Vegetarian Ideal

Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
- Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Golden Temple Pictures

Friday, April 17, 2015


Against Invulnerability


CreditTucker Nichols

Philosophies like Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, and possibly Epicureanism (the ancient philosophy, not its modern association with pleasures of the flesh) offer different ways of achieving such a tranquil state, and so they are tempting.
We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care.

Buddhism, at least in its official doctrine, argues that if we abandon our desires by coming to understand the true nature of the cosmos and follow the Noble Eightfold Path, the end of suffering will follow.

Stoicism similarly counsels that we rid ourselves of emotion, and similarly (but distinctly) offers a path of recognition of our place in the universe to help us get there.

...most of us, when we really reflect upon our lives, would not want what is officially on offer, but instead something else.

In their official guise, these doctrines are examples of what I am going to label “invulnerabilism.” They say that we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes. What is central to invulnerabilist views is the belief that we can extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us. We are capable of making ourselves immune to the fortunes of our bodies, our thoughts, and our environment, and we will live better or happier or more pure lives if we do so. Whether the task involves the abolition of desire, the elimination of emotion or the recognition of the ultimate oneness of all things, the guiding idea is that we can and ought to make ourselves invulnerable to the world’s vagaries.

For invulnerabilist views, what matters is only the present. After all, as they argue, the present is all there is, and therefore the only thing we can have an effect upon. Moreover, we can only be assured of having an effect upon ourselves in the present. Our effects upon the world are always uncertain.

The task of invulnerabilism, then, is for us to inhabit the present fully and without reserve, letting go of the grip of our past and our desires for the future. Only if we do this can we render ourselves immune to the predations of our psychological tendencies, tendencies tied up with hope, regret, expectation and mourning.

Invulnerabilism recommends that we secrete a distance between ourselves and the world so that ultimately it cannot touch us. The extremity of such a view can be illustrated by reference to the Stoic’s ratification of the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras’ reported remark upon hearing of his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” It is possible perhaps that some few among us can reach this degree of distance from the world. But the question is, do we want it? I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the death of one of my children should shatter me, even if it should not ultimately destroy me.

Most of us want to feel caught up in the world. We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.

Many people who describe themselves or their goals in invulnerablist terms do not actually live or seek to live that way. The official doctrines, the ones that offer ultimate peace with oneself, a place of stillness that cannot be shaken, are in most cases a misrepresentation of what people are like or even what they want.

Instead, something else is happening, something that involves some of the insights of invulnerabilist doctrines but does not embrace them in their official form.

The way to think about these things has less to do with the invulnerability promoted by the official doctrines, and more to do with, one might say, using these doctrines to take the edge off of vulnerability, to allow one to experience life without becoming overwhelmed or depressed or resentful or bitter, except perhaps at the extremity of loss. There is some combination of embedding oneself in the world in a vulnerable way and not being completely undone by that vulnerability that is pointed at, if not directly endorsed, by the official doctrines.

It seems to me that Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, etc. work not by making one invulnerable but rather by allowing one to step back from the immediacy of the situation so that the experience of pain or suffering is seen for what it is, precisely as part of a contingent process, a process that could have yielded a very different present but just happened to yield this one. This, of course, is not the official doctrine either, especially for Stoicism, for which the unfolding of the cosmos is a rational one. (Buddhists will periodically refer to the contingency of the cosmos’ unfolding; however, the concept of nirvana bends that contingency toward something more nearly rational, or at least just.) But it does seem to me to capture their common insight that there is so much about the world that we cannot control; seeking to master it is an illusion. We must learn instead to live with the process in all its contingency, even where we hope to change it for the better. And we must understand that for most of us suffering is inevitable. We can recognize all this and take solace from it without having to take the step of removing ourselves from the desires that lead to suffering.

For instance, I am a New Yorker born and bred, and have lived largely as a foreigner for the past two decades in suburban South Carolina. (New Yorkers, I suspect, rarely thrive for long periods outside the city, or at least some major city.) Sometimes I tell myself that my life is certainly far better here than most other lives on the planet. And this is certainly true. But it rarely seems to me to be helpful in those periods where I feel an exile. Instead, it leads more to an attitude of “it’s bad for almost everyone, except the lucky few.” That hardly counts as wisdom, and does little to comfort me. But suppose I think of it differently. Life is contingent. The very same trajectory that led me to South Carolina also gave me my family, my opportunity to study philosophy, many of the friends I have and much else.

