Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Gift To My Daughter

Recently my daughter experienced some social relations difficulty with some friends at school. It was nothing too serious, just your typical teenage angst. Nevertheless, it was very upsetting to her and the situation caused some emotional turmoil at home and a great number of tears. I really wanted to help her resolve her difficulties but she was not interested in letting me in on her dilemma. Her mother got to assist this time. I guess teenage girls find their fathers inept when they become a woman of 14 years of age. While I was not able to be of assistance to her when she needed some guidance, I saw that her recent experience gave me the opportunity to provide her with a valuable gift. Unfortunately, now that she is 14, she has no real interest in listening to any “words of wisdom” that come from her father. However, since she enjoys being mentioned in my blog, she might, when she learns that I have mentioned her here, be inclined to read this post and, hopefully, make use of the gift I am about to give her. I hope she heeds my words as Harry Potter would the words of his mentor, Albus Dumbledore (she is a HP fan). I am sure that many of you out there have received this gift and are using it well. It never hurts to remind oneself that they have this gift, however. Sometimes it remains unused in some dusty corner of the mind. I know I have been guilty of failing to apply this gift at times. It is for these reasons that I offer my gift here.

A GIFT TO MY DAUGHTER (and anyone else who finds it of value)

As long as you are an ordinary human being you will have painful or negative experiences in life. It is unavoidable. While you may not be able to change a negative experience into a positive experience, you certainly can use a negative experience to create something positive in your life. All painful or negative experiences have something to teach us. Look for the lesson or lessons the experience has to teach you. What does it teach you about other people and the world in which you live? Most importantly, what does it teach you about yourself? Such knowledge will show you who you are and, if you are unhappy with the reflection you see, who you might want to strive to become. While this gift may seem common and of little value, it is quite the opposite. But for this gift to be of value it must be used. I hope, dear daughter, that you use this gift in your life.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Enlightenment: Static or Dynamic?

Taylor Ellwood has given his thoughts and critique of enlightenment here. I have posted my comments to his post below because there seems to be some problem with his blog. I can get his posts in my Google reader, but when I follow the link back to his blog page to comment I get an “Error 404” page (this is occurring only for September posts). I tried leaving my comments on his YouTube page but I am longwinded and it will not accept the totality of what I have written.

I would be interested in hearing from you as to how you arrived at your understanding of enlightenment. I have some familiarity with Buddhism and have never heard of enlightenment described as you have done. As I understand it, Buddhists generally see the enlightened mind of a Buddha as consisting of two unique components, namely – liberating wisdom and compassion. This mind is not static, as you say, but is an active mind where wisdom is dynamically expressed through compassionate action. Stories of the historical Buddha’s life after his enlightenment clearly illustrate this. According to tradition, the Buddha did not rest in a “static primal goop”, but rather engaged living beings in a way (e.g., as a teacher) that fostered the birth of wisdom in other mind streams. In fact, if I am not mistaken, tradition maintains that a Buddha must teach in order to qualify as a Buddha. A Buddha that is not actively engaged in helping others along the Buddhist path is NO Buddha. It seems to me that your concept of a “static” enlightenment has much to do with an erroneous understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anatma). The anatma doctrine does not deny the existence of individual persons. Persons are counted among existing things (dharmas) in the early Abhidharma literature. Typically, a “person” is a term used to refer to a particular grouping of the five heaps (skandhas) that make up an individual – namely, form, feeling, perceptions, will and consciousness. What the anatma doctrine refutes is an all-pervading, eternal and unchanging atman (self) among the impermanent components of existence (dharmas).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Reincarnation Game

The idea of reincarnation, that living beings transmigrate from one life to another in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, has been advanced by many diverse religious and philosophical traditions down through the ages. For many of these traditions the process of reincarnation is viewed negatively, as something to be either eradicated or transcended.

