A Matter of Perspective

The author and podcast host Tim Ferris often finishes his interviews with a question: “’If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?”. I was discussing this question with a friend the other day. This is what my answer came down to: 

Start with yourself, before criticizing the world. Remember you are holding only a perspective, never the truth. Nobody knows, we are all just trying our best. 

Think of them as three intertwined components, where each part works best in the context of the other ones. Here is what they mean.


Start With Yourself, Before Criticizing the World

This is not exactly contrarian. Mother Teresa once said “If each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean”, Nelson Mandela stated “One of the most difficult things is not to change society but to change yourself” and Ghandi’s philosophy is often summarized as “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. It’s nonetheless a message that is more needed than ever. Our world grows in polarization with political and cultural ideologies becoming increasingly hostile to one another. In the midst of woke identity politics, cancel culture, climate deniers, and right-wing populism, we lost our sense of togetherness. It seems like people rarely question themselves and all too often argue with a conviction that is both to be envied and utterly unjustified given our modern world’s complexity. 

Our public discourse nowadays often takes place from a place of resentment and anger with little attempt to understand other perspectives. Truly considering other perspectives is not an easy task. It requires letting go of your own ego, something which has to be learned. Thus, before proclaiming a big change in the world, it seems wise to practice locally. Start by being a good friend, brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife. Then grow beyond this. Many of us are greatly privileged. It’s a modern tragedy that these privileges are so easily forgotten and how much conscious effort it takes to bring them back into perspective. Growing to become your best self and nourishing your gratitude for the person you are and the privileges you experience seems crucial, as one can not be grateful and angry, furious, or resentful at the same time. And, as the naive argument goes, if all of us were to do this, our world would be saved. But honestly. Wouldn’t it? 

Remember You Are Holding Only a Perspective, Never the Truth

To start working on yourself before critiquing others requires some degree of epistemic humility, meaning the ability to recognize and accept our limited knowledge of this world. While there is some ground truth in hard sciences such as mathematics or physics, most things in life don’t have a right or wrong answer. There is not one “correct” political opinion nor is there one set of “superior” moral values. Seldom are conflicts caused by only one person and barely ever can we know something for sure. 

Don’t mistake this as a case for moral relativism, it’s not. The author and philosopher Sam Harris describes morality as a mountainous landscape. There is more than one moral peak and more than one valley, but without any doubt, there are better and worse opinions and values to hold. Yet it’s crucial to be open-minded. Think about the fundamental shifts in morality we experienced in the last 200 years, from the abolishment of slavery to the rise of feminism. Not being open-minded might lead you to be stuck in a valley without even noticing it. To put it in the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows”

Epistemic humility is also not an argument against the necessity of forming opinions which is essential to navigating life’s complexity. Yet, it puts opinions into perspective. One way of pointing out the limitations of opinions is to think about them as stories. Stories help us to make sense of our experiences. As reality is far too complex to be fully comprehended, narratives are our way of dealing with it. We simplify the experience, categorize it, and stitch together patterns in such a way that they form a coherent story. Yet, by definition, every story is a reduction of reality and its complexity. This has two implications. First, not a single story is an accurate representation of the truth. Second, every story, depending on the person’s personality and past experiences, is unique. Thus, the same experience can and often does mean two fundamentally different things to two different people. In this sense, no two people live in the same world. 

Nobody Knows, We Are All Just Trying Our Best 

It’s not just that our personal narratives aren’t wholly accurate; we have far less control over them than we believe. In fact, one might say it’s the stories choosing us. It’s not on us to select our genes, we have to play the cards we are dealt with. We are raised in an environment that is none of our decisions either. Entering adulthood and eventually moving out is just another way of transitioning into a bubble that is the result of our genes and previous environments. For better or worse, this leaves us with less agency than we commonly assume. The limited ability to choose our stories implies that whatever conflicts and disagreements we encounter, it’s often not caused by malicious intentions that we so eagerly attribute to others. Instead, people often behave the way they do because they simply can’t help but see things the way they do.

Putting Together The Puzzle

The above makes a case for humility, acceptance, and tolerance in regard to opinions and people. It does not, however, suggest any kind of passivity. This is to say, let us remember the power of conversations and change. Begin with yourself. Constantly question your own beliefs and opinions. Then engage with others from a position of openness. Never impose anything onto anyone, but instead listen actively, ask openly, and suggest carefully. As every perspective is unique, everybody holds a piece of the puzzle we call truth. So maybe we can figure it out together?  

Buddhism Philosophy

Alan Watts – The Meaning of Happiness

The point on which I have insisted in many different ways is, in brief, that this special and supreme order of happiness is not a result to be attained through action, but a fact to be realized through knowledge. The sphere of action is to express it, not to gain it.

In the terms of the great Oriental philosophies, man’s unhappiness is rooted in the feeling of anxiety which attends his sense of being an isolated individual or ego, separate from “life” or “reality” as a whole. On the other hand, happiness—a sense of harmony, completion, and wholeness—comes with the realization that the feeling of isolation is an illusion.

The Meaning of Happiness explains that the psychological equivalent of this doctrine is a state of mind called “total acceptance,” a yes-saying to everything that we experience, the unreserved acceptance of what we are, of what we feel and know at this and every moment.

Wisdom therefore consists in accepting what we are, rather than in struggling fruitlessly to be something else, as if it were possible to run away from one’s own feet.

But whether it is called the giving up of self, submitting to the will of God, accepting life, releasing the tension of striving for happiness or letting oneself go with the stream of life, the essential principle is one of relaxation.

Relaxation is something just as elusive as happiness; it is something which no amount of self-assertive striving can obtain, for as it is in a certain sense the absence of effort, any effort to achieve it is self-defeating.

These arise for two principal reasons: first, that twentieth-century, civilized man is so centered in his own limited self-consciousness that he is quite unaware of its origin, of the directing forces that lie beneath it; and second, that the real problem is not to bring about a state of affairs which does not as yet exist, but to realize something which is already happening—“as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” For although civilized man appears to live only from his self-conscious center, although he appears divorced from nature, from a spiritual point of view this is a mere conceit. In other words, at this very moment we have that union and harmony in spite of ourselves; we create spiritual problems simply through not being aware of it, and that lack of understanding causes and in turn is caused by the delusion of self-sufficiency. As Christianity would say, the Grace of God is always being freely offered; the problem is to get man to accept it and give up the conceit that he can save himself by the power of his ego, which is like trying to pick himself up by his own belt.

Both Oriental and Western psychology, however, state the problem in a rather different way. They say that if the ego can be made to look into itself, it will see that its own true nature is deeper than itself, that it derives its faculties and its consciousness from a source beyond individual personality. In other words, the ego is not really a self at all; it is simply a function of that inner universe.

In much the same way, speech is a function of the human being, and it is possible that one given only the sense of hearing might think that the voice is the man.

It is unusually complicated because in fact it is unusually simple; its solution lies so close to us and is so self-evident that we have the greatest difficulty in seeing it, and we must complicate it in order to bring it into focus and be able to discuss it at all.

“If you want to see, see directly into it; but when you try to think about it, it is altogether missed.”

A man and his wife had a mysterious goose that from time to time favored them by laying a golden egg. When this had been going on for some weeks they began to think it rather tiresome of the goose to part with its gold so gradually, for they imagined that it carried a store of such eggs inside itself. Not having the sense to weigh the creature first and find out if it was much heavier than a goose should be, they decided to kill it and cut it open. As might be expected, they found only one ordinary, dead goose, void of gold eggs and unable to produce any more.

For the meaning is in the whole, and not only the meaning but the very existence of the thing. Indeed, we are only aware of life and life is only able to manifest itself because it is divided into innumerable pairs of opposites: we know motion by contrast with stillness, long by short, light by darkness, heat by cold, and joy by sorrow.

Just as too much light blinds the eyes, too much pleasure numbs the senses; to be apparent it needs contrast.

For as the snail and the tortoise withdraw into their shells, man retires into his castle of illusion.

If we liked pain as much as pleasure we might shortly become extinct, for it is only this original fear of pain which urges us to self-preservation.

But note the term original fear. Man’s difficulty is that his fear is seldom original; it is once or many times removed from originality, being not just simple fear but the fear of being afraid.

Man does not like to admit to himself that he is afraid, for this weakens his self-esteem and shakes his faith in the security of his ego.

To accept fear would be like accepting death, so he runs from it, and this is the great unhappiness. Sometimes it is expressed in sheer unbridled terror, but more often it is a half-concealed, gnawing anxiety moving in vicious circles to an ever-greater intensity. It would have been better to say in the first place, “I am afraid, but not ashamed.”

The troubles which he tries to avoid are the only things which make him aware of his blessings, and if he would love the latter he must fear the former.

The isolation of the human soul from nature is, generally speaking, a phenomenon of civilization. This isolation is more apparent than real, because the more nature is held back by brick, concrete, and machines, the more it reasserts itself in the human mind, usually as an unwanted, violent, and troublesome visitor.

All men suffer, now as well as in ancient times, but not all are unhappy, for unhappiness is a reaction to suffering, not suffering itself. Therefore, generally speaking, the primitive was unhappy from his conflict with the external forces of nature. But the unhappiness of civilized man is chiefly the result of conflict with natural forces inside himself and inside human society, forces that are all the more dangerous and violent because they come in unrecognized and unwanted at the back door.

But it is not often realized that the apparent departure from nature which we have in civilization is an absolutely essential stage in man’s development. Without it we should remain like the elder son in the parable, jealous and unappreciative. For only those who have sinned can understand and appreciate the bliss of redemption.

The Hindus represent the evolution of man as a circle. Starting at the top he falls, instinctively and unconsciously, to the bottom, at which point they say he enters the extreme of materiality and self-consciousness, the age of Kali Yuga. From thereon he must climb up the second half of the circle and so return in full consciousness to the point from which he began. But truly to be united with nature again, he must first experience that absolute division between himself and the universe (or life).

Christianity differs from many other religions in according the existence of an immortal soul only to man. The rest of creation exists principally for man’s convenience, for no other living creature is of any special significance in the divine plan.

But in early Christian thought and practice there was, with few exceptions, an utter lack of concern for anything beyond the salvation of man.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Christianity took on an increasingly human or anthropomorphic conception of God.

Therefore when it has to accept an irrational impulse it rationalizes it in the course of putting it into effect. When the unregenerate Adam desires blood just for the sake of blood, the reasoning machine has to find a reasonable purpose for shedding blood, however specious.

Nevertheless, Freudian doctrine aroused little sympathy until after the Great War when it achieved sudden success, primarily through the ability of its method of psychological healing to cure cases of shell shock. But the outburst of the unregenerate Adam in the war itself made Freud’s ideas much more acceptable, though it is surprising how many intelligent people even today will refuse to admit that they have such a thing as an unconscious mind.

For to him the unconscious mind is personal only on its surface; essentially it is collective, racial, and perhaps universal, for Jung found that in their dreams modern men and women spontaneously produced myths and symbols thousands of years old of which they had no conscious knowledge.

Jung describes the ego (which we ordinarily regard as our central self) as a complex of the unconscious. That is to say, it is a device employed by the unconscious mind to achieve certain results; in the same way the apparently self-contained human body is a device employed by nature to achieve certain results.

Thus to the Hindus man’s self was identified with his individual person only because of his limited vision; they knew that if this vision could be enlarged, he would discover that his true self was Brahman. In other words, man’s ego is a trick or device (maya)7 to

For the peculiar thing is that both what we are trying to escape and what we are trying to find are inside ourselves. This, as we have seen, is almost more true of modern man than of the primitive, for our difficulty is what to do with ourselves rather than the external world.

Thus, at the risk of repeating a truism, it is obvious that unless we can come face to face with the difficulty in ourselves, everything to which we look for salvation is nothing more than an extra curtain with which to hide that difficulty from our eyes.

We have examined something of the meaning of unhappiness, of the war between the opposites in the human soul, of the fear of fear, of man’s consequent isolation from nature, and of the way in which this isolation has been intensified in the growth of civilization. We have also shown how man is intimately and inseparably connected with the material and mental universe, and that if he tries to cut himself off from it he must perish. In fact, however, he can only cut himself off in imagination, otherwise he would cease to exist, but we have yet to decide whether this elusive thing called happiness would result from acceptance of the fact of man’s union with the rest of life.

