Jewellery

Ornaments are an important part of nature. Flowers use them to attract bees. Birds use them to attract mates. Frogs use them as protection from predators. It is therefore not very surprising that jewellery, face painting, tattoos and other ornamental devices are one of the many things which are shared by all know human cultures.

I often talk about spiritual values and the spiritual dimension of our existence and how it is an important part of living our life fully. Beauty and art are important bridges to the spiritual world and jewellery and other ornaments can convey beauty, and we should embrace them as valuable enrichment of our lives.

Unfortunately jewellery is often used for other purposes than to delight our aesthetic and spiritual senses. The most important of these is the visual expression of power since jewellery is not chosen for its aesthetic value alone but for how expensive it is.

If I wear an expensive piece of jewellery that you cannot afford, it shows that I have more ability to purchase – or obtain in other ways – things which you cannot. If you give me an expensive piece of jewellery as a present, it shows my power over you and you transfer me some power in form of the monetary value of the item.

This function speaks to our primate mind, which we are not guilty of possessing (since Nature has bestowed it upon us) but which we are guilty of not recognising and aspiring to transcend.

Just think about diamonds. I won’t say that diamonds are not beautiful – they are wonderful creations of Nature – but I am puzzled why other precious stones are not used as often in making jewellery; since they are just as beautiful to me. The same goes for gold. Sure it is pretty but other metals and materials are just as capable of delighting our eye.

Jewellery is often made from gold and diamonds since these are expensive. Which shows that the contemporary jewellery is often not in ornament but used as expression of power. The problem with that is that jewellery as power display does not enrich our live or the lives of others.

It does have costs for us, though. Firstly, we need to use our money to purchase it and thus cannot use the money for something more wholesome and valuable. Secondly, mining for jewellery and gold comes along with major environmental destruction.

Imagine a world where we create jewellery for its beauty; where the bulk of its costs goes to artists for their creativity; where we use it as a way to express our individual personality rather than all wearing pieces that essentially look the same safe for them using different amounts of expensive material.

We do not benefit from gold and diamonds. Corporations are. Sure your wife or girlfriend will be happy if she receives a nice piece of jewellery from you. Sure that happiness is often based on how expensive that piece was. But maybe you can think of another present; one that does not come along with environmental harm and that complements her as a person. If you are a potential receiver of jewellery as a present, think if you really need it or if there are other things (or actions) which might make you just as happy, or maybe even more happy, than receiving certain stone on a certain piece of metal.

Image credit: Nawalescape

Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

One of the marks of an expert is the knowledge of vocabulary within a specific domain and the ability to apply this vocabulary effectively and precisely. Listing to two engineers talk about the construction of a bridge, we would not understand much of their conversation, as long as we not happen to be a structural engineer ourselves.

If we are seeking a more meaningful and fulfilled life, we need to become experts in the field of language that will help us in this quest. I think that pleasure, joy and happiness are among the most important words we need to gain a good understanding of and I will provide a discussion of these in the following.

It must be noted here, that unlike terms used in engineering, there is no one true definition of what pleasure, joy and happiness mean. There are various conflicting understandings and in this article I am not claiming to be able to provide one universally agreed definition. Instead, I aim to provide a useful definition. One that is best suited to aid us in understanding ourselves and help us become more enlightened and fulfilled.

Pleasure

I define pleasure as a feeling of sensual gratification. You drink a class of cold water after a long walk on a hot, dry day. You eat a most pleasant meal after a time of fasting. You have good sex.

Pleasure is rooted deeply in our biology and is used as the ‘carrot’ by our biology to make us do what is good for our survival, well-being and procreation of our genes. Pleasure is easily exhausted. It is most pleasurable to drink one glass of cold water when one is thirsty, but a second, third, fourth and fifth glass quickly bring diminishing pleasure returns for us.

Joy

I define joy as a feeling of temporary elation caused by something we are experiencing. You see the sunrise over the ocean. You win the lottery. You have passed an exam. You have solved an equation.

Joy is not a reward from our reptile brains, as pleasure is, but related to our perceptions of what is good and beautiful. Joy, though, is not good in itself. Joy may be misguided, such as exemplified in the word schadenfreude, the joy at the misfortune of someone else.

Happiness

I define happiness as a lasting inner state of calm and contentment. While pleasure and joy are short-lived and intense, the feeling of happiness permeates every moment of our lives, for days, months or decades. You have a happy marriage. You love your job. You have found your purpose in life.