Personally, I have never been able to adopt the idea that living beings reincarnate. Moreover, I have not been able to adopt the belief that any type of existence whatsoever awaits those who relinquish their corporeal existence. Nevertheless, if reincarnation was in indeed a reality, I would certainly view it as something positive. The chance to experience life again, even though it be rife with suffering, would, to my mind, be preferable to the nothingness that I suspect awaits me at the end of my journey.

Recently, I decided to play a little game with myself and imagine that reincarnation was indeed a reality. I then asked myself if there was anything in my life that might be a mental or emotional carryover from a previous life. Below is what I came up with:

1) I have always had an extreme aversion to having things touch the anterior portion of my neck. While it is extremely uncomfortable to wear a tie, I can manage it for a short time. Turtleneck sweaters I can absolutely not endure. A simple touch of my throat area will generally cause me to cower. My wife has always joked that I must have been either hung or strangled in a previous life. Hmmmm, maybe I had.

2) Occasionally, perhaps three or four times a year at most, I will have an experience that is difficult to qualify. It is strictly a physical experience without any accompanying conceptuality. The sensation is localized within the upper chest and face, principally in the inner chest, mouth, throat and nasal areas. It is neither a pleasant nor unpleasant sensation. It lasts but a few seconds and then dissipates. I have not been able to ascertain a catalyst for the experience, but it seems to arise during moments of relative passivity - lying in bed, watching television, riding in a car. I have, with some concentrated effort, been able to induce this experience once or twice in my lifetime by merely thinking about it. I have come to think of this sensation as a memory of some type of kinesthetic experience from early childhood, perhaps a feeding experience during infancy. Perhaps this “memory” stems from an experience prior to my birth.

3) When I was very young I had a recurring dream. This particular dream would occur infrequently, maybe four or five times a year. When I stopped having the dream is not known, but I suspect that it had ceased to invade my sleep by my teens. The dream would commence with me and my family (not necessarily my real family) in our house’s living room just moments before sunset. We would all be engaged in some action that we knew would need to be ceased upon the setting of the sun, because if any noise was made after sunset, the horrible monster-man would come up from the cellar and drag the noise-making culprit down into the basement where he would toss him/her into the furnace. Needless to say, I was the one who invariably made some incredibly small sound and wound up tossed head first into the furnace. Now, I have always wondered about this dream. Why did I have it and why did it replay itself repeatedly throughout my youth? I have always just assumed that it was a common nightmare where a child’s fear of the basement was transformed into a Bogeyman dream. However, when I played my little reincarnation game, this dream was the first thing to enter my thoughts. It reminded me of the story of Anne Frank and how she and the others with her were discovered hiding in an upstairs attic and sent to a concentration camp. Now, I am in no way suggesting that I was Anne or any of the others who were hiding with her. But the linking of my dream to the story of Anne Frank got me thinking. Could this dream, with its theme of abduction and death by furnace, have been an intrusion of a past life memory into my dreams? Might I have been a Holocaust victim? It is interesting to speculate.

4) Recently, during certain moments of death contemplation, I will have the “feeling” that I have experienced a Bardo-type state before. I have no rational explanation for this.

5) When my youngest daughter was no more than two years old I asked her where she lived before she was born. She stated, without hesitation, “Japan.” Needless to say, I found her reply fascinating. I wondered where she picked up that word and how she knew that it was a place. Kids learn the darndest things. Or maybe she remembered it! Incidentally, she was born with a Mongolian spot on her tushy, which is especially prevalent among children of East Asian descent. (OK, technically this is not something in my life that suggests I may have lived before, but it does have some relevance to my discussion of reincarnation. Besides, my daughter will get a kick out of her cameo in my blog…except the part where I mention her tukhus [from the Yiddish תּחת tokhes, meaning butt]. )

So, what have I taken away from all of this? I’m not sure. It was an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure if it had any value other than being a mental workout. What about you…do you subscribe to the notion of reincarnation? If so, tell me about your past life(s). If not, what anomalous things in your life might be indications of a past life? Play the reincarnation game and leave your comments.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cernunnos and his sexually deviant older brother, Pashupati.