But if this is true we have to discover how such an acceptance may be made, whether it is possible for man to turn in his flight into isolation and overcome the panic which makes him try to swim against the current instead of with it. In the psychological realm this swimming against the current is called repression, the reaction of proud, conscious reason to the fears and desires of nature in man.

To return to our analogy: life is the current into which man is thrown, and though he struggles against it, it carries him along despite all his efforts, with the result that his efforts achieve nothing but his own unhappiness.

Finding it, he will understand that in fleeing from death, fear, and sorrow he is making himself a slave, for he will realize the mysterious truth that in fact he is free both to live and to die, to love and to fear, to rejoice and to be sad, and that in none of these things is there any shame. But man rejects his freedom to do them, imagining that death, fear, and sorrow are the causes of his unhappiness. The real cause is that he does not let himself be free to accept them, for he does not understand that he who is free to love is not really free unless he is also free to fear, and this is the freedom of happiness.

Hinayana Buddhism

The gist of its teaching is that when you realize that your personal self does not exist, then you are free of suffering, for suffering can arise only when there is a person to suffer.

Strictly speaking, a composer is inspired when melody emerges from the depths of his mind, how or why we do not know. To convey that melody to others he writes it down on paper, employing a technical knowledge which enables him to name the notes which he hears in his mind. This fact is important: his technical knowledge does not create the tune in his mind; it simply provides him with a complicated alphabet, and is no more the source of music than the literary alphabet and the rules of grammar are the sources of men’s ideas.

The spiritual genius works in the same way as the musical genius. He has a wider scope because his technique of expression, his alphabet, is every possible human activity. For some reason there arises in his soul a feeling of the most profound happiness, not because of some special event, but because of the whole of life. This is not necessarily contentment or joy; it is rather that he feels himself completely united to the power that moves the universe, whatever that may be. This feeling he expresses in two ways, firstly by living a certain kind of life, and secondly by translating his feeling into the form of thoughts and words. People who have not had this feeling make observations on his actions and words, and from them formulate the “rules” of religious morality and theology. But this involves a strange distortion, for as a rule the observer goes about his work in the wrong way.

But experience as such never made anyone either free or happy, and insofar as freedom and happiness are concerned with experience the important thing is not experience itself but what is learned from it. Some people learn from experience and others do not; some learn much from a little, others learn little from much. “Without going out of my house,” said the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, “I know the whole universe.”

And this is real freedom; it includes both freedom to move and to be moved; action and passivity are merged, and in spirituality as well as in marriage this is the fulfillment of love.

Wisdom is a quality of the psychological or spiritual relationship between man and his experience. When that relationship is wise and harmonious man’s experiences set him free, but when it is unwise and discordant his experiences bind him. Religion alone can deal with that relationship, and this is its essential function.

For what do we find left in religion when its quasi-scientific aspect is removed? There is the whole, vast problem of love or spiritual union which is contained in the question, “How can I learn to love life, whose source and essence we call God? How can I learn to be united with it in all its expressions, in living and dying, in love and fear, in the outer world of circumstances, and in the inner world of thought and feeling, so that in union with it I may find freedom?”

The will of God as expressed in morality is not a ukase which we should merely obey, for the purpose of His will is not that there should be morality, but that there should be love, and morality is just the “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

But this kind of religion does not encourage the type of love upon which spirituality is founded. We have seen that its technique is imitative and thus unlikely to produce genuine, firsthand religious experience; we have also seen that its contempt of this world and its concentration on the life hereafter has little to do with the essentials of religion. This is not all, for not only has it little to do with such essentials; it is also a decided hindrance to spiritual growth because it encourages a “love” of God on a false basis. God is loved not because He has given us this world, but because He is said to have promised a much better world in the life after death.

Certainly all pleasures are transient; otherwise we should cease to appreciate them, but if this be made the excuse for refusing to enjoy them, one must suspect that man’s ideas of happiness are horribly confused. The secret of the enjoyment of pleasure is to know when to stop. Man does not learn this secret easily, but to shun pleasure altogether is cowardly avoidance of a difficult task. For we have to learn the art of enjoying things because they are impermanent. We do this every time we listen to music. We do not seize hold of a particular chord or phrase and shout at the orchestra to go on playing it for the rest of the evening; on the contrary, however much we may like that particular moment of music, we know that its perpetuation would interrupt and kill the movement of melody. We understand that the beauty of a symphony is less in these musical moments than in the whole movement from beginning to end. If the symphony tries to go on too long, if at a certain point the composer exhausts his creative ability and tries to carry on just for the sake of filling in the required space of time, then we begin to fidget in our chairs, feeling that he has denied the natural rhythm, has broken the smooth curve from birth to death and that though a pretense at life is being made it is in fact a living death.

religious ideas and practices (which are no more religion itself than any other activities) exist solely to promote a positive and loving attitude toward ordinary life and what it stands for, namely, God. Unless one happens to be a religious specialist, which is not necessarily the same thing as a spiritual person, religious practices are not ends in themselves. They are means to a fuller and greater life in this world, involving a positive and constructive attitude to pleasure and pain alike, and thus an increasing ability to learn happiness and freedom from every possible kind of experience.

An earlier myth than that of St. Michael and the Dragon tells of an encounter with a monster who for every one head slashed off by the hero’s sword grew seven new heads. Indeed, the problem of evil is not quite so straightforward as the accepted technique of “morality by battle” would assume. Those desires, feelings, and impulses in the soul which are called evil seem to thrive on resistance because resistance belongs to their own nature, and, as the Buddha said, “Hatred ceases not by hatred alone; hatred ceases but by love.” This seems reasonable enough when applied to persons, but somehow we find it difficult to believe that the impulse of hate can only be overcome by loving it. But, as with fear, the hate of hatred is only adding one hate to another, and its results are as contrary as those of the war which was fought to end war.

In Christianity the idea of total acceptance is somewhat hidden; it is only spoken of directly in some of the writings of the mystics, but it is soon discovered when we begin to make a thorough search into the symbolism of Christian doctrine. In the religions of the East, however, it is given particular emphasis; in fact, it is the fundamental principle of Vedantist, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophy. The chief difference between these Eastern religions and Christianity is that, on the surface at least, Christianity is concerned with belief in doctrines whereas the Eastern religions are concerned with states of mind. That is to say, Christianity tends to be a theological and ethical religion, while Buddhism, Taoism, and Vedanta are psychological religions.

In the ordinary way the aim of Christianity is to make the person of Jesus as described in the Gospels as vivid a reality as possible so that the believer may love, follow, and serve Him as if He were a real friend standing always at his side. The psychology of Christian faith is therefore one of the personal devotion of the disciple to his Lord and Master, and this expands into mysticism when the believer feels a relation of love to the cosmic as well as to the personal Christ.

The Christian belief that only one historical religious tradition is valid for man is a clear enough sign of this confusion; so much emphasis is placed on history and doctrine as the essentials of salvation that a psychology of religion independent of the person of Christ is not understood. In the three great Eastern religions this confusion does not exist, and from them we are able to form a much clearer idea of the essentials of religion, of the state of mind called spiritual experience as distinct from the “local color” of particular historical events. For if indeed this experience is attainable outside the Christian faith, apart from devotion to a particular personality, and even without reference to theology (as in certain forms of Buddhism), then Eastern religions have two important contributions to make to Western civilization. Firstly, they show the principles of an approach to spiritual experience on a purely psychological basis to those who have lost faith in the historical and theological tenets of Christianity; secondly, Christianity itself can be enriched and expanded in this sadly underdeveloped aspect of its experience, and perhaps led to a higher understanding of spirituality than even many of its own mystics have attained.9

Anyone who has studied either Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism will know that the object of these religions is to attain a realization of the union between man and the Self of the universe.

As Bernard Shaw says, belief is a matter of taste and is quite unaffected by the objective truth or falsity of that belief. Our belief in a logical universe is a matter of taste, even though it may be objectively true; we say we are reasonable men, but we accept the pronouncements of our scientists with a faith quite as groveling as the faith of peasants who believe unquestioningly those who say they have seen gods and demons. How many people could prove such common beliefs as that the earth revolves round the sun or that atoms are composed of electrons and protons?

In conclusion we may say that for Western man acceptance means this: “Live and let live.” We see the root of our unhappiness in the war between ourselves and the universe, a war in which we so often feel tiny, impotent, and alone. The forces of nature, death, change, and unreasoning passion, seem to be against our most cherished longings, and by no trick or deceit can we get rid of our helpless solitude or of the battle between desire and destiny. Acceptance for us is therefore to say, “Let it live” to the whole situation, to the ego and its desires, to life and destiny, and also to the war between them.

For it seems as if the ego were the organizing faculty whose function is to “make sense” out of a collection of chaotic powers.

From one point of view it is true that almost everyone suffers from some form of neurosis, however mild, but the cure of neurosis by itself is not generally desirable unless one of two other conditions is involved: first, that the neurosis is unbearable, and second, that the psychology can supply a source of creative energy to take the place of the neurosis. In fact, we have neurosis to thank for some of the greatest human genius, for the very motive of escape from conflict has provided a driving force for artistic and scientific accomplishments very worthwhile in themselves, and possession by unconscious forces is the secret of many a creative genius. It may indeed be possible to attribute the masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci2 to unresolved problems of infantile sexuality, and maybe the sonnets of Shakespeare were the work of a homosexual.

But the process does not consist simply in watching over one’s dreams; it is fundamentally a question of the conscious assimilation and acceptance of hitherto unconscious processes, in spite of their seeming irrationality and independence of the ego. When this has been carried out successfully for some time, a fundamental change is said to take place in the psyche. This Jung describes as a shifting of the center of personality from the ego to the self, a term which, in his system, has the special meaning of the center of the whole psyche as distinct from the center of consciousness, which is the ego. He explains the self as a “virtual point” between the conscious and the unconscious which gives equal recognition to the demands of both.

Whereas the neurotic genius finds his energy in escape and the natural genius in “possession” by unconscious forces (“which is to madness close allied”), the integrated genius would supposedly be able to draw upon the unconscious life-sources quite freely and consciously.

I think the re-creation of the personality might fairly be described as becoming conscious again of our plurality, of our many souls, and having them all contribute to our being instead of one at a time.

Jung has gone far more deeply into the nature of the unconscious than did Freud,8 and his system is bound up with aspects of the human soul which have a peculiar magic. Indeed, he goes so deeply that to follow him, not in ideas alone but in experience, is an extremely serious undertaking which involves the gravest risks for those whose feet are not planted on solid earth. And here “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

here again the view of such Oriental systems as Taoism and various forms of Buddhism is very suggestive. For here the object is not to reach any particular stage; it is to find the right attitude of mind in whatever stage one may happen to be. This, indeed, is a fundamental principle of those forms of Oriental psychology which we shall be considering. In the course of his evolution man will pass through an indefinite number of stages; he will climb to the crest of one hill to find his road leading on over the crest of another and another. No stage is final because the meaning of life is in its movement and not in the place to which it moves. We have a proverb that to travel well is better than to arrive, which comes close to the Oriental idea.

he is like the dunce who looked for fire with a lighted lantern. Sometimes the longest way round is the shortest way home.

For the unconscious is not, as some imagine, a mental refuse-pit; it is simply unfettered nature, demonic and divine, painful and pleasant, hideous and lovely, cruel and compassionate, destructive and creative. It is the source of heroism, love, and inspiration as well as of fear, hatred, and crime. Indeed, it is as if we carried inside of us an exact duplicate of the world we see around us, for the world is a mirror of the soul, and the soul a mirror of the world.

If anyone imagines Buddhism to be a religion of pure passivity, as we understand it, he should see some of the Chinese paintings of Achala! He might also do well to visit some of the living masters of Zen Buddhism. For the art of becoming reconciled to and at ease with those aspects of natural man which correspond to storm and thunder in the natural universe is to let them rage. Just as there is an incomparable beauty and majesty in thunder and lightning, so also there is something awe-inspiring in the abandoned and uninhibited anger of the sage, which is no mere loss of temper or petty irritability.

