issue of healthcare reform seems to raise an interesting paradox. To a large degree a culture of individualism defines American society. The enterprising, disenchanted Europeans who traveled thousands of miles to endure the rigors and dangers of the pioneering life for the sake of freedom put their stamp on the country’s DNA. That spirit of individual freedom coupled with entrepreneurial grit has evolved into an expectation of choice and self-determination in all things.

We believe we have a right to buy something at free market value and we don’t like to be told that an item isn’t available or can’t be had, or is priced artificially high.

The current healthcare system does just that. We can’t go out and purchase the healthcare package that’s right for us. Most of the time we have to buy the one our employer offers. The current healthcare system is unAmerican, surely.

Here is the paradox; people who object to the process of healthcare reform generally do so out of a fear that it means socialized medicine… Whereas what we have now is totalitarianized or monopolized medicine.

But I didn’t intend this to be a post about healthcare (even though I have a cold). I was more concerned with the problem of the wording of that sign over the water fountain. “Please Use Good Health Practices.” Haven’t we learned anything in the last few thousand years? Wasn’t Socrates chiding us for such imprecise and literally meaningless thinking-turned-language all those eons ago at the ancient Greek equivalent of the YMCA?

Every child should learn good thinking habits. It’s more important than brushing one’s teeth.

Another case in point: Senator Joseph Lieberman — a man somehow innoculated against lucid thought — has described the Fort Hood shootings as a “homegrown terrorist attack.” What does that mean? How does that concatenation of labels get absorbed by the American people and by people in other countries? “Homegrown,” “terrorist,” “attack.” Each word carries heavy freight under mildewed tarpaulin.

I fear that Lieberman, like the sign-crafters at the YMCA, really intended to convey something much more directly but shrank from it, or chose to obscure it. “Don’t put your mouth on the spigot!” was the real message, or, in Lieberman’s case “Let’s keep a closer watch on the arabs in our midst.” Read the rest of this entry »

The End of The End

October 29th, 2009

I was happy to hear this morning that the recession has officially ended. I heard it on NPR. And you can clearly see this is the case from the graph below:


(The red bar at 2009 Q3 goes up instead of down.)

This is wonderful news, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The memory of this latest economic fiasco can now begin slowly to fade from individual, institutional, governmental, and collective memory. Oh, happy day.

PBS tried to throw me into despair on the night before the first World Series game by showing a documentary about the economic collapse that preceded the great depression. Those PBS folks are such wet blankets. Who wants to be reminded that we’ve made the same mistakes before and we’ll make them again?

In a related story, Professor Gordon Marino (yes, that professor Gordon Marino… what do you mean you’ve never heard of him?) tells us that we’ve lost contact with the exquisite malaise that is human despair. “If Kierkegaard were on Facebook,” he says, yes, he actually says that, “If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video,” yes, he says that, too, “he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.”

Soren Kierkegaard, being miserable

Soren Kierkegaard, being miserable

Marino argues that Kierkegaard argues that whereas depression is a mental disorder, despair arises out of an imbalance between our character and our achievements. If despair had a pair of arms and a mouth it would be shaking us and saying “wake up!”

So, how did Kierkegaard know this way back when, but we’ve forgotten it? (And here I’m agreeing that Marino and Kierkegaard are onto something.) The pressure to feel good has begun to stunt our ability to submit ourselves to self examination. Evolution in reverse.

So, too, with running, we’re told. Forgoing the opportunity to use a reference to the term gluteus maximus for comic effect (tragic in itself) Tara Parker-Pope in her Well column presents the intriguing argument that the human body evolved to be good at long distance running:

We sweat, which is apparently much more cooling efficient than panting (even though we often do both at the same time), and therefore we’re well adapted to running long distances without over-heating. And the gluteus maximus (or, big-ass muscle) is the biggest of our muscles but rarely gets fussed when we’re walking - it’s all about running, apparently.




How ironic that these days we generally take great pains not to sweat, and put our gluteus maximus to use as a cushion for those long hours of sitting while we avoid running.

It’s the end of the end, as Kierkegaard would have Twittered. But he didn’t Twitter, he wrote books and this is how he opened his “despair” opus:

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.

We forget history, but wring our hands at the tragedy of its repetition. We reject the rigors of self-examination, but lament endlessly about our fate. And we wonder why our ass is so big when we drive 0.2 miles to fetch a pack of Twinkies.

You can thank me later… Read the rest of this entry »

When Is A Door Not A Door…

October 22nd, 2009

Alright, it’s been way too long. I haven’t posted since June. And I’ve missed it. The process of putting together or trying to put together a coherent blog post on some thought-provoking philosophical subject is one I find very rewarding.

When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.