It has been found we have a base level of happiness determined by our biology and the culture in which we live in. However, I do believe that there are things in life we can do to become more happy and content with our lives, chiefly by finding and following a purpose and by a better understanding of our feelings, such as by meditation.

If I was to rank, pleasure, joy and happiness, I would say that happiness is the feeling which is most aligned with the goal of seeking a meaningful life and enlightenment. Pleasure is the feeling which has the greatest potential to steer us off the paths of enlightenment and betterment. Joy would sit somewhere in between these.

However, that being said, I don’t think we should try to eliminate pleasure or joy from our lives. They are a gift to us, they can provide us with energy and motivation for taking on the challenges of our lives.

In the beginning of this article, I have stated to goal to come up with a definition for pleasure, joy and happiness that is useful. I think the definitions provide above are useful, in that they can direct us in how to approach each of these emotions: For happiness, I think we should not be afraid that we may find too much of it and try to bring plenty of it into our lives; we should seek pleasure in moderation; and make sure that we embrace the right kind of joy, joy at things which guide us and others on a path to happiness.

Image credit: torbakhopper

Celebrity, Public Attention and Those That Do Good

It is without a doubt that not all of us attract the same amount of attention in the public eye. Those which hold positions of power in industry or government, those which are successful in sports or the arts, those which do especially heinous crimes and those which are rich (and good-looking) dominate mass and social media.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that; especially those which have power over the public should certainly be given plenty of attention, in particular to assess whether they are using their power in a good way.

However, there is a kind of people I believe receive far too little attention in our current society: those who do good, those who sacrifice their lives for others, in the small and in the big.

Can you name any human rights lawyer? Can you name any volunteer at a homeless shelter? Can you name anyone who fosters troublesome children? Most likely not; because mass and social media do not give attention to those who attempt their best to do something in the interest of others.

However, I think these are the heroes, these are the stars we should celebrate; because these are the people which enable our life of peace and prosperity; these are the people which build the foundation of a healthy and pleasant to live in society.

I think it would be amazing if we could build a repository of stories of those which have fostered goodness in their lives so that we can look up to them, be inspired and follow their example. Also it would be amazing if our mass and social media would apply a ‘values filter’; which highlights those stories which help to promote goodness in the world, rather than a ‘profit filter’; which highlights those stories which bring profit (since they attract the most readers/viewers).

What I have Learned from Crusader Kings 2

We often find ourselves in discussions if activities such as reading, watching TV, browsing the Internet or playing video games are good for you or not. I think this is like asking if a government is a good thing or not. The question is for the most part pointless since it doesn’t matter so much if we do have a government or not but what kind of government it is.

The same is true for reading. You can read hundreds of books and not enrich your life by a penny. Conversely, just reading one book might change your life forever. The same principle applies to playing computer games. Like any form of art, they are very varied and some games might provide us with more benefits than others.

Recently I spent some time playing the game Crusader Kings 2. Personally I found this to be quite an enriching experience. I am certain not everyone will feel this way – but for me it was true. Here I want to list some of the things I have learned while playing this game:

One Life Doesn’t Amount to Much

In Crusader Kings 2 you follow the path of a dynasty in Medieval Europe. The game does not end when your character dies but when a certain date is reached or your whole dynasty has become extinct. That notwithstanding you always play as one particular character. When that character dies, you start playing as another one (your son or daughter, for instance).

By the end of the game, you might have played as dozens of different characters. One starts to understand that history is not shaped by any one life but by many. Even if one manages to achieve the most outstanding in one lifetime, it will only be a drop in the ocean of history. Moreover, no matter the achievement, one is always sure to perish.

A Deeper Understanding of the Political System in Medieval Europe

I always thought of medieval Europe as a kind of Wild West where the law of the strongest ruled supreme. However, playing Crusader Kings 2 made me realise that the political system governing Europe was in fact very static and rule based.

For instance, even if one has a stronger army than rulers in all surrounding territories, one cannot simply conquer them. It is only possible to invade other territories when one has a valid ‘casus belli’ – a justification for war. For instance, if my brother inherits the kingdom of England and I get nothing, well, I will have a valid reason to claim the throne for myself.

With a powerful army and no valid justification for war, power cannot be expanded. Likewise a valid justification without a powerful army will not yield any advantage. Only the combination of the two provides the necessary means to overpower ones opponents.

Power is Always a Balancing Act

A very important concept of the games is the management of vassals. For instance, a king might rule multiple dukes, which in turn rule over multiple counts. Vassals will provide their ruler with an army levy and/or taxes. The more powerful a vassal is, the more soldiers and income they provide.

