Arguments Against Minimum Wage Hikes

I recently went into my local poke restaurant for lunch, and I noticed a framed letter on the wall as I waited in line. The letter was to the faithful customers, and it stated that all of the prices were increased by $1 due to the impact of the recent minimum wage law legislation. I knew the manager of the restaurant, so I asked a little more about how the new wage hike was affecting business. He stated that not only are prices increased for customers, but since the restaurant is a small business, they had to cut back on benefits given to employees in order to keep the business and cover costs. Lastly, I noticed how his employees were all young ambitious Generation Z’ers. He stated that with the increased wages, applicants who are truly poor or have no education don’t apply because of the surplus of 17 to 19-year-olds willing to work in order to pay for high tuition college fees. Most of the people working for him were not poverty-stricken or single mothers, rather most could write code or help you develop a website. This was interesting: a law that is proposed from an ideology proclaiming to care for the poor and oppressed, is actually having an inverse effect.

Currently in America, there are many who fervently advocate for legislation to “help” the poor and oppressed. Many of these policies, however, only virtue signal without doing anything at all for the oppressed. Moreover, many policies that sound compassionate actually do more harm to the people it’s meant to help. This particular essay gives arguments against minimum wage hikes. Despite the compassionate appeal to raise the minimum wage in order to help minorities and low-skilled workers in America, the economics and data tells us a different story.

#1: Minimum wage hikes hurt small businesses

Minimum wage laws increase costs for businesses, making it more difficult for small businesses to pay their employees accordingly. When Seattle recently increased its minimum wage, several restaurants that couldn’t afford the higher labor costs had to shut down immediately. Kelly Ulmer, owner of Almost Perfect Books in Roseville, California, had a business model that was employee-friendly, offering shares of all profits to the employees each week. “As the minimum wage increased, the profits decreased,” she says. “All of my employees actually made more money at $8 an hour than they do at $10 an hour because I had actual money to give them.”[1] Anytime minimum wage laws are enacted, the biggest initial outcry comes from small businesses who don’t have the cash flow to take the economic impact of the wage hike.

Many people found it eerie that Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called on Congress to raise the minimum wage in 2019. Here you have a CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company looking like a generous saint. Before we anoint Mr. McMillon, keep in mind that Walmart benefits greatly from minimum wage hike because it increases their revenue after the collateral damage done to small businesses around the country. You see, big businesses have more cash flow to pay the extra costs from the minimum wage hike. Thus, small businesses take the biggest financial hit.

#2 Minimum wage hikes increase unemployment

Low-skilled workers who would be employable at a low wage become unemployable at an artificially higher wage. And that explains the perverse cruelty of minimum wage laws: it inflicts the greatest harm on the very workers it is allegedly designed to help.

Similar to my first point, a minimum wage hike reduces the quantity by labor because employers can’t afford to pay everyone the increased wages. Therefore, companies have to lay-off people in order stay afloat. Also, if we begin to think about the future with the increase of artificial intelligence, minimum wage laws incentivize companies to use AI rather than people to save on costs.

As an aside, for those who love to point to the Scandinavian countries as the paragon of “the ideal society,” keep in mind that Switzerland is one of the few modern nations without a minimum wage law. As of December 2019, Switzerland’s unemployment sits at a meager 2.1%. The last time Americans saw unemployment rates that low was in the Coolidge administration when unemployment was 1.8%. By the way, there was no federal minimum law implemented during the Coolidge era.

#3 Minimum wage hikes harm low-skilled workers

If the government raises the minimum wage, the higher wages can lure more skilled workers to compete for jobs they may have once avoided. A college student who wouldn’t have taken a McDonald’s job for $9 an hour may find it worthwhile at $15 an hour, leaving fewer opportunities for, say, an uneducated immigrant from South America. Going back to the aforementioned impact of the Seattle minimum wage ordinance, researchers at the University of Washington reported:

“Our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs. The work of least-paid workers might be performed more efficiently by more skilled and experienced workers commanding a substantially higher wage.”[1]

And this highlights the essence of the economic logic that explains why the most vulnerable workers (low-skilled, uneducated, teenagers, etc.) are the group that is most harmed by minimum wage laws — those laws artificially raise the wages of low-skilled workers without increasing their productivity, and therefore significantly reduce their employability relative to higher-skilled workers.