For acceptance is emptiness in the Buddhist sense of sunyata, which is sometimes likened to a crystal or a mirror. “The perfect man,” says Chuang Tzu, “employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing; it receives, but does not keep.”

Those who have followed partial techniques know that in a life where there is nothing special to be unhappy about there is a kind of barrenness; it is like a wheel without a center, or a perfect lamp without a light. There is nothing to supply any creative fire.

Everything is going just as it should go; the daily routine may be a little dull, but it is by no means unbearable. Certainly there are troubles, but nothing overwhelming. As for one’s own character, well, that is quite normal. There are no serious neurotic troubles and no moral defects. For the most part life is quite agreeable and if death comes at the end of it, that is a matter of course for which nature will prepare us; when the time comes to die we shall be tired and ready to go. That is not a happy life, even though it may be contented; it is simple vegetation.

There is not that joyous response of the individual to the universe which is the essence of spirituality, which expresses itself in religious worship and adoration.

It is a symptom of our spiritual phlegmatism and torpidity that the dance is no longer a part of our ritual and that we worship in churches which, as often as not, resemble cattle pens where people sit in rows and pray by leaning forward in their seats and mumbling.

The Ecstasy of Creation

They, too, know the answer to that eternal question of philosophy, “Why does the universe exist?” They know that it exists for an almost childlike reason—for play, or what the Hindus called lila (which is nearly our own word “lilt”).1 Chesterton points out that when a child sees you do something wonderful, it asks you to do it again and again. So too he says that God made the earth and told it to move round the sun, and when it had moved round once He was pleased and said, “Do it again.”

Should we ask and expect the universe to conform with our standards of good behavior and doubt the existence of God in all things because He does not observe the ordinary standards of middle-class humanitarian morality?

For the truth is simply that without faith we are forever bashing our heads against an immovable wall. No self-deception, no trick of reason or science, no magic, no amount of self-reliance can make us independent of the universe and enable us to escape its destructive aspect.

Faith means that we give ourselves to it absolutely and utterly, without making conditions of any kind, that we abandon ourselves to God without asking anything in return, save that our abandonment to Him may make us feel more keenly the lilt of His playing. This abandonment is the freedom of the spirit.

That is the only promise which can be given for faith, but what a promise! It means that we share in the ecstasy of His creation and His destruction, and experience the mystery and the freedom of His power in all the aspects of life, in both the heights of pleasure and the depths of pain. It may seem illogical, but those who have once shared in this mystery have a gratitude that knows no bounds and are able to say again that God is Love, though with an altogether new meaning.

There is also the problem of the relation between nature and the ego. If we accept the universe and subordinate ourselves to it, if, instead of trying to live life, we let life live us, we are accepting one aspect of life only to deny another—the aggressive, self-asserting ego in which life has manifested itself.

It seems, therefore, that what we need is, as it were, a higher type of acceptance that includes both acceptance and escape, faith and suspicion, self-abandonment and egotism, surrender and aggressiveness, the Dragon and St. Michael.

The motivating power of the vicious circle is pride. In Christian terms we should say that man is not willing to be saved as he is; he feels that it is necessary for him to do something about it, to earn salvation by his own self-made spirituality and righteousness. The Grace of God is offered freely to all, but through pride man will not accept it. He cannot bear the thought that he is absolutely powerless to lift himself up and that the only chance of salvation is simply to accept something which is offered as freely to the saint as to the sinner.

When it is said that man will not let himself be saved as he is, this is another way of saying that he will not accept himself as he is; subtly he gets around this simple act by making a technique out of acceptance, setting it up as something which he should do in order to be a “good boy.” And as soon as acceptance is made a question of doing and technique we have the vicious circle. True acceptance is not something to be attained; it is not an ideal to be sought after—a state of soul which can be possessed and acquired, which we can add to ourselves in order to increase our spiritual stature.

In other words, as soon as we try to make the ideal state of mind called “acceptance” something different from the state of mind which we have at this moment, this is the pride which makes it so difficult to accept what we are now, the barrier that stands between man and that which we call God or Tao.

And so it happens that the very thing we are forever struggling to get away from, to outgrow, to change, and to escape, is the very thing which holds the much desired secret. That is why there is a vicious circle, why our search for happiness is this frantic running around, pursuing in ignorance that which we are trying to flee.

Bear always in mind that the doctrines of these ancient religions are the symbols of inward, personal experiences rather than attempts to describe metaphysical truth.

Hence Vedanta is also known as the system of Advaita (literally, “not two”) or nonduality, and nonduality in philosophy is the natural expression of total acceptance in psychology. Every object, being, and activity is Brahman in His (or Its) entirety, for Brahman alone is—the “One-without-a-second.”

Chinese saying that “between the All and the Void is only a difference of name.”

man can only become conscious of it, not as metaphysical truth but as spiritual freedom, by seeing his own nature as it is and relaxing that contraction (sankocha) of egoistic pride which will not let his nature be as it is, and which is forever trying to get away from it by making a virtue of acceptance.

Deliverance (kaivalya) or freedom is not the result of any course of action, whether mental or physical or moral; according to Vedanta it comes only by Knowledge in the special sense of gnana (Gk. γνωδις) as the fruit of “meditation,” which is being rather than doing.

Our ordinary, partial experience is always limited: joy is conditioned by sorrow, pleasure by pain, life by death, and knowledge by ignorance. Therefore the Hindus conceived freedom as an experience which had no conditioning opposite and called it union with Brahman, the “One-without-a-second.”

The Buddha’s teaching is unique in its utter lack of theology; it concentrates wholly on the necessity of arriving at a personal, immediate experience and dispenses with the doctrinal symbol of that experience.

According to him the cause of discord or unhappiness was tanha or selfish craving, which is perhaps best understood as refusal to accept the “three signs of being.” These are:         1.   Anicca—Change or Impermanence.         2.   Anatta—Literally, “No-self.” The unreality of the ego as a permanent, self-contained, and self-directing unit.         3.   Dukkha—In this context, suffering in its widest sense.

Total acceptance of the three signs of being culminates and fulfills itself in the experience of enlightenment or awakening (bodhi), which is the abrupt transition from the dual to the nondual view of life,

The Hinayanists looked upon Nirvana as an escape from the pains of life and death—a conception which to the Mahayanists with their Brahmanic background appeared as the old error of dualism.

But the Mahayanists gave their philosophy of nonduality practical expression in the ideal of the Bodhisattva, who attains liberation but remains in the world of birth and death to assist all other beings to enlightenment.

In a certain sense Buddhism is very much a philosophy and a psychology of the moment, for if we are asked what life is, and if our answer is to be a practical demonstration and not a theory, we can do no better than point to the moment—now! It is in the moment that we find reality and freedom, for acceptance of life is acceptance of the present moment now and at all times.

Acceptance of the moment is allowing the moment to live, which, indeed, is another way of saying that it is to allow life to live, to be what it is now (yathabhutam). Thus to allow this moment of experience and all that it contains freedom to be as it is, to come in its own time and to go in its own time, this is to allow the moment, which is what we are now, to set us free; it is to realize that life, as expressed in the moment, has always been setting us free from the very beginning, whereas we have chosen to ignore it and tried to achieve that freedom by ourselves.

Mahayana scriptures form the largest bible in the world. The whole Mahayana Canon comprises some sixteen hundred works, some of the longer ones, of which there are an appreciable number, running into as many as a hundred and twenty volumes! Even so, we are told that certain parts of it have been lost.

In form rather than content the native Chinese religion of Taoism presents a refreshing contrast. It has only four important scriptures, all of which are eminently readable, straightforward, and brief; these are the works of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, and Huai-nan Tzu.

Therefore toward the end of the eighth century AD the Chinese had evolved a form of Buddhism which combined all the virtues of Buddhism and Taoism, and, I cannot feel by mere chance, the rise of this Chinese school of Buddhism coincided with the golden age of Chinese culture in the dynasties of T’ang, Sung, and Yuan. In Chinese this school was known as Ch’an, but in the West it is more generally known by its Japanese name of Zen,

These stories are rather like jokes. The moment you try to explain a joke it falls flat, and you only laugh when you see the point directly. Thus to explain these stories is really to explain them away. Now Zen never explains; it only gives hints, for, as van der Leeuw has said, “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

More than the old Mahayana, more even than Taoism, Zen concentrates on the importance of seeing into one’s own nature now at this moment—not in five minutes when you have had time to “accept” yourself, nor ten years ahead when you have had time to retire to the mountains and meditate. The Zen masters resort to every possible means to direct your attention to yourself, your experience, your state of consciousness as it is now, for, as we have said before, there is no greater freedom than freedom to be what you are now.

The free man walks straight ahead; he has no hesitations and never looks behind, for he knows that there is nothing in the future and nothing in the past that can shake his freedom. Freedom does not belong to him; it is no more his property than the wind, and as he does not possess it he is not possessed by it. And because he never looks behind his actions are said to leave no trace, like the passage of a bird through the air.

Those who search for happiness do not find it because they do not understand that the object of their search is the seeker. We say that they are happy who have “found themselves” for the secret of happiness lies in the ancient saying, “Become what you are.”

This is why total acceptance, which seems to be a response to bondage, is actually a key to freedom, for when you accept what you are now you become free to be what you are now, and this is why the fool becomes a sage when he lets himself be free to be a fool.

Whereupon the ego and the unconscious, man and nature, oneself and life are seen as the two dancers who move in such close accord that it is impossible to say which moves and which responds, which is the active partner and which the passive.

Eckhart says that “the eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me.”2 Realization is not predestined to come at a certain time because predestination is an utterly limited half-truth. It may come at any moment, for that union exists eternally.

At each moment the mystic accepts the whole of his experience, including himself as he is, his circumstances as they are, and the relationship between them as it is. Wholeness is his keyword; his acceptance is total, and he excludes no part of his experience, however unsavory it may be. And in this he discovers that wholeness is holiness, and that holiness is another name for acceptability. He is a holy man because he has accepted the whole of himself and thus made holy what he was, is, and shall be in every moment of his life.

Even in resisting her laws one obeys them; and one works with her even in desiring to work against her.…Love is her crown. Only through love does one come near her.…She has isolated all things so that she may bring all together.…All is eternally present in her, for she knows neither past nor future. For her the present is eternity.

But, as we have seen, as soon as you let life live you, you discover that you are living life with an altogether new fullness and zest. To return to the analogy of the dance, it is as if you allowed your partner, life, to swing you along until you so get the “feel” of the dance that you are doing the “swinging” just as much as your partner.

But just as music demands four voices for the full expression of melody and harmony, so the human being demands four fully grown faculties to express the complete possibilities of freedom—and even so they are still expressing only possibilities. Jung classifies the four faculties or functions of man as intuition, sensation, intellect, and feeling, and it is almost impossible that anyone should be awakened to all of them before the middle of life.

Therefore in the process of individuation the psyche may be said to grow a new “organ” which Jung calls the self as distinct from the ego on the one hand, and the unconscious on the other. This self, as the vehicle of freedom, appears as a rule only in the ripeness of years when freedom has become a habit and has shaped the human organism to suit its ends, just as perpetually running water carves out a permanent course in the rock. This is the fulfillment of personality.

In the understanding of our freedom we learn that however low we may sink, we can never separate ourselves from the power of life and the love of God.

Just as love is the meaning of man and woman and has its symbol in the child, so only love can explain all other opposites under the sun.

Without these many opposites there could no more be a universe than there could be melody without the sounding and silencing of notes, and only those who do not accept them can complain that the universe was unfortunately arranged.

Note: Painting

Love, however, is not to be confused with liking; we may love the opposites, but because of our human nature we cannot always like them. Only the pervert actually likes suffering, but the love of suffering is known in giving freedom to your dislike of it; for without dislike on our part, suffering is no longer suffering.

This gratitude therefore demands expression in “works of love,” which is to say morality. It makes possible for the first time a genuine morality, for the free man is moral because he wants to be, not because he thinks he ought to be moral. Without gratitude morality is a mere discipline which keeps human society in a relatively stable condition until such time as men learn the freedom of love.