However, as useful as powerful vassals can be, as dangerous they can be as well. Vassals will band together and demand laws more favourable to them or even demand independence from your benevolent rule.

This teaches that power is seldom absolute. You need to be able to rely on others to exercise power in a larger scale.

You Might Loose Even While You are Winning

Starting from a single county in Ireland, I managed to build up a sizeable realm consisting of multiple kingdoms (Ireland, Navarra, Aragon, Asturias, Galicia, Leon) and was about to take control over the remainder of Spain. I had built up a bank of over 4000 gold pieces and vassals which were too weak to oppose me but strong enough to bolster the aspiring empire. As luck would have it, I only had two daughters. In this game, that is bad news.

I had manged with much scheming and trickery to change the succession laws in all of the kingdoms I ruled to primogeniture, which should assure that all kingdoms would pass on to my oldest son, and in absence of such, to my oldest daughter. However, upon my death, either through a bug in the game or arcane medieval laws, my oldest daughter received one kingdom, and my youngest daughter all the others. The character I took control over was my oldest daughter, and thus, in an instant the aspiring empire I had built was lost.

before the downfall
My character’s titles before the downfall

This taught me the lesson that even if things are going very well, one must not start to be careless, unless one risks to loose everything.

When we think of computer gaming, we often think of first person shooters or adventure games. Aimed with the power of a controller, the player obliterates scores of enemies. While there is something to be learned from such games as well, specifically hand-eye coordination and systems thinking, there are many other types of games which can deliver their own rich experiences. I found Crusader Kings 2 to be such a game. While I have listed here what I have learned from it, I would encourage anyone to give this game a try; since the real power of games comes from their interactivity; in which they are able to teach us lessons words on a page never could.

Practice: Irrelevance and Impermanence

The universe is very big. We are very small. The universe exists for an immeasurably long time. Our lives are very short. These are simple facts that we often forget. An omission which easily leads us to overestimate the importance of our life, actions and feelings in the greater context of existence.

Western culture is built around the idea that  there lies tremendous value in each and every individual. The following two quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the German Basic law illustrate the Western focus on the individual and their protection from the area of Enlightenment and modernity respectively:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. […] Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law. […] Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. 

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

I believe that this understanding of basic human rights is the foundation of the peace and prosperity my generation enjoys. These documents provide a very robust legal framework for creating a peaceful and functioning society. However, they are a poor spiritual guide in that they omit some fundamental truths about our existence – that there is little factual grounds for imbuing our puny lives with such outsize importance (the original justification for this was found in Christianity – as God endowing the ‘unalienable rights’.)

We cannot find true enlightenment if we do not face what is fact to the best of our knowledge. Thus we need to overcome the basic assumption that each and every life, and especially our own life, is inherently immeasurably valuable. This thought at first might not sound very comforting; but it can be a source of tremendous strength. You don’t need to be special; there is no point. You can focus on what has been given to you, your simple, small and short life and embrace all that is good within it, without having to believe in some false higher purpose.

One of the key concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that life is suffering, and that the impermanence of everything – people, thoughts, objects – is one of the key drivers of this suffering. It is a truly inalienable fact of life and, to find peace and wisdom, we need to understand and acknowledge it:

The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world. 

Salla Sutta: The Arrow

Impermanence and suffering are two of the ‘three marks of existence’ in Buddhism with the third one being the concept of non-self. Non-self in essence asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in any living beings. For me, it is one of the more esoteric theories in Buddhism and I tend to classify it into the category of deliberations which easily leads us around in circles while being of little use. What I like to take away from it is the insight that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is mostly an illusion and believing that we have an immortal, immeasurable valuable soul is a belief held easily only with a good helping of self-aggrandisement.

The following practice is based on two basic understandings: Firstly, that we are impermanent and, secondly, that we are irrelevant in the sense that there is no magic to our lives which make them meaningful beyond the observable. 

  1. Become aware of the place where you currently are.
  2. Grasp in your mind the people who are in your building, then your suburb, then your city, then your country and finally the whole earth; each one so very similar to you and you being such a small part of them all.
  3. Become aware of the moment in time that currently is. Realise that in a hundred years you will have ceased to exist and your moment and struggles will mean little to those succeeding you. (If you happen to think you are rich and famous or have the opportunity to become so, add one hundred thousand years to the time-frame in this exercise.)
  4. Understand that by realising this you are acknowledging a fundamental truth of who you are and your place in the world. Your impermanence and irrelevance notwithstanding embrace the miracle of your existence, the ability to think and feel; the miracle that you may behold the beauty of the world, and to cherish the opportunity to add your microscopic ripple to the ocean of time and matter surrounding your life.

