Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Happiness and Virtue

   The connection between happiness and virtue occurs again and again across time and cultures. Aristotle saw happiness as the result of cultivation and use of virtue, his golden mean was similar to the Buddhist middle way. Many of the readings in I Ching emphasize the importance of being “Blame free” and working for the good of all. Modern brain science confirms what the philosophers observed. The chemicals secreted when we are giving to others were the subject of an article in Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201404/the-neuroscience-giving

   I appreciated that the article treated smiling at another person as an act of kindness and it’s certainly the most available. I was about to call it the easiest but actually that wouldn’t be true. it takes some effort and a little courage to jump into another’s space and risk rebuff but if a person is willing to meet your eye they usually smile back. And the person who doesn’t see you at all has made they’re judgment known, and it wasn’t personal because they didn’t see you in the first place. When I give money to a beggar it’s more important to me to give them a chance to talk and be seen, the dollar is just an excuse to offer some compassion. I almost always feel good afterward. In terms of brain chemistry giving  increases oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) primarily associated with mother/child bonding, which strengthens connections to others. This increases dopamine and serotonin. The resulting increase in empathy builds our ability to read the intentions of others, a powerful executive function. Not only does it feel good, it makes us smarter.
  Other studies have shown we also stimulate endorphins when we are kind. The pleasure we feel keeps us doing it. The chemistry is there to keep us in harmony with others and recognize it as our own benefit. Could the rampant unhappiness in today’s world have to do with the culture’s encouragement of antagonism and judgment? Choosing targets responsible for our unhappiness rather than the roots in ourselves never solves the unhappiness. Judging others is just a way of pushing ourselves up a notch, an expression of the ego at the base of our suffering. But the more we judge others the more harshly we judge ourselves. The Buddha linked compassion to happiness, both in the ability to bring happiness to another and in the feelings generated by the encouraging brain chemistry.

   Another way we give is through our work. Whatever it is, it is something we contribute. Finding something that absorbs our interest develops and strengthens the frontal cortex which is richly connected to the pleasure centers. In a ted talk, Elyn Sachs said the best defense against mental illness is an absorbing project. It’s confirmed by my own experience and my sense that happiness involves sending attention outward. The more attention we give the more it gives back.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Cosmic Well

Shifting Images

    If we thought of ourselves as significant parts of a larger whole, why would we chew on our own foot? The current widespread inability to care about other people and the planet is because they are seen as outside and other. Unacknowledged fears and dissatisfactions attach to the outside other creating the illusion we know where the danger is. The devouring of the weak by the strong is the animal tendency that the first law in human history, the Code of Hammurabi, was written to prevent. A righteous society kept the strong from harming the weak. This was seen as the step needed to transcend our animal nature. As Eldridge Cleaver wrote, “Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle. Cooperation is the law of civilization.”
     In a specific section “the Code” recognized and penalized unproven slander, that human tendency to call out those faults they themselves possess. I’ve come across this observation in Marcus Aurelius, Marcel Proust and Willa Cather and psychology. Look at current public figures for plenty of examples.
      A precept found in all religions says treat people the way you would like to be treated. I think of it as the law of the mirror neurons, empathy cells, they are sometimes called. We understand what hurts others through our own feelings so damaging others requires ignorance of personal feelings. Prejudice and antagonism can’t be solved with a surface veneer of proper behavior. It requires psychological self-awareness, seeing the things we fault in others as the things within ourselves we need to recognize and master.
     Spending time every week working with the I Ching is my tool for self-development. Its good advice on how to be a “superior person”  is entirely dependent on the qualities in yourself you cultivate, where you give time and attention. This is actually strengthening those qualities in the circuits of the brain so it becomes second nature. To build on your own best qualities creates the self-respect necessary to respect others.
     Respect for every individual creates harmony. Dividing things into categories divides us into groups that emphasize the differences. Labels deplete meaning and sever connections between people. When we call courtesy “Political Correctness”, it turns the virtue into something scorned. With categories, you get sorting and ranking, preferred and privileged, and the association with labels and brands that keep attention on the surface.

    Images communicate through commonality, the way we all respond to what we see. The meaning depends on the whole context and each person gets their version of the same essence, the different details of life unified by the shared patterns of experience. Artists can provide unifying images that offer a visual truth about our connectedness. Though we may be an individual nest of skin containing organs, we are nested in a family, in a community, in a region all the way out to our shared planetary nest which contains us all. We are responsible for the condition of our nest, and with the right images we can change the way we see.

Monday, August 28, 2017


Where is the Well

    Labels are proliferating regarding what people call themselves, and each is an act of division separating human individuals into generalized groups. The lens of categories leaves out the essence of the human experience, the concepts that are universally understood and by which we understand each other. In the ancient Chinese I Ching it says,

     “However people may differ in disposition and education, the foundations of human nature are the same in everyone. And every human being can draw in the course of their education from the inexhaustible wellspring of the divine in human nature….but we may fail, in our education, to penetrate the real roots of humanity and remain fixed in convention, or collapse and neglect self-development.”*
 The limited definitions that go with the labels and categories can’t begin to describe the 360 degrees of experience or the deep well of human potential. Images do it better. Our feelings choose what we see, so our choice of what we look at reflects our current inner world. Words may be markers for the types of things we talk about but, except in literature, don’t convey the nature of experience. Art is an opening to the well, the connection to what will nourish in a way that develops the individual. It communicates through the universal metaphor of where we are and the condition illuminated is understood by all human beings because we’re built to move around in the world for the same reasons and by the same mechanisms. We see the state of balance and the trajectories of moving objects and know what to do in relation to them. The parietal lobes are dedicated to the core consciousness of where we are, processing a visual/kinesthetic understanding. From infancy, we learn the way the world behaves in a commonsense physics that becomes so automatic it’s taken for granted, yet it’s a complex multifaceted intelligence at the foundation of conceptual knowledge. Cultivating that level of understanding is a way to build on our commonality. Human differences are just the skin of who we are. Labeling all the differences emphasizes divisions that are small given the foundation we share.
    The particular details of every person’s life are varied, but they are structured by shared ways of living. The locations of our memories may look very different but the similar patterns of satisfying basic needs are common to us all. The pattern of home, the pattern of school, work, social gathering, create common circuitry through the way we function within them. Given an image of a nest, we understand its meaning by the condition of the nest, what is or is not there that is significant. Understanding the meaning of surroundings and the metaphor of where we are is developed by looking at art. This builds the circuits of visual sensitivity and triggers personal reflection that connects with universal human meaning structure. It needs no translation and creates bridges where words cannot.

*from Hexagram 48  Ching   The Well