Now it might be that a slightly different process would have led to a better life (in whatever sense of better one wants to use, which itself is a vexed issue). It also might have led to a much worse one. The fact is, here I am, with this life trajectory and these goods and ills and there you have it. Because that is how things work. This doesn’t make me immune to feeling myself a foreigner, and it doesn’t imply that I should not try to improve my life or the lives of those around me, but it does give me solace that exile is not all there is to the contingency of this life, my particular life.

Now apply that attitude toward a more difficult situation, that of losing a job or the end of a love relationship. It seems to me apt that these things should hurt more than the gnawing sense that one isn’t at home in one’s environment. In any event, I wouldn’t conclude that someone who felt these losses keenly was lacking in proper insight. But perhaps knowing that the world is contingent, that everything comes and goes, and that we have only so much control over our lives will help us come to terms with these losses, and while not draining them of suffering, remove some of the searing character often associated with them.

Of course this will not work for every situation. I don’t know how one copes with the death of a child, although people do. Nor do I think that this should be much solace to those who live under dire oppression or in grinding poverty. The cure for these latter two ills is a more just political order. But for those of us who find ourselves neither entirely blessed nor entirely bereft, there is something to be said for taking this perspective on the troubles that plague us. What I have argued here is that such a taking of perspective is not a matter of making ourselves invulnerable to the world. There may be those who seek invulnerability, and even those who achieve it. But for the rest of us who want something other than immunity, the lessons of invulnerabilist approaches should be something other than their official doctrines. Or, to put it another way, in taking on those lessons, such as a focus on the present moment or a recognition of the contingency of things, they should be seen as exercises rather than as goals.

These exercises help us live with rather than overcome what we cannot control, come to some sort of terms with what inevitably helps define us. But for those who choose to remain vulnerable, life is not and cannot be undergone as anything other than a fraught trajectory, one hedged about by an inescapable contingency, and one that is likely to leave scars alongside its joys. And for most of us, most of the time, we would not want it to be any other way.

Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author of the forthcoming “A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe,” and is at work on a book on life’s vulnerability.

Previous posts by Todd May.

Map: These are the world’s least religious countries

Photo published for Map: These are the world’s least religious countries

The world's most populous country is also the globe's least religious. According to a new study, 90 percent of all Chinese consider themselves to be atheists or not to be religious.
The survey of 65 countries, conducted by Gallup International and the WI Network of Market Research, is based on 63,898 interviews. China tops the list of the world's least religious nations by far; it's followed by countries in Europe — about three fourth of all Swedish and Czech also said that they were either atheists or not religious.
Although China's society has deep religious traditions, decades of Communist rule have installed a widespread atheistic materialism that still surprises many visitors.
Sweden's top spot among the world's least religious nations is astonishing, as well. The Scandinavian country has increasingly become more secular in recent years and observers have noticed a disconnect between the popularity of religious traditions such as Christmas or Easter and true religious commitment.
Only eight percent of all Swedes regularly attend religious services, according to the Swedish government. Its Web site provides further explanations why the nation is much less religious than its neighbors.
With its high numbers of atheist citizens, China and Hong Kong appear to be outliers in Asia. Western Europe and Oceania are the only regions where about 50 percent of the population or more either consider themselves to be atheists or not religious, as well.
In Western Europe, the U.K. and the Netherlands top the ranking, followed by Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Austria. In France, about half of the population is not religious or atheist — despite the fact that it is generally considered to be the birthplace of Western secularism.
With 65 percent, Israel has surprisingly many citizens who consider themselves not religious or to be atheists. According to Israeli newspaperHaaretz, atheism is deeply entrenched in the country's society. Many Jews furthermore practice some religious acts, but consider themselves as secular. In the West Bank and Gaza, only 19 percent of all respondents said that they were not religious.
The study also sheds light at other differences in religious habits that are unrelated to national borders. The survey's authors found that people younger than 34 tend to be more religious than older respondents. This is particularly surprising from a U.S. perspective where an increasing numberof younger citizens do not identify with any religion at all — contrary to older Americans.
The researchers also examined other variables apart from age. "Those without what is considered an education are the most religious but religious people are a majority in all educational levels," they concluded.
According to their analysis, education plays a smaller role in determining the religiousness of an individual than income. "Among those with a medium high and high income less than 50 percent say they are religious, against 70 percent of those with low, medium low and medium income."
This observation reflects an earlier study by the Pew Research Centerwhich found that a country's level of religiosity tracks closely with a nation’s GDP per capita. In other words: Richer countries also tend to be less religious than poorer nations. The only outliers of this observation were China and the United States.
This list of the world's least religious nations does not indicate a decline of belief. Worldwide, six out of 10 people say that they are religious. Most believers can be found in Africa and the Middle East where eight out of 10 people would consider themselves to be religious, followed by Eastern Europe, America and Asia.
"With the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase," Jean-Marc Leger, president of Win/Gallup International, was quoted as saying by the British Guardian newspaper.
Among the 65 countries surveyed by Gallup International, Thailand led the list of the most religious nations with 94 percent of the population considering itself to be religious. Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia and Morocco followed Thailand in the ranking.
You can view the full survey here.
Related on WorldViews
Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at The Washington Post.

