Touch Heaven

By objective standards, our lives are rather drab and pointless. We are biological machines forged by billions of years of natural selection, programmed with the purpose to ensure the propagation of our genes. On a cosmic scale, our lives are insignificant and extremely short. There is little doubt that, in a few thousand years, we ourselves and everything we did, will be completely forgotten by the direct descendants of our children and also by everyone else.

We have long tried to console ourselves from the fact that we will inevitably die by the promise of an eternal afterlife. Unfortunately, there is no evidence we have found as of yet to indicate any belief about this afterlife may be true. And, to be honest, it is a pretty outrageous claim that our consciousness will continue to exist even without our brain and bodies. So I would say the burden of proof should not be on showing that there is no eternal soul and afterlife but rather to find evidence that there is.

There is moreover little evidence for the existence of a divine being or force which imbues our lives with purpose. Therefore it cannot be assumed that if we follow a set of simple rules (such as don’t kill, worship regularly etc.) our lives will be good and purposeful whereas otherwise they will not.

It cannot be denied that considering these things being facts to the best of our knowledge makes live look bleak. If there is no relevance and purpose to our existence, why bother existing at all? If there is no way to tell good from evil, why bother being good?

In the American Declaration of Independence it is written that men are endowed by their "Creator with certain unalienable rights". I do not believe that there was a single conscious being (at least according to our current understanding of consciousness) that created us. As such, we also could not have been endowed with rights, since for something to give rights, they need to be conscious. I do however believe that we have been endowed by that which created us, Nature, with certain abilities and limitations. Among these, I believe is the ability to touch heaven.

For instance, every human culture studied appears to include elements which require a belief in the supernatural (see Human Universals by Donald Brown). I think this is due to each of us having a sense of the supernatural world, in which magic and gods exists. This is no indication that magic and gods actually exist. However, I think that this sense is our single most source of consolation, and it must not be one that is grounded in untruth.

Since I believe that our ‘spiritual’ sense, for lack of a better word for it, can guide us towards actions which generations before us have identified as good and noble. If we seek out our connection to the divine, it often becomes especially powerful if we do so in the context of sacrificing our self interest and aim to bring good into the world.

Thus I think it is critical that we engage with our spiritual sense, to reach out high with our minds and touch heaven, a sphere of existence that cannot be seen or measured but that we can feel. I believe this can bring warmness, colour and strength into our lives. However, we must also be cautious. As much as our spiritual sense can be used in the interest of what is considered good, it can also be used to great ill effect; many wars have been fought and many crimes committed which were fuelled by our imagined connection with a higher power.

Practice: Healing Compassion

I have already written about a practice centred on the powerful emotion of compassion. However, today I came across an interesting variation of a practice on compassion (in the book Happiness by Matthieu Ricard): one that reflects our own suffering onto others, and helps us heal from our own suffering. This practice works as follows:

  1. Imagine those that encounter more hardships in their lives than you do; either by experiencing your hardships more severely or by having hardships from which you are spared.
  2. Send those all your love and compassion. Imagine this as a force of positive spirit emanating from you and reaching others, alleviating their hardships, if only by the fact that it is acknowledged by someone who cares.

This practice helps us to both strengthen our love and compassion, infinitely important emotions for a path towards enlightenment. This practice is well established among Buddhist practitioners. Connection with the suffering and hardships of others may bring us sadness but this sadness is quickly turned into strength by the powerful force of compassion and love, we can easily find within us.

Identity, Habits and Enlightenment

I recently read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. One of the interesting ideas presented in this book was that in order to bring about personal change, we need to start with our identity, then change our practices and processes and thus achieve better outcomes; as in, I am a health conscious person, therefore I will change my habit of eating fast food for lunch and thus eat healthy food for lunch. This is presented as being in contrast to our usual way of trying to facilitate change, which would be to start with outcomes; as in, I will eat healthy food for lunch, thus changing my habit of eating fast food and ultimately become a healthy person.

I thought this is a rather useful way to think about facilitating change, even though we need to take into account that it will usually be a two way process; what I do makes me what I am, but also what I am makes me do what I do. I am also still reading the book Happiness by Matthieu Ricard and today I came across a passage in there which I think brings an additional perspective on this.

Specifically Ricard discusses the Buddhist desire to become self-less. This is grounded in the belief that having a strong sense of self makes us liable to suffer. For instance, if I see myself as a formidable athlete and I get a permanent injury, it might bring me great unhappiness. Likewise, if I attach great importance to my self and my well-being, I am prone to develop thoughts that I am disadvantaged or easily become angry when thinking I have been wronged.