If you try to discover the secret of beauty by taking a flower to pieces, you will arrive at the somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion of having abolished the flower.

For beauty is beauty just because it is a mystery, and when ordinary life is known as a profound mystery then we are somewhere near to wisdom.

If a doctor explains the transformations undergone by food in his stomach, he does not cease to enjoy his dinner. If a scientist tells him that thunder is not the music of the gods but mere electrical disturbances, the thunder is for him no less wonderful. And if some Philistine tells him that playing a violin is only scraping cats’ entrails with horsehair, he simply marvels that melody can emerge from things so unprepossessing in appearance.

Morality Philosophy Psychology

Sam Harris – Free Will

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false. 

The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.

One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.

Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.

There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn’t. Needless to say, this difference is reflected at the level of the brain. And what a person consciously intends to do says a lot about him. It makes sense to treat a man who enjoys murdering children differently from one who accidentally hit and killed a child with his car—because the conscious intentions of the former give us a lot of information about how he is likely to behave in the future.

Of course, this insight does not make social and political freedom any less important. The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was.

You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

In the philosophical literature, one finds three main approaches to the problem: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism.

Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist—because we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.

However, the “free will” that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have.

Compatibilists generally claim that a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions.

If you want a second scoop of ice cream and no one is forcing you to eat it, then eating a second scoop is fully demonstrative of your freedom of will. The truth, however, is that people claim greater autonomy than this. Our moral intuitions and sense of personal agency are anchored to a felt sense that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions.

My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.

And there is no way I can influence my desires—for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires? To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe. Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

At this moment, you are making countless unconscious “decisions” with organs other than your brain—but these are not events for which you feel responsible. Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment?

Your body is doing these things, of course, but if it “decided” to do otherwise, you would be the victim of these changes, rather than their cause. To say that you are responsible for everything that goes on inside your skin because it’s all “you” is to make a claim that bears absolutely no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.

We know, in fact, that we sometimes feel responsible for events over which we have no causal influence. Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements. In one experiment, subjects were asked to select pictures on a screen using a computer’s cursor. They tended to believe that they had intentionally guided the cursor to a specific image even when it was under the full control of another person, as long as they heard the name of the image just before the cursor stopped.12 People who are susceptible to hypnosis can be given elaborate suggestions to perform odd tasks, and when asked why they have done these things, many will confabulate—giving reasons for their behavior that have nothing to do with its actual cause.

How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t. To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom, is to ignore the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.

Consequently, some scientists and philosophers hope that chance or quantum uncertainty can make room for free will.

The sound of the leaf blower intrudes, but I can seize the spotlight of my attention in the next moment and aim it elsewhere. This difference between nonvolitional and volitional states of mind is reflected at the level of the brain—for they are governed by different systems. And the difference between them must, in part, produce the felt sense that there is a conscious self endowed with freedom of will.

The phrase “free will” describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness. Thoughts like “What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know—I’ll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish” convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective (speaking both objectively and subjectively), thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.

And we know that the brain systems that allow us to reflect upon our experience are different from those involved when we automatically react to stimuli. So consciousness, in this sense, is not inconsequential

As Dan Dennett and many others have pointed out, people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen;

Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.

You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.

Many people worry that free will is a necessary illusion—and that without it we will fail to live creative and fulfilling lives. This concern isn’t entirely unjustified. One study found that having subjects read an argument against the existence of free will made them more likely to cheat on a subsequent exam.Another found such subjects to be less helpful and more aggressive.

Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.

Our interests in life are not always served by viewing people and things as collections of atoms—but this doesn’t negate the truth or utility of physics.

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can—paradoxically—allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

The great worry, of course, is that an honest discussion of the underlying causes of human behavior appears to leave no room for moral responsibility. If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about right and wrong or good and evil?

To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them. If I had found myself standing in the market naked, intent upon stealing as many tins of anchovies as I could carry, my behavior would be totally out of character; I would feel that I was not in my right mind, or that I was otherwise not responsible for my actions.

And it works this miracle even if the man’s subjective experience was identical to that of the psychopath in case 4—for the moment we understand that his feelings had a physical cause, a brain tumor, we cannot help seeing him as a victim of his own biology.

What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm. Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.

Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel. Once again, even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change: Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky. 

Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.

The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior.

Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. We fight emerging epidemics—and even the occasional wild animal—without attributing free will to them.

Clearly, vengeance answers to a powerful psychological need in many of us. We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these transgressions must be punished.

However, it may be that a sham form of retribution would still be moral—even necessary—if it led people to behave better than they otherwise would.

Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition. Of course, conservatives are right to think that we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will.

We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. We do not change ourselves, precisely—because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing—but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful.

Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth.

Mental Health Personal Growth Philosophy Psychology

Our Fight For Validation

After 35,000 interviews in 37 years on TV,  Oprah Winfrey states the following in her speech at Harvard graduates : 

“The common denominator that I’ve found in every single interview is that we want to be validated. We want to be understood. […][A]s soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and, inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives.” 

This, I believe, is one of the most fundamental insights there is into our nature as human beings. Our striving for validation doesn’t only occur during and after an interview on TV but also in our everyday working environment, when building relationships, or even when meeting complete strangers. We all want to feel heard and understood. For itself, this isn’t a problem. At least not more than any other evolutionary entailed tendency such as our striving for pleasing endless desires. It does however become a major obstacle to our happiness if seeking validation arises from an uncontrolled need to fulfill other people’s expectations. Sadly enough, this is ever more the case with social media being omnipresent. Let us call this kind of validation default validation. It is contradictory to what Oprah describes as the reason we are here:

“Your real work is to figure out where your power base is and to work on that alignment of your personality, your gifts you have to give, with the real reason why you are here. Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you.”

What she describes in essence is authenticity and our journey of becoming our true selves without caring much about what other people want us to be. And although this might sound like just another most likely true but sort of naive and hardly applicable life advice, it is worth taking this to heart. Life’s most profound realizations, stripped away from our own experience and personal reflection, remain often not much more than empty shells, whose importance is yet to be recognized. 

The process of understanding and accepting, the courage to fight against our approval-seeking nature, the daily practice, and regular reflection certainly are a long journey to undertake and require hard work. The reward, however, will be freedom and validation from carefully chosen peers. Let’s call this type of validation courageous validation. To make this very clear: Even while striving towards authenticity and overcoming our approval-seeking behaviour, we as human beings still need to be validated just as a fish needs water. What changes, however, is that this validation no longer stems from our attempt to fulfilling external expectations. Instead, it comes from being recognized for the person you are by people you care about. The journey, therefore, is not so much about overcoming your need for validation (which is impossible) but changing its source. 

The goal of this essay is to lay out a case for our validation-seeking nature, to discuss specific and applicable methods that make others feel recognized and understood as well as elaborating on the steps of our journey towards our authentic selves. 

A Universal Desire For Validation
In order to survive in their harsh natural environment, collaboration with their in-group members was essential for our prehistoric ancestors. Anything that facilitated this collaboration was therefore favoured by evolution. Being complex social animals that operate in social hierarchies, our ancestors for example used gossip to exchange information and determine which of their group members were reliable and trustworthy. Our approval-seeking nature ties in with this behaviour since attempting to please other group members was a reasonably safe way to become and remain an accepted part of the group while ensuring cooperation from an evolutionary perspective. 

Nowadays, however, our need for validation comes at a cost: our freedom and happiness. Because how can we be any less free than when constantly trying to please everybody else? Since this seems obvious, we should simply stop caring about what others think. Yet it takes courage to accept this (accepting is not the same as mere understanding) and even more courage to free yourself from this. In his book “The Courage To Be Disliked”, Ichiro Kishimi emphasizes exactly this point as part of the Adlerian psychology, writing:

“Unless one is unconcerned by other people’s judgments, has no fear of being disliked by other people, and pays the cost that one might never be recognized, one will never be able to follow through in one’s own way of living. That is to say, one will not be able to be free.”

Throughout our different stages of life, we can find examples to illustrate our often very unhealthy desire for validation. Assume a child that not long ago got a younger brother. From being the only child and the center of his parent’s attention it suddenly becomes what feels like an unrecognized side note to its parents. The child now develops all kinds of provocative, attention-seeking behaviour to foster the feeling of being recognized. Of course, attention might cause the feeling of being seen, but it doesn’t please its parents (on the contrary). It’s therefore just a weak, unsatisfying form of validation, but better than the feeling of being unnoticed.

For the sake of another example, let’s look at unhealthy perfectionism whose implications become apparent in the working environment. It refers to a tendency to set up excessively high standards for yourself while being preoccupied with past mistakes, afraid of any future mistakes, and concerned about the expectations of others, such as parents or employers. Being highly focused on tasks and others’ expectations, you use accomplishment as a way to feel validated. Yet, as the last accomplishment fades, new pressure assumes itself, and any success is discounted. 

What might help when evaluating your own attitude towards this is a differentiation between a goal-oriented focus and a process-oriented one. The former is only about collecting one’s achievement and is thereby symptomatic of unhealthy perfectionism driven by the urge to please. The latter considers the work as a means in itself, is open to learning from mistakes and failure, and is therefore a healthier, more sustainable way of approaching things. I hope that you can bear another generic yet true cliché, but in the grander scheme of things, the purpose of life is a process-oriented focus. You don’t live to accomplish certain goals but to savour every moment of your journey towards them. Like a dance, where we don’t dance to get anywhere but simply for the sake of dancing. 

With regards to romantic relationships, the psychologist and author Dr. Sue Johnson breaks it down to three universal questions that every partner consciously or unconsciously keeps asking: “Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call?”. According to her, all problems in distressed couples arise because one partner feels neglected, unrecognized, and misunderstood. Assuming this is true, the question then is what kind of methods can we use to make others feel validated? 

The Secret of Empathy-Driven Communication
Probably, none of the following concepts are entirely new to you. Nevertheless, they are of astonishing potency and can be applied in almost any situation. And frankly, knowing them almost doesn’t matter at all. Instead, conscious application is what counts and this requires just one thing: practice.

Creating validation, no matter if it’s a parent with her child, a boss with an employee, or you with your partner, starts with Active Listening. This is much more difficult than it might sound but there are a few things that can help. Lean back and take a relaxed body position. When your counterpart is talking, don’t make any assumptions and listen until he is finished. Since we all have the tendency to start pre-configuring our answer while the other person is still talking, we need to work on actively suppressing this. Also, if the context is right, take notes (you probably wouldn’t want to do this when in a loaded conversation with your partner about whose turn it is to wash the dishes). This forces you to pay closer attention and makes the other person feel listened to. 

When reacting to your counterpart, use Paraphrasing to repeat what she said in your own words focusing on the essence of what she feels (emotions) and what is important to her (content). While this too is difficult to do since it requires extremely careful listening, few tools are as suitable as this one to make the other person feel truly recognized. It’s also one of the most effective ways for debates since it forces you to actually understand your counterpart’s argument. 

Further, use Labeling, that is verbalizing your counterpart’s emotions, to create a feeling of connection and understanding. Several studies underline the effectiveness of this tool on a neurological basis. In a brain imaging study, psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of the University of California found that people react with fear to photos of faces expressing strong emotions. If this emotion is, however, labeled, the brain activity moves from the amygdala (the part that generates fear) to other areas that govern rational thinking. In other words, labeling emotions decreases their intensity. These labels usually start with expressions such as It seems, It sounds like or It looks like. Try to avoid the word “I” because it creates the impression that you are more interested in yourself than in the other person.

Finally, asking the right questions matters a lot as well. Instead of formulating close-ended, verb-led questions (such as Can you do XYZ?), use open-ended questions that don’t allow for a static, yes or no answer (such as How can we solve this?). Asking these kinds of questions lets the other person talk and creates the feeling of being safe and in control which is a primary need we all have. 

Striving for Authenticity 
Until now, we discussed several examples concerning our validation-seeking behaviour and looked at tools and methods to make our counterpart feel understood. In the beginning, we differentiated between default validation as part of our attempt to please everybody’s expectations and courageous validation which we defined as bringing up the courage to let go of other people’s expectations, striving to become the person you really are, and being validated for exactly this. According to Adlerian psychology, we argued that only by being disliked (i.e. ignoring other people’s expectations) we can be truly free. And only once we are free will we be able to, as Oprah puts it, “align our personality with our purpose” and gain lasting happiness. 

