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

Why Does Anything Exist

I’ve recently completed the book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. It was quite an entertaining read but also quite unsatisfactory, since I feel it didn’t even come close to giving an answer to the question posed. At most, it provided some interesting examples of philosophical gymnastics such as discussions around if existence might be created by a rule that proves itself.

I think that one of the ways in which the discussions in Why Does the World Exist? were unproductive is that they were looking for a cause of known existence. But it is unclear how cause and effect work, if there is no time. Physics seems to indicate that, before the Big Bang, there was no time; so I think assuming we need to search for a cause might be a fruitless endeavour.

More recently, I came across the article Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question on the popular blog Brain Pickings. In here, I found a few quotes from Stephen Hawking which I find are potentially more enlightening ways to explore the question why anything exists at all:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

The moment something was created from nothing would be the Big Bang. An explosion of enormous energy.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called "negative energy".

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? […]: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I like to think of this using a simple equation from Why Does the World Exist:

+1 + -1 = 0

This equation shows that we can create two ‘somethings’ out of nothing, as long as the two somethings balance each other out. One might of course still question: but where did the laws originate from that enable such a creation, specifically the laws of nature. As mentioned above, I think this might be the wrong question to ponder, since there can be no cause and effect without time, and we probably lack understanding (and abilities of imagination) to ponder a state of existence without time.

Picture Credit: geralt

Anger

We all know how it feels to be angry. We can be angry in the small, maybe about something we forgot and for which only we ourselves are to blame. We can be angry in the big, as a people who feel that others are taking advantage of us.

It is unfortunately true that to be human, means to be angry. Anger seems to be one of the emotions which emerge with higher intelligence. It is hard to imagine a mouse or lizard being angry; but a pig, parrot, dolphin or ape, they all make the appearance as if they know very well how to be angry.

It often feels as if anger brings about only bad for us and others. Many religions prescribe that we should control and overcome anger, especially Buddhism and Christianity. Other emotions such as compassion or forgiveness, in contrast, are portrayed as something we should seek and nourish within ourselves.

And it is true that anger is a dangerous emotion. Anger can lead to violence and violence rarely brings about good. However, to say that anger only brings about bad goes too far. Anger is the key emotion which drives us to fight injustice, and there is always injustice.

Anger should not be suppressed; instead anger should be seen as an energy source. If we feel anger, we can acknowledge it, we can try to understand its root and use its emotional power to propel us towards more sophisticated emotions and bring about positive change.

I tend to get angry when I feel that I am taken advantage of. I also tend to get angry when I feel that my life is constrained in a way which is not good for me. Thinking about it, this anger is more often than not unjustified. But realising that my anger was misguided often brightens and empowers feelings of love and gratitude.

I am also angry about the state of the world. That we have so much, yet use it so poorly. We don’t use our economic and technological power to make our planet better; we use it to make it worse. We don’t use it to make people happier; we use it to make them more miserable and stressed. Will being angry about this change anything? Most certainly not. But this anger is fuel for my thoughts and actions; some of which will maybe make a very small difference to bring about positive change.

Anger is like a raw ingredient out of which we can fashion our emotional world. By itself it is bitter and spoils our lives; but used with proper care it can enrich our lives and others.

Image credit: Liberty Leading the People

Mind, Body and Soul

When we think of the mind, we often first think about our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and decisions. When our mind wanders, our thoughts jump from one topic to another. When we change our mind, we have decided to think of something in a different way than we used to or decided to do things in a different way.

The mind is usually seen as being not of the body and to be a different concept than the soul. Our body is the physical machine which keeps us alive; our organs, bones, blood vessels. This body, specifically our brain, enables our mind. Our mind, in turn, enables our soul; the soul which I define as the part of us which is of spiritual value, whereby spiritual denotes the dimension in which higher level thinking and our most pure and wholesome emotions fuse.

Rather than seeing mind, body and soul as separate things, we should see them as interwoven. Without our body, there can be no mind; without our mind, there can be no soul. (I am not aware of any evidence that we possess something like a soul disconnected from our body and it altogether seems to make little sense; so much of what we are, what we feel, what we think is deeply rooted within our brain, and measurably so; so how should a version of us exist without our brain?)