This line of thinking made me consider if building habits around a strong sense of identity might be as dangerous a path to follow as building habits around a desire to achieve a specific outcome. For instance, if I am developing a new habit because I want to loose weight, I might be disappointed when I do not succeed. However if I am developing the identity of myself as a slim person, it might bring me even greater unhappiness if I am not able to accomplish this. I think this very unhappiness might be the driver which makes using an identity based approach more likely to succeed; but it likewise makes it more dangerous for our general well-being.

I think it is quite important to develop an identity and have a life purpose. These should, however, be very carefully chosen. In choosing an identity, we should choose something which is helping us towards a path of greater happiness and enlightenment, rather than something which helps us achieve a lesser goal. Also our identity and purpose should not be dependent on external factors but only on things completely under our control. In the book Eternal Dharma, some possible life goals were discussed which I think were quite interesting. They centred around bringing love and kindness into the world. Here some further examples of identities/purposes which might be safe to adapt:

Having a strong identity is critical in finding success and happiness. However, as said, we must also keep in mind that an identity can do as much harm as it can do good. If I believe I am a person who loves shopping or going out above all, I am unlikely to bring much good into the world or for myself. But if I believe that I am kind and hard-working, I can be of great benefit to others and myself.

Fate

In life, things are bound to happen to us. Sometimes they are caused by our actions or inaction but, more often than not, things just happen for no apparent reason. I believe that how we think about the latter affects our well-being tremendously.

Given that seemingly random events play such a big part in our lives, we have developed a number of approaches to explain this randomness. In many world religions unexplainable events are attributed to the will of a higher power. Often this is nonsensical since many things that happen are in stark contrast to what is otherwise thought of the celestial being. Who would believe in a god which causes children dying from cancer?

We may also believe we have some kind of personal fate or destiny. We build a narrative that we are lucky with money, unlucky in love, destined to be happy, or destined to be unlucky in any of our endeavours. Any pattern of such interpretations which arise from our life are either random or a result of our own character and actions. There is absolutely no evidence that something like identifiable personal destiny exists.

We may also think that everything is random. We can do one thing or another but, at the end, the inevitable force of epic Randomness will overrule any of our actions.

Finally we may think that everything is predetermined; that whatever we do is already written and that none of our actions will be able to change anything.

Scientifically speaking, this last view is probably the one closest to the truth. It is theorised that, if we were to be able to know the exact state of the universe in one moment, we should be able to infer all future states from that. However, spiritually speaking, this view is barren – it provides us with no nourishment and strength for our soul to be the best we can be.

Instead, I prefer a view which I came across in a book about Buddhism: “The Way Things Are” from Ole Nydahl. Lama Ole Nydal said that those which are advanced in their study of the teachings of the Buddha will see what happens to them in two ways:

They understand good things which happen to them as blessings. A blessing is something which is good for us and which is given to us by a higher power and there is very little question that whatever makes the world go round – be it the will of sentient power or the natural interaction of elementary particles – is far more powerful than us.

Bad things which happen, in contrasts, are understood as trials and challenges. I think we should go even further and understand them as opportunities. In a world without challenge, without suffering and friction, there can only be greyness. In order to taste the sweetness of understanding, balance and enlightenment, we need to sample the ordeals of ignorance, chaos and misguided principles; and the engine of events around us is willing to supply us plenty of these.

Our world – or at least how we experience it – is unquestionably a very complex system. Our only way to understand complex systems is to divide them into layers; from a layer grounded in physical reality to layers which become more and more abstract. Think of the stock market. On one layer, there are individual stocks changing hands at specific prices. For a person to know of each individual transaction is impossible. Instead, we aggregate the transactions into a particular price at which the stock is trading at. On a more abstract level, we speak of market sentiment; we differentiate if there is a bull or bear market; if investors in general are eager to invest or try to sell their stocks. On an even more abstract level, we may ask what the spiritual value of the stock market is. Does this bring good or bad for us and humanity?

The same layering applies for all the big and small events which happen in our lives. As said, on a physical, natural level, everything may be predetermined and our fate sealed forever. However, this level is of the same importance to us as is the ledger of all transactions for a stock is for a stock broker; that is of virtually no importance at all. What is very important for us though is the spiritual question what the point of all these seemingly random events is.