Even if that was something that we would all agree on, the question remains how to get there. Of course “getting there” is incredibly difficult. We are social animals and wired to care about other people’s opinions. Our journey, therefore, becomes a fight against our own nature and most likely one where we never fully succeed (who really is completely free of other people’s expectations?). 

It starts with understanding the journey’s profundity and becoming conscious of our uncontrolled need to please others as a means of validation. This is not to say, however, that we should be judgemental of this behaviour. The key is accepting it and, more importantly, accepting that we are good enough just the way we are. 

Wisdom therefore consists in accepting what we are rather than in struggling fruitlessly to be something else, as if it were possible to run away from one’s own feet.” (Alan Watts)

Much of our default validation-seeking behaviour stems from our own feeling of inadequacy and our fear that the real us won’t be liked. Our approval-seeking behaviour is the easy way out, one without many risks. Therefore, beyond consciousness and acceptance, it takes courage and hard work to arrive at a state of courageous validation. What might help the most on a daily basis is building up habits of contemplation where you question your acting and reflect on it. Write down your thoughts, commit to goals, and recognize and celebrate successes. In the process of authenticity, things will change. Friends will leave, new ones will come, old jobs will be quit and new ones will be found, and couples will change to make room for something new. Eventually, you will end up with peers that appreciate you for the person you really are. 

Philosophy Psychology Relationships

A World Of Stories


Imagine a loving husband that is being cheated on. One evening for no specific reason he looks at his wife’s phone and his world collapses. I can’t believe this is happening might be one of the thoughts that cross his mind. He means it literally.  Picture a high-performer who continued climbing the career ladder until he slipped and fell all the way to the bottom. Being fired and without a goal he now wavers somewhere between overwhelming self-doubt and complete bewilderment. How could that be me he might wonder while indeed not being able to grasp it. These are examples of events that contradict our narrative of who we are so fundamentally that we question the core of our identity. Even though you may not experience these specific scenarios, you’re unlikely to go through your life without something that will shake the sense of your identity. These instances of incompatibility between experience and personal narrative point to the essential idea of this essay. Our identity as human beings is packed in one grand narrative that we tell ourselves. It frames every experience we make, every memory we form, and every relationship we engage in. Our narrative, however, is not static. On the very contrary, it is subject to constant change as the two examples drastically point out. No matter how these two people process their traumas, they won’t be the same after that.  

So why does this matter? Understanding and actively reflecting on our own stories puts us in the driver’s seat instead of just being steered by external influences. Since others follow the same principle, comprehending their personal narrative builds empathy and mutual understanding. It allows us to engage with each other on a much deeper level. The goals of this essay are to a) share a new framework, b) encourage active reflection and deliberate authoring of one’s own narratives, and c) emphasize the importance of recognizing other people’s narratives. In order to accomplish this, we will observe the power of narratives in regards to ideas, memories, and relationships that ultimately add up to our identity as a whole. 

Our Ideas

We are currently living through a Cambrian explosion of information. Ideas are everywhere. But why do they spread? While the reasons for this are diverse, there is one thing for sure. It’s never the best, most thought-through idea that is the most convincing or memorable one. It’s the best story that is. 

Take some of the most successful startup pitches. They present to you a heroic story with a yet unsolved customer problem that needs to be overcome. And after outlining the changes in the world that now make it necessary to react, they name the painful complications that arise from it. These sales decks paint the customer’s pain as tangible as possible and show that there are winners and losers. They lay out the vision by teasing the promised land and show the features that allow the customer to get there. In sum, they make a good story.

Zuora serves as a vivid example, a sales deck often cited as a best practice. It proclaims the global shift towards the subscription economy, pointing out the inevitability of this change. The company names the winners of this change such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other incumbents like IBM, as well as the losers: the “52% of Fortune 500 companies that have disappeared” in the last 15 years. They tease the advantages of the subscription economy, the promised land, and introduce their solution as a way to get there. Now, is the story they tell always true? Certainly not, it’s just a story after all. Sometimes the rise of a startup is just purely serendipitous. A good idea, at the right time by smart people. These people then start looking at the global trends and what other external factors exist and stitch all these together into one coherent story. Confirmation Bias at its best. Granted, startup pitches, especially those that follow an ambitious growth path, are often a bit dramatic, almost by necessity. But it’s even true for the simplest business presentation. It’s not going to be convincing unless there is a clear story that is being told including the basic situation, the complication, and the solution of it. 

But the mechanic of the spread of ideas can be applied to other domains as well. How do we teach children basic ideas on what is good or bad? What to do and what not to do? We share these concepts in the form of stories that otherwise couldn’t be understood. Tales such as Snowhite teach them to be cautious with strangers. Legends such as Santa Claus encourage them to behave well and to fulfill their duties in order to be rewarded. And parables such as the Good Samaritan stress the importance of compassion, empathy, and generosity. 

There is one more crucial element to it. We need to make sure that the stories we share are told in the recipients’ world, so it fits into their own narrative. It doesn’t help if the intended solution addresses some pain point that they are not aware of. Zuora’s sales deck needs to paint the problem and describe the promised land in such a way that the customers can apply it to their own businesses. And the tales, legends, and parables need to be transferable to the children’s world in such a way that after the child finishes the story of Snowhite, it will indeed be more careful with strangers. 

In his book “Start with No” the negotiation expert Jim Camp emphasizes this as one of the most crucial factors of success, writing that “you want to inhabit the adversary’s world, because that is the world about which you need information, and that is the perspective from which the adversary makes decisions”. Therefore, if you want to pass an idea on to another person, tell a story. Turn it into a parable, a saying, a metaphor, a fable, or a legend that fits into the other person’s narrative and make them the hero of the story. Recall that this is how humans remember ideas – the better the story and the more closely the fit to the recipients’ narratives, the better it will be remembered. But what exactly is the relationship between stories and memories?

Our Memories

Just as ideas are communicated in stories, memories are stored and remembered as such. Whenever we recall a past event, it’s in the form of a narrative. In an experiment, psychologists asked women to select from among twelve pairs of nylon stockings the ones they preferred. The researchers then asked the women their reasons for their choices. All the pairs of stockings were, in fact, identical. Nonetheless, the women came up with backfit, post hoc explanations. One theory is that this helps us to make sense of a world that bombards us with information that we can’t possibly all memorize. Attributing a cause-and-effect chain to our knowledge of the past is called Narrative Fallacy. As the author Nassim Taleb describes in his book Black Swan: 

“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”

To view the power of narratives, consider the following statement: “The king died and then the queen died.” Compare it to “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Even though the latter expression incorporates more information rather than less, it seems to make more sense and can be easier remembered. Our brains are designed to detect patterns and assume that outcomes are based on preceding events. This ability evolved for good reasons. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted very long if they had assumed that a rustling bush was caused by the wind rather than a lion. In modern times, however, this survival adaptation leaves us wide open to misattributing effects to causes. 

But it’s not only that. A cause-and-effect chain could allow information to be stored at less cost. As Taleb states: 

“The more orderly, less random, patterned and narratized a series of words or symbols, the easier it is to store that series in one’s mind or jot it down in a book so your grandchildren can read it someday.”

This is the reason why stories, myths, parables, and tales are so powerful as pointed out in the beginning – they reduce complexity and create the impression of order and structure in an otherwise chaotic and random world.

What further adds to the idea of energy-efficient storage of information in the form of narratives is the process of memory formation itself. We take the peaks of our experience as well as the end, stitch them together, and derive a coherent narrative that in reality is only a rough approximation of the actual past. This process, first discovered by Behavioural Economics pioneers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is known as the Peak-End-Rule. That way, even seemingly unpleasant experiences that made us suffer steadily along the way but were occasionally interrupted by an outburst of pride for what we accomplished, can make a great story in hindsight. Therefore, distortions of our reality not only arise by misattributing cause-and-effect relationships to non-existent patterns but further by being wrong about the experience itself. Not only could the suffering in an unpleasant experience appear much less severe in hindsight than it actually has been (Peak-End-Rule). But also, we might attach a meaning to it that is not justified (Narrative Fallacy)

Our Relationships

Our relationship narratives are formed by both, our and the other person’s narratives. Comparing ourselves to others and figuring out the domains in which we are better or worse off than others adds to our narrative and impacts every relationship that we are in. Maybe I am not as smart as she is, but I am much more athletic. We never focus on the absolute, but notice only the relative differences. However, it’s not only our opinion about how we compare to others that matters. Being the social animals that we are, we can’t stop wondering about what other people might think about us. Did they say they admire our working attitude? In that case, we are even more inclined to live up to this impression. 

Take romantic relationships as an example. What’s your story as a couple and why are you special? In one way or another, we are all striving for uniqueness and individuality. That might be one of the reasons why Tinder encounters sometimes feel uncomfortable when sharing the story of how they met. Simply, because it might not compare well to others and doesn’t fit into their narrative of a romantic relationship, which often is the result of unconscious socio-cultural influences. In simpler terms: It doesn’t keep up with Hollywood. When sharing her thoughts on the roots of desire in romantic relationships, the psychotherapist and author Esther Perel lists observing your partner engaging confidently in a new social context as one of the drivers of desire. Why? Because seeing your partner through the eyes of another person is new and exciting. It’s a different part of a story that you didn’t yet know about which adds to the existing and so well-known narrative of your partner. 

Sometimes, things go wrong and couples drift apart. In such cases, it might not be enough to learn new parts of your partner’s story. It takes a more deliberate effort to get things right. The approach of Narrative Therapy assists people to re-author the narratives of themselves and their relationships in a constructive and collaborative manner. In a podcast, sex therapist Dr. Suzanne Iasenza shares her approach to rewriting relationship narratives. At the very beginning of a session, she asks the couple to individually define the underlying problem. She normalizes and encourages different perspectives, saying that, by necessity, there will always be two different perspectives on the same problem. How couldn’t there be, if every partner has a different narrative to tell and thus, a different frame of experience? The next time you find yourself in a conflict with someone, remember that every disagreement has two stories to tell. Acknowledging this and working towards mutual understanding and eventually a joint story is core for achieving more meaningful relationships.  

Our identities

Our identity then is one overarching narrative that consists of all our stories around individual ideas, memories, and relationships. This narrative stands in an interdependency with all of our layers of experience. Every idea we come across, every decision we make, every situation we experience, and every new relationship we engage in, contributes to our narrative as an individual. Even more importantly, however, every experience will always be framed by our narrative. It fundamentally determines how we see the world. If your narrative is that of a playful optimist, all experiences will be framed accordingly. Even if things go sideways, you are much more likely to look at them as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Vice versa, a person that considers herself a cynical pessimist focuses on the problems instead of the chances. In this narrative, it’s easier to be stuck in negativity loops. Once you assume that bad things happen to you for a reason and that whatever did happen will get even worse, you enter a dangerously destructive loop. 

As the two examples of the betrayed husband and the fired high-performer, in the beginning, have pointed out, it is possible that events occur that fundamentally contradict our personal narrative of who we are. In her Ted Talk, Esther Perel further elaborates on the example of being cheated on by your partner. This experience is not only so incredibly painful due to the mere act of being cheated on, but especially because it violates the core of our narrative. Perel states that “Infidelity hurts because it threatens our sense of self.” We just didn’t see it coming. In our narrative, we had this beautiful relationship. And all of a sudden, this seems like one overwhelming lie. So if all of this turns out to be wrong, what’s left? The process of recovery is one where we fit these so strongly contradicting situations and events in our narrative, as painful as this might be. 

So what?

This essay has been much more informative than it has been action-oriented. The attempt of describing the “What” goes at the expense of answering the question of “How”. How to tell better stories, how to handle inaccurate memories, how to understand other people’s narratives, and, most importantly, how to change one’s own. These questions remain open to be answered and I hopefully circle back to them at some point. For now, I still want to conclude with some action-oriented key takeaways from this essay. 