Top story popularity wise in the NY Times today - “Shouting Is The New Spanking” - appears in the “Fashion and Style” section but seems not to be recommending shouting as a fashionable nor stylish alternative to spanking. Shouting, we learn, is the recourse of those parents who wouldn’t let themselves spank or don’t want to spank or have no inclination to spank, but nevertheless get so frustrated with their plight as parents from time to time that they boil over and yell.

I’m one of those parents. I fall into the category of “no inclination to spank.” So, I read the piece, hoping to find out that it was perfectly OK to shout at your child from time to time (not so) or that there was an easy remedy to the shouting impulse (not so either).

I was struck by this quote from Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions: “As parents understand that it’s not socially acceptable to spank children, they are at a loss for what they can do. They resort to reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3 and quickly realize that those strategies don’t work to change behavior.”

(Ah, hem. Does spanking work to change behavior? Many of its advocates believe it does. And the sad truth is it quite likely affects behavior. Even a young child has enough impulse control or cunning to want to strive to avoid a physical injury. But, of course, at what cost.)

I learned that shouting is a problem I should be concerned about.

Next I found out that parents can be a problem that we might want to do something about. In the Mind section of the Times “When Parents Are Too Toxic To Tolerate” puts forth the argument that our relationship with our parents, those people who brought us into being and raised us in some form or another, might not be worth trying to salvage or put up with.

These two stories are, of course, connected. As a parent we cannot take for granted that we have a right to expect our child’s trust and love. And as a child we needn’t feel obligated to give our parents respect and love. The definition of parent and child imply these things but don’t require them.

Even a couple of generations ago, the preceding paragraph would have been familial heresy. Parents demanded and expected respect. Children believed it was their duty to respect.

And so to the economy. Op Ed columnist Thomas Friedman points to the educational system as a root cause of the current economic crisis (/ crises). Here’s the premise: American workers, in general, aren’t competitive enough because they haven’t been schooled to be creative and innovative. A quote: those who succeed in a tough economy are “actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want.”

So, the educational system has a problem. It’s not teaching some core skills. And recent national educational policy (no child left behind) seems bent on a different tack - ensuring that children pass basic competency tests.

Here we have three conceptually-related problems: These three issues that haven’t been sufficiently brought to light. In each, old thinking presents an obstacle to a solution.

Which brings me back to the subject line - When Is A Door Not A Door. I like this question because it forces us to reexamine our preconceptions. To challenge notions we hold onto to see whether they’ve been too easily come by. It encourages us to make uncertainty a daily habit. Read the rest of this entry »

DangerMouse And The Philosophy of Absence

June 11th, 2009

Have you heard the new Danger Mouse CD? You may think that you haven’t, but you have. (It sounds a lot like George Harrison’s 33 1/3.)

As a result of some mysterious disagreement with EMI, Danger Mouse just put out a blank CD. It’s writeable and comes with a book of photos by David Lynch, so not a complete waste of money. Perhaps it will inspire some to record their own music onto DM’s CD.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot (or trying not to think) about mindfulness — being in the moment. It’s very tricky. I realize I’m not very good at it, even though I would have expected it to be quite easy.

My own path toward mindfulness started with meditation and moved on to brain training with an extended detour into yoga. Brain training has shown me just how fleeting mindfulness can be. Some days I struggle mightily to hold onto the training sequences for just 20 seconds. That doesn’t seem like very long to try to stay mindful, but I guess it is.

I recently read about mindful walking. I’ve been trying it out. As you walk you try to keep your mind on your physical body in the act of walking. (It’s OK to pay attention to walk-signs, traffic and dog crap, too.) After a few steps I find I’m thinking about something else. At which point I start again.

I’ve been practicing being mindful while I give Otto a bath, too. He’s 14 months old and he enjoys his bath. There’s a lot to stay mindful on and for when Otto’s in the tub. He likes his yellow rubber duck and smiles when I make it go “quack.”

Mindfulness strikes me as a kind of antidote to our frequent absences from the here and now. We resort to thoughts of past, future, and fantasy as a way to avoid or numb the act of “being.” In meditation and eastern philosophy the act of “being” carries great significance and import. If we are absent in our thoughts we are in some important sense absent from the world.

But even the mindful mind cannot derive any substance from the act of being. Every moment disappears from us. There is nothing tangible to grasp. Mindfulness prods us with the stick of immateriality, of nothingness.

It’s here that I sometimes come full circle, knowing that we can be mindful of our thoughts, too. And, in some ways our thoughts present an aspect of existence that one can consider tangible. The rules of existence. Logic, math, relationships between objects, physical laws. The unchanging ideas of existence remain, even as the fleeting objects of existence elude us.

DangerMouse has given EMI a taste of absence, of lack — “this is the world of EMI without DangerMouse,” his new release says. Which makes me think that I have never knowingly heard any music by DangerMouse. Perhaps this CD is not the place to start. Read the rest of this entry »