Monday, April 6, 2015


the impact of meditation on the brain -- 11/3/14

Today's selection -- from "Mind of the Meditator" by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson. Brain imaging shows that when we master a task such as playing an instrument or the advanced performance in a sport, specific parts of the brain are transformed -- certain neural pathways grow and strengthen. Neuroscientists have now shown that the same is true for mastery of meditation with direct benefits for improving focus, overcoming depression, dealing with pain and cultivating emotional well-being:
"A comparison of the brain scans of meditators with tens of thousands of hours of practice with those of neophytes and nonmeditators has started to explain why this set of techniques for training the mind holds great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits. ...
"The discovery of meditation's benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. These studies show that when we learn how to juggle or play a musical instrument, the brain undergoes changes through a process called neuroplasticity. A brain region that controls the movement of a violinist's fingers becomes progressively larger with mastery of the instrument. A similar process appears to happen when we meditate. Nothing changes in the surrounding environment, but the meditator regulates mental states to achieve a form of inner enrichment, an experience that affects brain functioning and its physical structure. The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body. ...
A) 12 expert meditators had greater overlap of increased activation of attention-related 
brain regions. B) 12 non-meditators had less overlap and activation. Orange hues equal
higher correlation between individuals & activation. Blue hues equal little to 
no correlation between regions of activation.
"Neuroscientists have now begun to probe what happens inside the brain during the various types of meditation. Wendy Hasenkamp, then at Emory University, and her colleagues used brain imaging to identify the neural networks activated by focused- attention meditation. ... Advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. These effects resemble the skill of expert musicians and athletes capable of immersing themselves in the 'flow' of their performances with a minimal sense of effortful control. ...
"In our Wisconsin lab, we have studied experienced practitioners while they performed an advanced form of mindfulness meditation called open presence. In open presence, sometimes called pure awareness, the mind is calm and relaxed, not focused on anything in particular yet vividly clear, free from excitation or dullness. The meditator observes and is open to experience without making any attempt to interpret, change, reject or ignore painful sensation. We found that the intensity of the pain was not reduced in meditators, but it bothered them less than it did members of a control group. Compared with novices, expert meditators' brain activity diminished in anxiety-related regions -- the insular cortex and the amygdala -- in the period preceding the painful stimulus. The meditators' brain response in pain-related regions became accustomed to the stimulus more quickly than that of novices after repeated exposures to it. Other tests in our lab have shown that meditation training increases one's ability to better control and buffer basic physiological responses -- inflammation or levels of a stress hormone -- to a socially stressful task such as giving a public speech or doing mental arithmetic in front of a harsh jury.
"Several studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness on symptoms of anxiety and depression and its ability to improve sleep patterns. By deliberately monitoring and observing their thoughts and emotions when they feel sad or worried, depressed patients can use meditation to manage negative thoughts and feelings as they arise spontaneously and so lessen rumination. Clinical psychologists John Teasdale, then at the University of Cambridge, and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto showed in 2000 that for patients who had previously suffered at least three episodes of depression, six months of mindfulness practice, along with cognitive therapy, reduced the risk of relapse by nearly 40 percent in the year following the onset of a severe depression. More recently, Segal demonstrated that the intervention is superior to a placebo and has a protective effect against relapse comparable to standard maintenance antidepressant therapy. ...
"About 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced practitioners. These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health."

author: "Mind of the Meditator"
title: Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson
publisher: Scientific American
date: November 2014
pages: 39-45