  • Become aware of the underlying pattern of narratives in all our domains of life. 
  • When sharing ideas, put them into stories and use metaphors, analogies, fables, legends, and parables to be convincing.
  • When recalling memories, take the Peak-End-Rule and Narrative Fallacy into consideration and consider that your memories don’t recall the actual experience but serve as mere heuristics. 
  • When researching questions and making decisions, consider the implications of the Narrative Fallacy on all dimensions – ideas, memories, relationships, and your own narrative as a person – and be careful not to assume causal relationships by default. Focus on data instead of anecdotal evidence and on clinical knowledge in favor of overarching theories. 
  • In all kinds of relationships, try to understand other people’s narratives and how they frame their experiences to achieve better understanding, stronger empathy, and more meaningful connections. 
  • Actively reflect on your own narrative. Understand, that you are not stuck with the person that you are and that changing your narrative means also changing your experience of reality. 
Buddhism Philosophy

Rinpoche Yongey Mingyur – Joyful Wisdom

My Opinion

A well written and lighthearted introduction into the nature of Buddhism covering its theoretical foundation, meaningful examples and an overview of practical tools to get started.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

Part 1: Theory


“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” (Albert Einstein). This is one of the core ideas of buddhism. Instead of avoiding suffering, Buddhism claims that it can be used as part of the practice.

Anxiety has been part of human nature for centuries. Usually, we try to escape from our anxiety or we surrender to it. Buddhism offers a third option. If we accept disturbing emotions and other problems we encounter as unavoidable and befriend instead of trying to escape them, we can reach a state of inherent clarity and wisdom. 

“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” (Carl Jung)

In our culture, the cultivation of “outer wealth ” often goes at the expense of “inner wealth” – qualities such as compassion, patience, generosity and equanimity. This imbalance leaves people particularly vulnerable when facing serious issues like divorce , severe illness , and chronic physical or emotional pain.

We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are.

What we notice is just a friction of what we experience. Less than one percent of the information our brains receive through the senses actually reaches our awareness. The brain competes for limited resources of attention and therefore only focuses on what appears to be important. The problem of this is that we end up mistaking a very small fraction of our experience for the whole. This is especially problematic in the case of unpleasant experiences. 

When unpleasant experiences come, neither block them nor give in to them. Instead, welcome them as friends: “ Hello, fear ! Hello, itch ! How are you? Why don’t you stick around awhile so we can get to know each other?” This practice of gently welcoming thoughts , emotions , and sensations is commonly referred to as mindfulness.

“That’s one way to describe enlightenment: turning on the light in a room we’ve spent most of our lives navigating in the dark.”

At some point the Buddha realised that true freedom lay not in withdrawal from life , but in a deeper and more conscious engagement in all its processes.

The Four Noble Truths form the core of all Buddhist paths and traditions. They can be seen as a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to healing what we might nowadays call a “dysfunctional” perspective that binds us to a reality shaped by expectations and preconceptions and blinds us to the inherently unlimited power of the mind. 

The First Noble Truth: Truth of Suffering

The first of the Four Noble Truths is known as the Truth of Suffering. Life has a way of interrupting, presenting even the most content among us with momentous surprises . Such surprises — including things such  as the frustration of waiting in line at the grocery store or simply running late for an appointment — can all be understood as manifestations of suffering. Acknowledging this basic condition of life is the first step to becoming free from discomfort or uneasiness .

Natural suffering includes all the things we can’t avoid in life. In classical Buddhist texts, these unavoidable experiences are often referred to as “The Four Great Rivers of Suffering” categorized as Birth, Aging, Illness and Death. 

Birth is considered an aspect of suffering because the transition from the protected environment of the womb into the wider world of sensory experience is considered as a traumatic shift in experience. The experience of expulsion from an enclosed, protective environment leaves a dramatic impression on the brain and body of a newborn.

Another category of pain (also called dukkha) is the “self-created pain”. This includes experiences that evolve from our interpretation of situations and events, such as impulsive anger or lingering resentment aroused by others who behave in ways we don’t like, jealousy toward people who have more than we do and paralyzing anxiety that occurs when there’s no reason to be afraid. 

Self-created suffering can take place in the stories we tell ourselves, often deeply embedded in our unconsciousness, about not being good enough, rich enough, attractive enough or secure in other ways .

Many buddhist teachings divide suffering into three categories. The first is known as “The Suffering of Suffering ” which can be described as the immediate and direct experience of any sort of pain or discomfort .

The second category of suffering is called “The Suffering of Change” and is often described in terms of deriving satisfaction, comfort, security or pleasure from objects or situations that are bound to change. More precisely, it stems from the attachment to the pleasure derived from getting what we want: be it a relationship, a job, a good grade on an exam or a shiny new car.

The Suffering of Change could be understood as a type of addiction, a never-ending search for a lasting “high” that is just out of reach. The high we feel simply from the anticipation of getting what we want is linked to the production of dopamine. Over time, our brains and our bodies are motivated to repeat the activities that stimulate the production of dopamine. 

Seeking satisfaction in others or in external objects or events reinforces a deep and often unacknowledged belief that we, as we are, are not entirely complete; that we need something beyond ourselves in order to experience a sense of wholeness or security or stability.

Everything in our experience is always changing. In Buddhist terms, this constant change is known as impermanence. In many of his teachings the Buddha compared this movement to the tiny changes that occur in the flow of a river .

The Second Noble Truth: Origin of Suffering

The Second Noble Truth is often translated as the “origin” or “cause” of suffering. Our normal tendency is to assign the cause of suffering to circumstances or conditions. According to the Second Noble Truth the cause of suffering lies not in events or circumstances, but in the way we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.

Left makes sense only in relation to right, night makes sense only in comparison to day , and warm makes sense only in comparison to cold. That’s a short course in what is often referred to in Buddhist teachings as relative reality: a level of experience defined by distinctions.

Dukkha (suffering) arises from a basic mental condition referred to in Pali as tanha, that is “craving.”

The most basic of these yearnings is the tendency, often described in Buddhist texts as ignorance, to mistake “self” and “other”; “subject” and “object”; “good” and “bad” and other relative distinctions as independently, inherently existing.

Collectively, ignorance, desire and aversion are referred to in Buddhist writings as “The Three Poisons,” habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted that they cloud or “poison” the mind.

The Three Poisons and all the other mental and emotional habits that arise from them are not in themselves the causes of suffering. Rather, suffering arises from attachment to them.

The essential lesson of the Second Noble Truth is acknowledging that all conditions are bound to change, we can approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence, relaxing into it rather than resisting it or being overwhelmed by it.

In order to get rid of attachment we need to stop trying. When we try to get rid of something, we’re really just reinforcing hope and fear. The middle way proposed by the Buddha begins by simply looking at whatever it is we’re thinking or feeling: I’m angry. I’m jealous. I’m tired. I’m afraid.

The Third Noble Truth: The Truth of Cessation

The third noble truth, often translated as “The Truth of Cessation”, tells us that suffering can be brought to an end. We accomplish this not by suppressing our desires, our aversions, our fixations or by trying to “ think differently. Rather, we need to turn our awareness inward, examining the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that trouble us and to begin to notice and even appreciate them as expressions of awareness itself.

The cause of the various diseases we experience is the cure. The mind that grasps is the mind that sets us free.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Truth of the Path

The Fourth Noble Truth , the Truth of the Path, states that in order to bring an end to suffering we need to cut through dualistic habits of perception and the illusions that hold them in place – not by fighting or suppressing them, but by embracing and exploring them.

We need to look out for three obstacles in particular: permanence, singularity, and independence.

One of the most important and difficult concepts of Buddhism is the concept of ‘emptiness’. It could be described as an open potential for any and all sorts of experience to appear or disappear.

The inherent qualities of humans (also called ‘buddha nature’) such as wisdom, capability, loving-kindness and compassion have been described by the Buddha as “boundless,” “limitless,” and “infinite.”

Our thoughts, emotions and sensations are like waves rising and falling in an endless ocean of infinite possibility. The problem is that we’ve become used to seeing only the waves and mistaking them for the ocean.

Part 2: Experience & Application

Forms of Meditation

There are two parts on the road to enlightenment. One part is an understanding of the principles of suffering, buddha nature, emptiness, etc. The second one is the application of these concepts in one’s own life . 

Meditation asks us to begin by simply observing our physical, intellectual and emotional experiences without judgment (i.e. to use the mind to look at the mind).

To recognize emptiness you have to look at the roots of “I” — ignorance, desire and so on.

The 7-point position for meditation. 

  1. Establish a firm base or anchor that connects you to the environment in which you’re practicing while providing a reference to the rest of your body . Cross your legs so that each foot rests on the opposite leg.
  2. Rest your hands in your lap 
  3. Allow some space between the arms and the upper body by lifting and spreading the shoulders a little bit.
  4. Keep your spine as straight as possible, the ultimate physical expression of alertness
  5. Lengthen the neck by tilting your chin slightly more toward your throat while allowing yourself some freedom of movement. The sensation could be described as simply resting your head on your neck 
  6. Allow the mouth to rest naturally as it does when we’re at the point of falling asleep – not forced in either way 
  7. Leave your eyes open 

Form Meditation has two aspects: shape and color. The idea is simply to rest your attention on either its color or its shape, engaging awareness only to the point of barely recognizing shape or color. How? Start with objectless attention. Then look at the form or the colour. After a few moments of looking at someone or something, let your mind simply relax again in objectless attention . Return your focus to the object for a few moments; then allow your mind to relax once more.

Thoughts come and go, as an old Buddhist saying holds, like “snowflakes falling on a hot rock.” The best way to work with thoughts is to step back and rest your mind in objectless attention for a minute and then bring your attention to each thought and the ideas that revolve around it.

Insight practice offers a way of relating to experience that involves turning the mind inward to look at the mind that is experiencing

Start loving-kindness meditation by focusing on ourselves: Allow your mind simply to relax in a state of objectless attention. Recognize that you have a body as well as a mind that’s capable of scanning it. Recognize how wonderful these very basic facts of your existence really are and how precious it is to have a body and a mind capable of being aware of the body. Appreciating these gifts plants the seeds for happiness and relief from suffering. There is such relief in simply knowing you’re alive and aware.

Another approach to loving-kindness: Ask “How much do I want to be happy? How much do I want to avoid pain or suffering? Then gradually turn your attention to the object you’ve chosen and imagine how he or she would feel in the same situation. 

The three practices of attention, insight and empathy in terms of step-by-step processes that can be applied to any mental or emotional state. 

Attention practice consists of two stages:

  • The first involves simply looking at a thought or emotion with what in Buddhist terms is known as ordinary awareness – bringing attention to thoughts or feelings without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you’re thinking or feeling
  • The second stage involves meditative awareness – approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness
  • The third stage is taking a step back: If an emotion or a disturbing state of mind is too painful to look at directly, seek the underlying condition that holds it in place

The point of insight practice: the recognition that all phenomena are interdependent, impermanent and made up of many different parts.

  • Stage one: Look at a thought or emotion with ordinary awareness – simply identifying thoughts or feelings without any specific purpose or intention.
  • Stage two: Recognize the nature of the emotion, which is that awareness is inseparable from emptiness. How do we do this? Begin by considering the impermanent aspect of emotion 
  • Stage three and four: Step Back and take a break

Empathy practice:

  • The first stage is similar to that of attention and insight practice — that is, to simply draw awareness to whatever you’re feeling 
  • The second stage involves recognizing that other people suffer from overwhelming emotions or emotional conflicts, a realization that “I’m not the only one who suffers.”
  • The third stage of the main practice involves the practice of tonglen. You begin by drawing attention to your own suffering, recognize that others suffer, and then use your imagination to draw into yourself all the suffering and painful emotions and situations experienced by countless sentient beings

As you begin to see your emotion as a representation of all sentient beings’ emotions, you are deepening your commitment to connect and to help other sentient beings become free from disturbing or destructive emotions.

The Buddha Nature Blocker

The Buddha’s goal was to awaken our capacity to approach every experience — grief, shame, jealousy, frustration, illness and even death — with the innocent perspective we experience when looking at things for the first time. 

The first Buddha Nature Blocker is known as “faintheartedness” or “timidity.” The term points to a deeply ingrained tendency to judge or to criticize ourselves, exaggerating what we may perceive as defects in thought, feeling, character or behavior. 