Thankfully looking at this question from the spiritual level allows us some degree of freedom how to interpret what is happening to us. We can decide to adopt the most wholesome and nourishing interpretation which does not conflict with the theories currently most favoured by science. In my view, that is the dual view expressed above. Embrace everything good happening as blessing; and embrace everything bad happening as an opportunity to bring us further along on the path to enlightenment.

To Be Human, To Be Animal

It is obvious that there are a number of fundamental differences between humans and  other animals on this planet. Humans have a language whose complexity goes far beyond ways in which animals communicate. We have writing. We use very sophisticated tools. We live in large groups made out of individuals with very different personalities.

It fills me with wonder to contemplate how it came to be that humans exist. It just feels so improbable that we came to be at all. It is so wonderful that we are made in a way which allows us to appreciate beauty and to transcend selfish desire.

However we also need to remind ourselves that we are, for the largest part, animals and beings with aspirations beyond animal desires only to a small degree.

If you ask people what is most important in their life, many will answer that it is family. The concept of family springs from nature; elephants, dolphins, wolves, they all have family just as we do.

If you we think about what drives many of us, it is desire to accumulate power; may it be in the form of money, respect from others, or control over those close to us. This quest for power is yet again of Nature; chimpanzees seek it, wolves seek it, even chicken seek it.

If we ask ourselves how many of us are truly driven by factors which originate from the part of our mind which is not equal to anything else found in Nature, I think we will find that they are few.

And this is very understandable. Most parts of our brain are shared with all mammals. What drives a goat to want to procreate? Chances are similar brain structures are involved in this than are used by Nature to guide our behaviour. And there is nothing wrong with that! We (as of yet) cannot change what we are. We cannot re-engineer our brains and take out all the lowly animal parts – and even if we could, after we would have done this, we would not be ourselves anymore.

What we must do, though, is to acknowledge what we are. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that there is a mountain of instinct within us with only a small temple of reflective self upon it.

If we do not acknowledge this, our animal self will, without our knowledge, always be the driving force of our behaviour, most likely without us even noticing. But if we do acknowledge it, we gain the opportunity to truly love ourselves, encompassing all aspects which make us who we are; and we also gain the opportunity to gently guide ourselves towards more nobler goals.

Imagine you are a young man and you and your friends are having a talk about women. You talk about the various aesthetic features of the female gender you have witnessed in women you know or don’t know. One of your friends is boasting with how many women he has slept just this year. Maybe you feel inadequate, since maybe you weren’t nearly as successful as your friend in that respect. If you have understanding of yourself, you will see that your feelings spring from your animal mind; it is a reflection of Nature’s good intention to assure that your genes are passed to the next generation; ideally in a vehicle which will provide for their best possible fitness (those features of the female gender that make you and your friends rave but which would leave any extraterrestrial creature surely unimpressed). Don’t judge yourself and don’t judge your friends; this is just the way you are made. Just don’t fool yourself that you are engaged in a noble and spiritually worthwhile quest. If you are looking for true meaning in your life, then think about starting to look somewhere else.

There are many facets to our animal nature; starting with the very obvious, such as our desire to breathe and the constant beating of our heart, and ending with the devious, where our base desires for power of procreation disguise themselves as noble goals. Unfortunately our current culture is very un-reflective of how our animal selves influence our behaviour; in fact, it is something which is often seen as something good rather than bad; especially if you are looking at commercials. Do commercials for perfume and deodorant appeal to our innate ability to appreciate the complex wonders of the world, or our base animal desire to be as attractive as possible to potential mates?  Moreover, our current culture it is taboo to even consider some aspects of how our nature influences who we are; for instance the question of whether our gender may influence our actions (with some exceptions, it’s okay to say young men are more likely to be criminals and kill themselves in stupid ways, both of which are undoubtedly statistically evident).

Thus I think now more than ever it is important to remind ourselves what we are and to acknowledge what is the strongest force in our being; to embrace ourselves as the wonder we are while also enabling ourselves to understand the limitations of ourselves; to become the best version of who we can be with what has been given to us.

Image credit: Santa3

What Makes Me Happy?

I am currently reading the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard and a small exercise is presented at the end of the first chapter. The exercise is to think about what gives us pleasure and happiness. This question got me contemplating for quite a while. It appears I am not thinking very often about whether I am happy or not, let alone the causes of my happiness. I usually live with the assumption that my life is quite a happy one, unless there is something specific happening that upsets me.