This practice and its theoretical justification is similar to the practice of embracing interbeing discussed earlier. The practice for embracing interbeing is only different in that it focuses on the connectedness of things while this practice is more inward bound, in asserting our place and identity in what we know existence to be.

In contrast to the practices of love, forgiveness and gratitude this practice is not immediately comforting. In fact it can be quite disturbing. It might be easier to live our lives if indeed there was any form of evidence that there is something magical which makes each of our lives worthwhile and valuable. Alas there is not. Given this, we need to face the facts as we are able to comprehend them. True enlightenment requires to be truthful to ourselves and finding wisdom within the constraints brought to us by the observable world:

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Sahassavagga: The Thousands

Image credit: Earthrise by Bill Anders

Practice: Love

One of the most precious gift we have been given is our ability to love. Our love may encompass the big and small, our love may encompass the beautiful and ugly, our love may encompass ourselves and everything around us. Think about the many layers of your love; the romantic love for someone special, the love for something you like to do, the love for your family, the universal love which drives your desire to help those in need and protect everything in creation from harm.

Love is a central tenant of many world religions. In Christianity both the love of worshippers for God and Jesus as well as the love of God and Jesus for worshippers are often repeated themes. Likewise worshippers are encouraged to love one another and others:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

In Buddhism love or loving-kindness is known as one of the four immeasurable minds. It is in essence the strong wish that all sentient beings be well and happy:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness

While we should practice our ability to feel this kind of love in every action and thought, the following practice may help us to become more mindful of our ability to love and strengthen it:

  1. Take five deep breaths
  2. Think of the love you feel for someone close to you, such as your partner, parents, pets, children or friends.
  3. Think of someone who was wronged you – do you have the capacity to feel love for them?
  4. Think of yourself, with all your faults and shortcomings. Can you find love for yourself?
  5. Think of all of humankind, every single living soul. Can you find love for each and every one?
  6. Think of all sentient beings. Cows grooming their calves; lion brothers fighting for their territory; elephants wondering together. Can you find love for each and every one?
  7. Think of existence as a whole; every particle in the universe, every field and power, seemingly endless time itself. Can you find love for this vessel in which we exist?

Love just like gratitude and forgiveness is a powerful, deep emotion. We have a natural ability to love and using this ability may make us stronger and wiser. Unfortunately in times when we are weak, it is often difficult to find love, and much easier to find hatred and self-pity. If we find ourselves unable to love easily, we may follow some of the other practices to help us be stronger and unlock our ability to love unconditionally again.

Image credit: Dan Sudermann

Practice: Equanimity

A key insight of Buddhist philosophy is that the highest goal to strive for should not be boundless happiness – since that is bound to disappoint – but instead a sound evenness of mind, equanimity. Equanimity requires us to overcome attachment, to brace us against the loss of even what is most dear to us.

As part of our regular practice we may try to seek this evenness. Prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead and find solace in the belief that we must not be overly joyful to have a good life (although when joy does find us, we may embrace it).

  1. Take four deep breaths.
  2. Think of something that troubles you. This might be something that has happened, might happen or a general state of things.
  3. Accept that difficulties are a part of life. We may never be free of events or thoughts that trouble us.
  4. Imagine yourself in ten years time looking back at what concerns you now. Will you feel about it in the same way? Or will the sharpness of the feeling have subsided, will you be able to look at it in a calmer way?

This practice is motivated by something I came across in the book ‘Positive Intelligence‘ by Shirzad  Chamine. Here the technique of ‘Flash Forward’ was suggested as a possible way to become emotionally stronger. Essentially this technique involves imagining ourselves towards the end of our lives and looking back at a decision we are about to make. What decision would our older, hopefully wiser, self recommend us to take? I think this is a great way for us to think about what faces us in our lives right now and provides an excellent way to detach ourselves from seemingly pressing matters.

Finding equanimity though requires more than just following this practice or others. It requires finding a whole new perspective of life and our place in it. We need to become very good at recognising our own feelings and desires and becoming their master rather than being controlled by them.

Finding equanimity is also something which can hardly be achieved in isolation. Other practices such as finding compassion, love, understanding the nature of interbeing and impermanence are critical for us to achieve true and lasting equanimity.

Just as a mighty boulder
stirs not with the wind,
so the wise are never moved
either by praise or blame.

Dhammapada Verse 81

Image credits: Frank Winkler