Recently, Cernunnos and his ExtenZe enhanced penis have been getting some attention over at V.V.F. Here the author, with a tad bit of humor, bemoans what he/she perceives to be an unhealthy sexual undercurrent found among many Pagan/Wiccan communities. You can read the author’s two posts here and here.

In the first post, the author wonders why Cernunnos, who appears rather prudish on the Gundestrup Cauldron, should be denied his clothing in many modern portrayals.

The rather dapper Cernunnos

Now, I personally have never met Cernunnos, but I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with his sexually deviant older brother, Pushupati.

The ithyphalic Pashupati

Unfortunately, as so often happens between siblings attending school years apart, a younger sibling will be conflated with an older brother or sister. This may just be the case here. Perhaps the author’s concerns would be alleviated if those confused Pagans/Wiccans realized their mistake and became Shaivites.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rethinking My Soul Mirrors

In the first chapter of Initiation into Hermetics, Franz Bardon offers a method for identifying and categorizing one's negative and positive qualities. As detailed by Bardon, the student is instructed to construct two “soul mirrors”: a black mirror forged from one's negative qualities and a white mirror forged from one's positive qualities. By engaging in this method, the student lays the foundation for techniques of self-transformation that are discussed latter in the book.

Several years ago I worked this method with, what I now perceive to be, limited success. Looking back upon my initial dealings with my soul mirrors I realize that I was too eager to get past this portion of my schooling to get to the more “magical” aspects of my training. Recently, I have been preparing to reconstruct my mirrors in the hopes that they will be more useful (note that I say “useful” and not “detailed”).

Why have I not yet begun the work? Unlike my first undertaking, I now perceive a problem that has delayed my progress. Initially, I just thought about all the negative and positive qualities that have manifested in my life. It was not too difficult and the lists became rather lengthy (though my black soul mirror was easier to build than my white). Today, however, I find myself perplexed over the very nature of “positive” and “negative” soul qualities or characteristics. What does it mean to be a “positive” or “negative” quality and who decides which qualities are positive and which are negative?

Now, two sources can be identified for the knowledge of positive/good and negative/bad. The first is a source external to the individual, whether it is one's particular culture, parents or religion. The other, is some innate sense of the positive or negative (because I do not ascribe to an innate sense of good and bad, I will have nothing more to say on this issue). From my experience, the transmission of the understanding of positive/good and negative/bad from an external source to an individual can (and often does) occur in such a way as to present the various qualities as either inherently positive/good or negative/bad. In this world, such qualities as anger, hatred, and jealousy, for example, are always identified as negative while qualities such as kindness, loyalty, and truthfulness are always identified as positive. Upon reflection, I now see that this is exactly how I understood the positive and negative qualities of my fist soul mirrors. In other words, I have for the most part, merely accepted the dictates of some external source as to what constitutes good and bad personal characteristics. Holding a given quality as inherently positive or negative clearly has its advantages when it comes to constructing one's soul mirrors. It makes identification of positive or negative qualities rather effortless. In my case, I simply brought to mind all the positive and negative qualities I could think of and then determined if I had experienced them in my life. If I had, they were included within their respective mirrors. I now, however, find this method to be uncritical, superficial, and in need of revision.