However contemplating this question might not be the worst of ideas, since, as Ricard argues, being happy and content is a skill that can be learned like anything else and understanding what makes us happy seems like a very important step in getting better at happiness. Some of the things that I could come up with that make me happy are the following:

  • My wife: how I can bring good things into her life, and how she brings good things into mine, such as a wonderful smile when I am coming home from work.
  • Work and mastery: being engaged in a task in a field, software development, that interests and challenges me.
  • Beauty: encountering beauty in the natural world or of the mind.
  • Being helpful: bringing goodness into other’s lives.
  • Creativity: the ability to think and create.

I think what also contributes to my happiness is the absence of certain things:

  • Anger: at someone or something I think has wronged me.
  • Jealousy: thinking that someone has something I deserve more than they do.
  • Feeling of being treated unfairly: thinking that someone has taken advantage of me, not paid me back in kind.
  • Tiredness: feeling of having no energy to do something.
  • Sickness: feeling of not being able to do something because I have a sickness or afraid of catching one.

Thankfully I do not encounter these feelings all that often; but if I do, they certainly impact my level of happiness. Ricard calls these ‘mental toxins’.

A subquestion of the question posed is whether the things that bring us happiness could easily be taken from us. I think that is probably the case with what I have identified as contributing to my happiness. However I am not so sure if that should worry me.

I think some things, they make us happy, but they can also be taken away from us; but the happiness they bring outweigh the dangers of loosing them. I think it is thus still wise to embrace them – and ready ourselves for the possibility of loss.

Ultimately, of course, it is most important to find a deep, lasting and unassailable happiness. This I think can be achieved by finding a deeper purpose that provides us with a foundation for happiness. I think that I am still in the process of identifying this purpose for myself; sometimes I feel like that I have found it; and sometimes it seems to slip away from me.

I think it is very easy to live our modern day lives and loose sight of the question of the deeper meaning of existence. We are so busy with other things; so occupied with readily available distractions; and I am susceptible to this admittedly.

I feel like that my deeper purpose is to bring good into this world; to give back some of the blessing of the miracle of my existence. However, I am still unsure how I should go about this and also about what exactly good entails.

Thus I think I still have a long way to go on a road to deep and unassailable happiness. The question that Ricard poses is I think a very good one. I believe thinking about it has been valuable for me and I will try to make sure that I will keep it in my mind and in the process hopefully get better at happiness.

Picture credit: kikatani

Memory and Character

I have long been interested in finding ways to improve my memory. I think I generally have quite a poor memory, especially for names, numbers and other ‘details’. Our current technologies are not exactly helping as is discussed in the aptly titled “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” by Franklin Foer. I have always had a feeling that this is undesirable.

If there is more information which we can immediately draw upon when working on something, I think it should allow us to be more effective at whatever we put our mind towards. For instance, when writing, we can use information we have memorised to enrich our prose with facts, figures and names.

However, I recently came across the article Secrets of a Mind-Gamer which gives another dimension to the benefits of memory; one which is very important indeed. This quote comes from an article which portrays memory artists – men and women able to memorise vast amounts of seemingly random information. It is further discussed in the article that the art of memorising originates from antique times and that generally the ability to memorise was appreciated more in times past. The following quote from the article illustrates this:

Today we have books, photographs, computers and an entire superstructure of external devices to help us store our memories outside our brains, but it wasn’t so long ago that culture depended on individual memories. A trained memory was not just a handy tool but also a fundamental facet of any worldly mind. It was considered a form of character-building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas be incorporated into your psyche and their values absorbed.

What really struck me here was the idea that the ability to memorise can be understood as a way to build character. This was never really something that I have thought about but I think it makes some degree of sense. Our character is undoubtedly shaped by our genes and what has happened to us; but the latter here is modulated by how we perceive what has happened to us. We can attenuate some experiences and emphasise others; with the hope that those we emphasise will leave a more lasting impression on our character.

I always had a strict aversion against rote-learning. In school, we had to learn poems by heart and I found this a particularity dull exercise. However, I’ve come to the realisation that I might have been mistaken. Of course, memorising something without reflection and understanding is not very useful (apart from training our general cognitive abilities). But if what we memorise what we can comprehend, then it surely should provide some additional use for us; especially if it is content which helps us to become better, stronger and more enlightened beings.

Picture credit: Comfreak