Our judgmental attitude toward others is the essence of the second Blocker. Often translated as “contempt for inferior beings,” this second impediment represents the opposite extreme of what we might call the dimension of judgment: a critical view of others .

The third could be as “seeing the unreal as real.” Basically , it’s the belief that the qualities we see in ourselves, others or conditions are truly, permanently or inherently existing. In Buddhist terms , this tendency would be known as eternalism — a tendency to hold certain aspects of experience as absolute and enduring rather than as a combination of temporary combinations of causes and conditions.

The fourth, “seeing the true as untrue” represents the reverse perspective: a denial, or perhaps more strongly, a rejection of buddha nature altogether.

The fifth and final Buddha Nature Blocker, which might be considered the foundation of the others, is traditionally interpreted as self – obsession or the “myth of me.”

At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts , emotions , and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited — or you can remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned  and incapable of being harmed.


A Practical Framework On Happiness In Modern Life

What if evolution doesn’t want us to be happy? If our journey to a good and satisfied life is a fight against our own nature? Can this fight be won? When trying to answer this question, it sometimes seems like all useful fighting instructions have already been given in antiquity and that nowadays much of this wisdom has been forgotten and replaced by triviality. In the attempt of following the antique understanding of philosophy, this essay argues that we need to actively choose tools and strategies to guide our way of thinking across all four components of our happiness – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning. Doing this deliberately and in a holistic manner is a Philosophy of Life – a set of fighting instructions that allow us to cope with the challenges of life to ultimately achieve lasting happiness.

So what is there to learn from antique philosophy? The antique idea of a happy life was about a life lived in harmony with oneself including suffering and discomfort. Plato described happiness as a moral life lived according to his four cardinal virtues, Temperance (moderation of one’s desires), Fortitude (inner strength in the face of adversity), Prudence (being reasonable and of good judgement), and Justice (the middle road between being selfless and selfish). For Aristoteles happiness was a skill that required practice just as anything else and was achieved by living virtuously. The school of Stoicism understood happiness as the cultivation of an excellent mental state that was achieved by living a life of reason and virtue. The great Stoic and emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” And even Epicureanism, a philosophy we nowadays often mistake for hedonism, believed that the pleasant life is one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve inner tranquility (ataraxia) by being content with simple things.

Our modern notion of happiness is different. As Capitalism grew, our understanding of a happy life shifted more and more towards some kind of Enlightened Hedonism. Enlightened Hedonism doesn’t neglect the potential benefits of sacrifices in the present to achieve greater pleasure in the future. Its ultimate goal however remains pleasure maximisation. Phrases such as “work hard, play hard” became part of our modern narratives, justifying our consumption while often not adding any value beyond these fleeting moments of excitement. The problem with this philosophy is that it is rather narrow in scope. It doesn’t give us more than the drive to maximise our own short-term pleasure. In a world that is ever more complex and fast-moving with a sheer overload of possible choices, it doesn’t give any more guidance on what is worth obtaining and what is not than asking “Where do I derive the most pleasure from?”.

What many of us lack in these times is a coherent Philosophy of Life, that is a philosophy that guides our choices on how to live a good and satisfied life in the long run. Take Stoicism for example. This philosophy clearly outlines what is worth striving for and what is not. It will tell us how to get there and equip us with strategies and tools that help along the way. It will help us to bear unavoidable suffering and to overcome intimidating obstacles to ultimately achieve a good and fulfilling life.

Since we are interested in long-term happiness, we shall not define a happy life as a sequence of fleeting moments of pleasure. Instead, happiness is understood as total and lasting satisfaction with one’s own life. Before diving deeper into this, let’s first have a look at why living a happy life, in general, is so hard to accomplish and what human tendencies need to be overcome.

The Problem

First, we need to understand that we were not made to be happy. From an evolutionary perspective, there really has been no advantage to being happy. On the very contrary, if we were constantly happy with what we already had and not constantly striving for more, this would have decreased our chances of survival.

One could therefore say that the desire for more is a natural human tendency. This isn’t all bad and it’s certainly a tendency that – with the proper work put in – can and needs to be channeled in useful ways to achieve our full potential. It is however also true, that in our modern world, this is often simply not happening very well and therefore causing a lot of suffering. As the American entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant states: “Desire is a contract with yourself, to be unhappy until you get what you want.” So if one desire follows another, there really is not much time left for happiness. Or to put it differently: If we focus only on what we don’t have and still want, how can we ever have enough?

Beyond our insatiable desires, we are victims of constant comparisons. Being the social animals that we are, we can’t stop wondering about what other people might think about us. We also can’t help but compare us to others, constantly being afraid of being worse off than our neighbour. The problem with this is equally obvious as it is with our desire, yet it is equally hard to overcome. How can we become our true selves and live a happy life if we can’t stop looking left and right trying to live up to other people’s expectations?

The list of human tendencies that, often at the very first glance, oppose our understanding of a happy life is a long one. We therefore need tools and strategies to cope with these tendencies. Each holistic Philosophy of Life will find answers to what these tools and strategies are. Certainly, some will be better and some worse. But all of them will find some.

The Limitation

At this point, let’s be clear. I do want to make the case that much about our own happiness is up to us. Our perception of the world, the way we think, and the choices we make influence our state of happiness. A lot. But our happiness is not entirely up to us. We simply know that there are people for whom from a purely biological standpoint it is easier to be satisfied and happy than for others.

There are many recent studies trying to uncover the neural underpinning of happiness. In order to do so, one of the most interesting things happiness researchers can do is look at twins. This allows them to compare the influence of genetics as opposed to other internal and external factors. Twin studies and other adoption studies found that approximately 50% of life satisfaction is due to genetics. Even if we aren’t entirely sure if that number is correct, we can be fairly sure that biology plays a significant role in our own happiness. And despite the fact that 50% might sound high, it does leave another 50% up to us.

This graphic below is an attempt to visualise our scope of influence.

We certainly are restricted by our biological limitations. Within these limits, there are two things we can differentiate between. One is what I call situational volatility. These are fleeting moments of pleasure. Fleeting because they are nothing more than a biochemical rush of neurotransmitters. I would argue that this kind of “happiness” is pretty much a zero-sum game as there are only so many neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin available. As mentioned above, this part of our happiness is nothing that we should be as concerned about as we are.

The other component in this graphic is our baseline. This is our sustained level of life satisfaction and can indeed be influenced. Depending on our perspective of the world, our thoughts, and actions, this baseline moves and with it our long-term happiness. So what are the individual components that influence our baseline?

The Components

So let me propose a rather simple structure to understand our scope of influence on happiness a little better and to determine its individual components. The structure itself is “Philosophy of Life – neutral”. This means it works across different world views yet it filters those out that shouldn’t be understood as a Philosophy of Life in the first place since they are either not holistic (i.e. not covering all components) or simply contradictory to our basic needs (e.g. suggesting that we shouldn’t engage in any relationship whatsoever because we are better off alone). 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships are crucial to our happiness. Neither should anybody be surprised that it’s not the quantity but the quality of our relationships that truly matter. There are so many studies pointing out the importance of relationships that I won’t even bother starting to name them all.

There is however one that I believe deserves to be highlighted. The Harvard Study of Adult Development published by Roland Waldinger in 2015 may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For more than 75 years the researchers tracked 724 men, year after year, asking them about their work, their home lives, and their health. The one major takeaway from this 75 years of research is the following: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. Waldinger states that “people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to the community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer.”

Just as relationships, Health should be another hardly controversial component of our happiness. This includes mental and physical health to equal parts. Health is what you eat, how much you sleep, how active you are, and most certainly how you think.

Take for example the importance of being active. Our brains work most efficiently when BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is created during exercise. This allows for the easier transmission of neurochemicals that are associated with positive emotions. Further, physical activity releases endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin which play an important role in mood regulation.

When it comes to the way we think, studies on the impact of gratitude practices found lasting effects on the brain causing the participants to be happier and less depressive. This shows once again the importance of our way of thinking and confirms what Marcus Aurelius said 2,000 years ago: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

But one of the most important points to be made about the importance of health is that it is relative. This characteristic, in scientific terms referred to as hedonic adaptation, describes the process of humans constantly adapting to the status quo and not judging our current state in absolute terms but instead only perceiving relative changes.

One of the most cited pieces of research in this domain is a study from 1978 where researchers interviewed two very different groups about their happiness – recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. The participants were asked how much pleasure they derived from everyday activities such as chatting with a friend or laughing at a joke.

When the researchers analysed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. And even though the lottery winners reported more present happiness than the accident victims (4 out of 5 as compared to 2.96) the authors concluded that “the paraplegic rating of present happiness is still above the midpoint of the scale and the accident victims did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected.”

Financial Security
Beyond high-quality relationships and health, we need sufficient resources to cover our basic needs and move up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While money per se doesn’t make us happy, it can be regarded as the enabler for many things that do and often grants the necessary freedom and security to strive towards self-actualisation and deep fulfillment.

The question then becomes how much money is sufficient. Certainly, the amount of money we need depends on our situation in life, the city we live in, and our desired lifestyle. However, the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income and wealth applies to everybody alike. It suggests that individuals gain correspondingly smaller increases in satisfaction and happiness as their income increases.

If you live in Germany on a below-average income of 15,000 €, you benefit from a large increase in happiness if your income doubles. If it doubles again to 60,000 € the happiness increase is significantly smaller than before. At some point, the correlation is completely lost and there is no measurable increase in happiness any longer as our income increases.

This is the result of the above-mentioned hedonic adaptation. Once we cover our basic needs we very quickly get used to our way of living. What used to be exciting and new becomes ordinary and less enjoyable.

Meaning is an extensive topic and it’s difficult to find a great philosopher who didn’t have something to say about it. Friedrich Nietzsche once famously wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” It seems almost intuitive to us that meaning is an inherent part of our happiness. But how do we get there?

The American psychologist and author Jordan Peterson has a rather simple but well-thought-through answer on how to obtain it. He argues that meaning comes to the degree to which one takes on responsibility.

The beauty of this way of looking at meaning is that it doesn’t limit it to just the work you do. It argues that meaning can be derived from your family, from volunteering, and from parenting. Obviously, for those of us fortunate enough to pursue meaning in our work this will and should be a crucial part. But it’s not the only way.

There is an interesting interdependency in Peterson’s definition of meaning. The more responsibility we take, the more meaning we obtain. As part of this equation, it’s also true to say that the more responsibility we take, the more difficulties we face. The more difficulties we face, the more we suffer. And the more suffering we overcome, the more we grow. Growth then gives us further meaning.

If we accept that suffering is unavoidable for everybody alike (while its degree partly depends on the responsibility we take), it becomes clear why meaning is so important. Even if we are healthy, enjoy many high-quality relationships, and are fortunate enough to be sufficiently wealthy, bad things will happen to us. And if there is no answer to why it is worth bearing the suffering how can it be overcome?

As argued in the beginning, I believe that a Philosophy of Life helps by offering guidance on what is worth pursuing and what is not in regard to a good, meaningful life. That is not to say that one cannot find meaning without actively reflecting on your own Philosophy of Life. It simply means it is significantly harder.

There is one thing that all four components – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning – have in common. They are all steered by our expectations.

Take for example our relationships. In her TED Talk, Esther Perel argues that the reason so many romantic relationships break is not because they are genuinely worse than a few decades ago. It’s because our expectations for our partner are at an all-time high. We expect our partner to give us what an entire village used to provide us with. We want the person to be our soulmate living in accordance with our values, our passionate lover, and our best friend while also being the person to provide economic security and a sense of belonging in this uncertain world.

What about health? We discussed that health is fundamentally based on relative comparisons. We don’t wake up every day grateful for not having a headache. Because we get used to the status quo of not having one and expect the world to continue this way. Only if we feel significantly better or worse than our usual status quo do we realise the change and react to it.

The same applies to financial security. The reason that income and wealth show a diminishing marginal utility is because once we have enough to cover our basic needs we very quickly get used to our new lifestyle. The pleasure we derive from a new car quickly diminishes until it is no longer different from our old one. The new and exciting becomes ordinary.