Notwithstanding this hierarchy, from body to mind to soul, we shouldn’t think of the body as being inferior to the mind, and the mind being inferior to the soul. Each is a wonder on its own, and in combination they are a wonder beyond comprehension.

It should be no secret to any of us that our mind is a big mess. Our thoughts, emotions, decisions and believes are not static, clearly structured or well organised. They are fluid and difficult to formalise. Thus we often ‘cannot make up our mind’. To complicate matters, we are designed to feel the illusion of control over our mind. We feel like we are making conscious decisions using thoughtful considerations; when in reality most of our decisions are made in the ‘subconscious’, a mysterious space which bridges our body and mind.

The subconscious may encompass the vast majority of our brain activity. It controls our body to keep us alive; by keeping the heart beating, filling our lungs with air, and by controlling a million different other things happening in our body. It also has been theorised that it is in the subconscious where our greatest capacity for creativity and many other higher functions of our brain lies.

As with many things in the biological and even more so in the psychological world there are no clear boundaries between the body, subconscious and mind. Take breathing for example: usually the subconscious and body take care of this routine activity. But we have the capability to take over with our conscious mind and control our rate and depth of breathing (to a degree). Many things we learn and master, like driving a bicycle or the grammar of a foreign language, will first occupy our conscious mind while slowly drifting into our subconscious as we gain mastery of the task.

“I think, therefore I am.” is an untrue statement. You are far more than the sum of our thoughts. However, you may say: “I think, therefore my mind is.” This, I think, is the closest we can come to a definition of our mind; it is our conscious thinking and those aspects of our memories and feelings which we can grasp with our conscious thinking. The mind is enabled by the body and the bridge between body and soul, the subconscious. Our mind is free of value; it just is the way it is made. Our soul is the potential or the realisation of our potential to become more than our body and mind would naturally become; to adopt good and wholesome values and follow through on them with our thoughts, words and actions.

Picture credit: ivanovgood

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: 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

Practice: Interbeing

We live in the illusion that we posses a self which is well delineated from the world around us. Whereas in fact, we are interwoven with everything around us in innumerable ways. No particle in the universe exists independently. Everything is affected by everything else.

Modern science has shown the inter-relatedness of many social and natural phenomena. However even in ancient times, interbeing has long been seen as one of the fundamental truths about existence, especially in Eastern cultures.

The principle of anatta is one of the foundations of Buddhist thought and asserts that there is no distinguishable self in any living being. As such, we each exist only within the context of everything that surrounds us. Pratītyasamutpāda is another principle which states that nothing is created in isolation. Anything is created in the context of something else which already exists. 

Just like embracing forgiveness and gratitude, I believe that meditating on the inter-dependence of all things aids us in expanding our consciousness and brings us joy and wisdom. To aid in this meditation, I have developed the following simple practice:

  1. Breathe in and out slowly three times.
  2. Become aware of your body and its current place in space.
  3. Expand your mind and attempt to become aware of everyone else who is currently in the same building as you, then of everyone in the same city, then in the same country and then on the whole of earth. Realise how you are not so much different to everyone else but just one minuscule piece of an incomprehensibly large whole.
  4. Become aware of your body in its current place in time.
  5. Expand your mind and attempt to feel and become aware of everything that has happened to you since yesterday, then since last week, then since last year. Expand your mind further and become aware of all that has happened in the last one hundred years. Realise that everything you are in this moment is the result of a long chain of events, and your moment now is but a drop in the ocean pulled by the tides of time.

I believe it is essential for embracing the truth of interbeing that we acknowledge what an infinitesimal piece of existence we are. We are bound to overestimate our own importance and agency and underestimate the torrential power of the context that surrounds us. If we accept our own irrelevance, it is easier to realise we are but a part of a very big whole. This I believe can be a great source of comfort and strength, since it fulfils our natural desire for something in our lives that is larger than us, such as a divine power.

There may not be a god who cares about our fate and desires but being part of something so grand, so incomprehensible as our world is a miracle nonetheless. Embrace the beauty of being part of this miracle and relieve yourself from the need to be something special; we all are, together.