Recently, after some reflection, I find myself taking the view that a particular quality is situationally positive or negative rather than inherently so. Thus, for me, a quality becomes negative if it causes adverse, undesirable, or unpleasant consequences in one’s life and positive if it causes favorable, desirable, or pleasant consequences in one’s life. This view is very much akin to the prevailing Buddhist view of negative and positive qualities. Here, however, certain qualities are negative because they always lead to adverse consequences while certain other qualities are positive because they always lead to favorable consequences. In opposition to this view, I can see instances where a quality or characteristic can be experienced as either negative (adverse) or positive (favorable). Consider the quality/characteristic of someone who is jealous. Clearly jealous individuals can behave in ways that bring adversity upon them. For example, they may retaliate against the object of their jealousy and find themselves in legal trouble. However, when a person expresses jealousy towards someone who perceives such a response as a display of love and caring, then it becomes more difficult to see how this characteristic can, in this situation, can be classified as negative. Indeed, by not expressing jealousy in this case a whole host of adverse consequences may arise. Again, consider the quality of being angry. Anger can lead one who is in its grip to speak and behave rashly, thereby causing all manner of adversity. However, reflect upon a parent that displays a sudden burst of anger towards an uncooperative child playing in a dangerous street that, when confronted with the angry parent, removes him or herself from danger. Here I see the child's transition to safety as a favorable consequence of the anger. Therefore, anger should be considered positive here.

Unlike inherently positive/negative qualities, situationally determined qualities make the construction of soul mirrors a more difficult task. First of all, any quality may appear in either mirror depending on the situation. This would require the aspiring mirror-maker to determine if a given quality is positive or negative on a case-by-case basis. Secondly, qualities would be identified as positive or negative in a rather indirect fashion. One would first need to seek out instances of adversity or favorability in one’s life and then identify the qualities that engendered them. Moreover, situationally determined characteristics or qualities would make the process of removing or promoting a given characteristic/quality a more complicated task. How might one simultaneously promote and remove a quality that finds a home in both mirrors? For instance, I am well aware that much of my behavior is governed by the characteristic of insecurity or self-doubt. It is clear to me that my insecurity has created many adverse circumstances in my life and should thus be minimized, if not eradicated. Yet it is also clear to me that my insecurity or self-doubt has at times functioned favorably in my life. My insecurity has at times kept me out of harm’s way and perhaps has even saved my life on a few occasions. In such a case how might I eradicate my negative insecurity and preserve my positive insecurity simultaneously? Clearly a comprehensive banishment or preservation of any one quality will not suffice.

While there remain questions yet to be answered, my soul mirrors await to be rebuilt. This time around, however, I will be exploring those moments of adversity and favorability in my life in order to discover those qualities that precipitated those moments. Once identified, these qualities will be used to forge my new mirrors.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A God Without Moral Worth

How do we perceive the minds of others?

According to Harvard psychologists, humans typically see the minds of others along two distinct and independent dimensions – namely, agency and experience. Here, agency refers to “an individual’s ability for self-control, morality, and planning," while experience refers to an individual’s ability “to feel sensations such as hunger, fear, and pain.” According to these psychologists, certain types of judgments concerning “the other” arise and are played out depending upon the type and degree of the dimension attributed to another’s mind. A mind that has experience, for example, is judged to have moral worth and by extension certain inalienable rights, chief among these is the right to life.

Kurt Gray, one of the members of the research team writes,

 If you see a man in a persistent vegetative state as having feelings, it feels wrong to pull the plug on him,  whereas if he is just a lump of firing neurons, we have less compunction at freeing up his hospital bed.

A mind that has agency is considered suitable to be judged for the choices it makes.

Kurt Gray states,

When we perceive agency in another, we believe they have the capacity to recognize right from wrong and can punish them accordingly….

While the research respondents attributed a high degree of both agency and experience to the minds of “normal” adult human beings, these same respondents attributed to certain minds a lack of either agency or experience (If this is utterly unclear, just follow the link above. The original article is much clearer). For example, a fetus or infant might have experience but no or little agency. For the research respondents, God is a being that has agency (capable of moral action) but no experience. As Kurt Gray states, “We find it hard to envision God sharing any of our feelings or desires.”

Now, the notion that God has agency but no experience got me thinking. If a mind that is in possession of experience is deemed to have moral worth and God lacks experience, then god lacks moral worth. What, if any, are the implications of holding this view? How might one’s interactions with such a God be shaped by holding such a view and how might these interactions differ from those that exist between oneself and a God that has experience or moral worth? I certainly don’t have any answers. What do you think?