And finally, meaning. Even though meaning should be something fundamentally intrinsic, it often is influenced by outside expectations. If we don’t get the promotion we hoped for, the source of our disappointment is often not the sheer fact that we didn’t get it. The disappointment stems from our expectation to deserve the promotion. Because we feel like we did a good job and we saw other people being promoted in similar situations. As a consequence of not getting the promotion, the meaning we used to derive from our old job decreases since we now expect something different.

Looking at our expectations like this, it seems that their impact on our happiness is hard to overestimate. The good news is that we can actively influence our expectations by choosing and integrating certain tools and strategies in our lives. Doing this deliberately and holistically across all components of happiness is a Philosophy of Life.

Stoics for example practice the art of negative visualisation asking “What’s the worst that can happen?”. Reflecting on the impermanence of life increases their appreciation and gratitude for all things. They also believe in internalising our goals. Instead of aiming at winning a tennis match, we would be better off aiming at playing the best we can. While winning the game depends on many other external factors, playing the best we can is entirely up to us. Stoics engage in self-denial and periodically practice poverty. As the stoic philosophers Seneca writes, by doing so they learn to content themselves “with the scantiest and cheapest fare” thereby resetting their expectations. They also have a lot to say about the people we should surround ourselves with and how to deal with annoying people by managing our own expectations. Besides these few examples, there are many more Stoic tools and strategies. They all can be assigned to one of the components of happiness we discussed and they all actively influence our expectations.

Choosing Your Philosophy of Life

In the beginning, I pointed out that the journey to happiness is in part the fight against our own nature. In the attempt of defining a framework to craft our own set of fighting instructions that allow us to overrule our nature, we covered the definition of happiness as the total and lasting satisfaction with one’s own life, an understanding much closer to the ancient one. We looked closely at the evolutionary challenges that need to be overcome and biological limitations that even though playing a large role, still leave a lot of our happiness up to us.

The discussed components of happiness – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning – are universally applicable with our expectations being the greatest leverage we have to influence them. While some parts of our happiness are outside of our control, it is up to us to actively steer our expectations instead of being steered by them.

Choosing tools and strategies to do so deliberately and in a holistic manner is forming one’s Philosophy of Life. As argued above, I believe the impact of doing this is hard to overestimate. 

So what is your Philosophy of Life?

Morality Philosophy

Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape

My Opinion

Strong case for the foundation of moral thinking in science and the existence of moral truth. Different peaks in the moral landscape represent various states of human flourishing. Sometimes a little bit out of scope in regards to the original idea of the book but nonetheless highly interesting. 

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

My Notes

Long history of philosophers arguing that no description of the nature of the world (facts) can tell us how to behave (morality), e.g. David Hume, G.E. Moore, Karl Popper. Clear distinction between facts (‘is’) and values (‘ought’). 

Sam Harris argues that this is wrong and that the scientific study of morality is needed (and, in parts, already well under way) based on the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures. Since well-being depends on processes in the brain, it can be objectively understood, hence there is such a thing as moral truth that leads to states of human flourishing (represented as a peak on the moral landscape). It is, however, absolutely possible that there is more than one potential path to maximizing well-being (i.e. multiple peaks). 

Moral truth exists, because the distinction between facts and values is illusory based on following premises:

a) Whatever we know or will know about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is as Harris argues the only reasonable foundation of any value – translates at some points into facts about brains and their interaction with our world. 

“Anything of value must be valuable to someone (whether actually or potentially) – and therefore, its value should be attributable to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

b) Beliefs about facts and values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain (belief seems to be largely mediated by the MPFC) – apparently our system of judging truth and falsity in both domains is very similar. If believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong”, how can we say that scientific (factual) and ethical judgments have nothing in common? 

Beliefs bridge the gap between values and facts. We believe certain facts to be true (in that regard, the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ is merely a matter of expressing certainty). But we also form beliefs about values i.e. judgments about morality, meaning and personal goals.  

IMPORTANT: The consequence is moral truth. If the premise “well-being is the basis of morality” is accepted (which really is the fundament of the entire book!), then that means that securing well-being depends on events in our brain and events in the world, and that there are, objectively speaking, better and worse ways of achieving it. In this case, “some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human suffering”. 

The courage of moral truth. Why is it that most educated, secular people tend to believe that there is no thing as moral truth? Harris states that “moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of Western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.” If morality is indeed based on maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, it seems to be very clear that many people are simply wrong about morality – just as many are wrong when it comes to physics, biology, history, etc. 

The problem of religion. Derivation of moral behaviour from an ancient textbook that is based on salvation of our souls . Dogmatism prevents almost by definition the maximization of well-being. Harris argues that science and religion are in a zero-sum conflict about fundamental claims of reality. 

Since most religions understand morality as being obedient to God, their definition of moral behaviour often don’t have anything to do with maximizing well-being in this world (heaven vs. hell)

Examples catholic churn: “Even among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of ‘morality’ and ‘human values.’ However, the Vatican is an organzation that excommunicates women for attempting to become priests but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children. […]
It seems clear that the CAtholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the ‘moral’ peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be in speaking about the ‘physics’ of Transubstantiation.” 

Just because we can’t answer a question concerning our well-being right now, doesn’t mean there is no right answer. “People consistently fail to distinguish between there being answers in practice and answers in principle to specific questions about the nature of reality” 

Evolution is not a contradiction to morality. Arguing that evolution entails selfishness as a biological imperative is an oversimplification. In fact, evolution fosters cooperation. This is explained by the concept of reciprocal altruism which includes friendship, moralistic aggression (i.e. cheaters get punished), guilt, sympathy and gratitude. Neuroimaging studies show that cooperation is associated with an increased activity in the brain’s reward regions. 

Idea: If cooperation is genuinely human to homo sapiens, then that replaces the original Hobbesian “state of nature”. One could assume that large scale cooperation necessarily requires a moral code and needs to be designed based on principles of fairness to be sufficiently stable. 

There is an (almost) unsolved problem with defining morality as maximizing well-being by taking all consequences of actions into consideration (which in philosophy is called consequentialism)

  • We can’t always determine what the best decision is. As Harris writes, “population ethics is a notorious engine of paradox” since “people have competing interests and mutually incompatible notions of happiness.”
  • Further, what should we maximize? Total happiness? Then we would prefer a world where 100 millions people live a life barely worth living over a world where 7 billion of us live in perfect ecstasy. Average happiness? (1 extremely happy person > 1 billion only slightly less happy people). This is called The Repugnant Conclusion.
  • Harris concludes: “However, such puzzles merely suggest that certain moral questions could be difficult or impossible to answer in practice; they do not suggest that morality depends upon something other than the consequences of our actions and intentions. This is a frequent source of confusion: consequentialism is less a method of answering moral questions than it is a claim about the status of moral truth.” 
  • Further, what we should do is try to follow a path that maximizes both our own well-being as well as the well-being of others

People are biased in various ways. Should these be taken into consideration when making a moral decision?

  • Loss Aversion – people care much more about potential losses then they care about potential gains. Assume a child with IQ of 195 accidentely given a neurotoxing decresing IQ to 100 → loss; versus a child with IQ of 100 that should have been given a genetic enhancement to increase its IQ to 195 which now has been given to someone else → gain. Obviously, the result is the same. But what if the mental suffering is much worse in the former exampel? 
  • Also: Peak-End-Rule (memory as distortion). Should decisions such as medical treatment be based on actual experienced pain or rather based on the memory of suffering? 
  • Order – The Asian Disease Problem (A: 200 people will be saved, B: ⅓ probability that nobody will be saved, ⅔ that 600 people die OR A: 400 people die, B. ⅓ that nobody dies and ⅔ that 600 people die)
  • Context – Study where psychologists had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals. After being commited, they declared they no longer had symptoms. Yet, the average length of hospitalization was 19 days.  

The Identifiable Victim Effect represents an obvious violation of moral norms. We care more about the suffering of an individual human than about the suffering of millions which appears to be much more abstract (which is for example something that NGO tend to make use of). 

One of the most interesting approaches of “designing” a fair society: John Rawls in Theory of Justice. People are asked to design a society while not being born yet (veil of ignorance). Harris adds that fairness is not merely an abstract principle but felt experience. Neuroimaging shows that fairness drives reward-related activity in the brain whereas unfair behaviour requires the regulation of negative emotion. “It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often be superseded by considerations of fairness.”

Human evil is part of our nature, yet we have grown steadily less violent.

  • Studies show that “both humans and chimpanzees tend to display the same level of hostility towards outsiders, but chimps are far more aggressive than humans are (by a factor of about 200).”
  • 20th century state-societies have broken all records of violent deaths. Yet, this is only true in absolute terms. The actual percentage of violent deaths was on average higher in traditional pre-state societies 

Moral responsibility depends on the intention to do harm. 

  • Example 1: 25-year old man, who had been the victim of constant abuse as a child, intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend because she left him
  • Example 2: 25-year old man, raised by wonderful parents, intentionally shot and killed a young women he had never met just for the fun of it
  • Example 3: 25-year old man, raised by wonderful parents, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met just for the fun of it. An MRI revealed a large tumor in his medial prefrontal cortex. 

→ What we condemn in other people’s behaviour is the intention to do harm. “Our urge for retribution, therefore, seems to depend upon not seeing the underlying causes of human behaviour 

Cognitive biases influence our public discourse and moral reasoning. Political conservatism for example is governed by a number of factors. It is correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability.

It seems that religiosity is strongly coupled to perceptions of social insecurity. This seems to be the case both within and between nations. In the U.S. 57% think one must believe in god to be moral and 69% want a president who is guided by ‘strong religious beliefs’. Further, only 26% believe in evolution through natural selection. This might be caused by the fact that the U.S. has the greatest economic inequality of all developed nations. 

Maybe there is a cognitive template for religious ideas that runs deeper than culture. The same seems to be true for language. Several experiments suggest that children are predisposed to assume both design and intention behind natural events. Therefore, many anthropologists and psychologists believe that children, left entirely on their own, would come up with some conception of God.  

Even though many behave as there wasn’t, there is a conflict between reason and faith. Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institute of Health (annual budget of €33b), publically argues (in this example at the University of California) how God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago, planning the “mechanism of evolution” and “gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” Isn’t there an obvious conflict between science and religion? Imagine how it would look like if Collins were a Hindu (he certainly wouldn’t run the National Institute of Health).

Despite our perennial bad behaviour, moral progress seems unmistakable. We are increasingly reluctant to violence. We are less tolerant of ‘collateral damage’ in wars and condemn ideologies that demonize whole populations. Racism, even though it remains a problem, has been diminished significantly in the last hundred years. 

An Example, almost hard to believe,  to illustrate the progress: “Most readers will have seen photos of lynchings from the first half of the twentieth century, in which whole towns turned out, as though for a carnival, simply to enjoy the sight of some young man or woman being tortured to death and strung up on a tree of lamppost for all to see. These pictures often reveal bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, church elders, newspaper editors, polcement, even the occasional senator and congressman, smiling in their Sunday best, having consciously posed for a postcard photo under a dangling, lacerated, and often partially cremated person. Such images are shocking enough. But realize that these gentell people often took souvenirs of the body – teeth, ears, fingers, kneecaps, genitalia, and internal organs – home to show their friends and family. 

The current state of research as it relates to human well-being is in its infancy. Sometimes this pile of research is called ‘positive psychology’. The part that we understand about human well-being is strinkingy small, especially on the brain level. But we are progressing. Some examples of relevant questions:

  • Paradox of choice – it might be rational to strategically limit of number of choices
  • Affective forecasting – we systematically overestimate the impact of good or bad experiences in regard to our well-being (changes in wealth, health, age etc.) 
  • The experiencing self vs. the remembering self (Kahnemann) – which one to choose? (According to Kahnemann, the correlation in well-being between the two ‘selves’ is around 0.5)

This claim, that science has something important to say about values, is made on first principles. It could however, be falsified, if there wasn’t any connection between “being good and feeling good – and, therefore no, no connection between moral behavior (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being. In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints. This, however, seems a little bit far far-fetched, considering that neuroimaging shows how cooperation is affecting our reward-center in the brain.