Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.
Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another.
- The trolley problem is a well-known thought experiment, and its variations provide the source of endless discussion.
- However, few people consider the problem holistically. Would you actually be able to pull the lever?
- A new essay reminds us that many philosophies have a holistic approach to moral problems that we should consider.
The difference between thinking about the trolley problem and pulling the lever<p> Dr. Sin, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, argues that the scenario described in the trolley problem is not a mundane occurrence but an extreme event that will require an instantaneous response utilizing not only a person's ethical convictions but also their physical strength, psychological composure, and other capacities. </p><p>He turns to certain Eastern philosophies and their often holistic approaches to ethical problems to explain this perspective. The <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-zen/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zen Buddhism</a> of the Samurai and the personal philosophy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee as exemplified by Jeet Kune Do, both approach fights as "extreme events" which cannot be overcome by just knowing what moves to make. A skilled martial artist must also remain calm during a battle, be able to strictly concentrate on the task at hand, and be able to differentiate between the actions done during practice and what is necessary during an actual fight.</p><p>A great fighter is not just one who wins, but one who does so well, with masterful control of themselves and their actions as they engage in something most people actively try to avoid. Dr. Sin connects this multifaceted understanding of fighting to how an individual must approach pulling or not pulling the lever in the trolley problem:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "<em>The greatness or goodness of an action can't be judged purely by looking at its consequences, or by the type of action that it falls under in certain deontological categories. In addition, we need to consider the features of the moral battlefield that the agent is fighting against; these might involve how much blame/guilt that an agent is willing to carry, how demanding the situation is from the agent's viewpoint, how great the obstacles are for him to overcome, etc. In the trolley case, we can tell the difference between better or worse responses as some agents are able to maintain composure in an extreme situation and some aren't. A panicked or chaotic response may not mean much ethically, even if it saved more lives than it killed."</em></p>
Three philosophies and their stances on complex moral problems<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/yHcntfFN9FY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> <br> </p><p>Unlike utilitarianism or deontology, which are primarily concerned with showing you what to do in a particular situation, the philosophies Dr. Sin examines, including Zen Buddhism, Bruce Lee's take on Jeet Kune Do, and <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Confucianism</a>, often aim for the "practical refinement of life" rather than writing a decision process for difficult questions. </p><p>As Dr. Sin explains, this means these schools lend themselves to more holistic interpretations of approaching ethical problems and extraordinary events:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "<em>While Jeet Kune Do prepares people for a physical encounter with their enemies in the street, a bar, or carpark, Bruce Lee emphasizes the importance of knowing oneself through the confrontations. The </em><em>doctrines of Zen Buddhism were interpreted similarly by traditional Japanese swordsmen. But the practice and rigid discipline in Zen Buddhism is primarily proposed for the sake of self-realization: for practitioners to 'overcome the barrier between life and death (liaoshengjuesi</em><em>了生決死</em><em>).' Judgements about what people should do in particular cases stem from this direction of concern. The Zen Buddhists or traditional Confucians are not so interested in analyzing the balance of reasons in particular cases, or testing the consistency of ethical principles as such.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>In the Analects, Confucius sometimes says different things to different students, seemingly contradicting himself. But he doesn't really care about demonstrating the overall structure of his "doctrines." He cares more about whether his words and deeds can help improve his students' characters, or highlight their mistakes when they arise. For Confucius, the objective of learning is largely about acquiring the know how for someone to become a better father, son, minister, etc. Confucius, in his teaching, does not like to engage in arguments. He prefers his students see the flaws themselves in their own reflection and correct them silently."</em></p><p>When asked if the principle of treating some ethical questions holistically went beyond fights and runaway trolleys, Dr. Sin largely agreed. "You can say that all performances should be evaluated holistically," he said. "We should always look beyond the actions, or their consequences, and study the territory in which the persons perform those actions. By 'territory,' I mean the kind of people the agents are, their histories, other features of the situation that are pertinent to them."</p>
How can I use these insights?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/l0-6qTVTsxE" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Dr. Sin points out that many Zen monks apply this understanding in day to day life. "Some Japanese Zen monks adopt an attitude of seriousness to handle small things and routine matters. Apart from its intrinsic values (to achieve a small moral triumph), the practice itself is useful for self-cultivation."</p><p>There is no real reason that you have to be a monk to do that. He also suggests taking a look at the key texts of these philosophies. The "<a href="http://confucius-1.com/analects/" target="_blank">Analects</a>" of Confucius and "<a href="https://www.amazon.com/Tao-Jeet-Kune-Do-Expanded/dp/0897502027" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Tao of Jeet Kune Do</a>" by Bruce Lee, for example, both provide thought-provoking and useful ideas. </p><p> And for those wondering how a Zen Master or Confucian Sage might act when faced with an out of control trolley car, Dr. Sin reminds us that they would consider that to be the wrong question. "For, the 'solution' is dependent on the readiness of the agents in the case. As Nietzsche says, strong people can digest their experiences (including deeds and misdeeds) as they digest their meals. If the people are not ready, there is not much to be said here."</p><p>He went on to suggest a Zen monk might hit you with a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keisaku" target="_blank">keisaku</a> for asking and that Bruce Lee might see how you react to a fury of fists stopping near your face.</p><p>While it is entertaining and often intellectually stimulating to consider what the right thing to do in the situation imagined by the trolley problem and its endless variations would be, Dr. Sin and the thinkers he references remind us that it is often not enough to merely know what we should do but also to have the capacity to act on that information. A total response to the extreme situation imagined in the trolley problem will require various skills that may need active cultivation before such an event occurs.</p>
Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.
- Karma is not simple retribution for bad deeds.
- Eastern traditions view karma as part of a cycle of birth and rebirth.
- Actions and intentions can influence karma, which can be both positive and negative.
Thanga Wheel of LIfe
Credit: Adobe Stock
Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life~ Samsara Cyclic Existence<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="718d521d43514d90cde4e71649771918"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5m6Vge2JBFs?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.