#4 Minimum wage hikes hurt the oppressed

Many people don’t realize that in 1930, the unemployment rate for blacks was lower than the white unemployment. It’s unbelievable because people assume that racism was so persistent in 1930, it ought to have left most if not all blacks without any opportunity for employment. Despite rampant racism, however, there were more black workers than white workers.

Back in 1948, the unemployment rate for 17-year-old black males was just under 10%, and no higher than the unemployment rate among white male 17-year-olds. How could that be, when we have for decades gotten used to seeing unemployment rates for teenage males that have been some multiple of what it was then — and with black teenage unemployment often twice as high, or higher, than white teenage unemployment?[3]

The disparity in unemployment between black and white workers occurred when the minimum wage regulation went into effect during the 1950’s, and the racial gap in unemployment expanded.[4] With the artificial increase in wage, blacks were priced out of jobs.

Many people automatically assume that racism explains the large difference in unemployment rates between black and white teenagers today. Was there no racism in 1930’s and 1940’s? No sane person who was alive in 1948 could believe that. Racism was worse — and of course there was no Civil Rights Act of 1964 then.

It’s important to note, however, that the economics of supply and demand often carries more weight than racist policies. To use another historical example, during Apartheid in South Africa where it was illegal to hire blacks in most occupations, blacks nevertheless outnumbered white workers. During this time, there was no minimum wage law in South Africa, so many blacks were able to do the work that whites refused to do. Thus, economics carried weight even in South Africa apartheid.

Final Thought

Why is this important? Because ideas have consequences. And if we perpetuate ideas without looking at facts, history, and the collateral impact on society, then you get the kind of country that devalues liberties and freedoms needed to thrive. Perhaps it’s better to think about ideas, like minimum wage hikes, using facts and reason without depending on emotional “compassionate” arguments that end up causing more harm than good.  Just a thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Esha Chhabra, Forbes (May, 2017)

[2]Minimum Wage Increases, Wages, and Low-Wage Employment: Evidence from Seattle” by Ekaterina Jardim, Mark C. Long, Robert Plotnick, Emma van Inwegen, Jacob Vigdor and Hilary Wething.

 

[3] Thomas Sowell, “Intellectuals and Race,” 2013.

[4] Actually, the federal government established a minimum wage in a 1938 law called the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, this law was never in effect because a decade of high inflation had raised money wages, for even low-level jobs, above that minimum wage.

Emptiness

The essay was written after several counseling sessions with clients dealing with a deep sense of despair. After contemplating the foundation of suffering, and immersing myself in several books on the idea of emptiness, I sat down and put my thoughts into words. I completed this essay after 3 days at Starbucks, and copious amounts of triple espressos. I completed this essay with the song “Goose Bumps” by Wicked and Wild (EDM music) playing on Pandora.

;knpkn

“It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair,” is what she said as she exposed her wounds of deep despair. Her immaculate dream of traveling the world with her husband of 48 years, now shattered by a debilitating form of dementia that has left her bright engineering husband unable to even converse. Babbling and wondering aimlessly around the facility that cares for him, she watches him from across the room as her idyllic picture loses all the vibrant color and begins the process of fading away. She is unrelenting and refuses to accept. Fueled by a strong need for control and order, she fights to revive her ideal picture. Even though the house of cards she has constructed is falling, she will not let go of the brilliant engineer that was her rock throughout these years. She clings to the incomplete dreams that deserve to be fulfilled. Then she vocalizes a sentiment that we all have said aloud or within: “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” The suffering in the quiver of her voice is deep and heavy.

Suffering is due to the attachments we have. While suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachments you have with the world you have created. We attach ourselves to expectations, ideals, and identities all the while thinking: this is how life supposed to be. We infuse everything around us with an essence that further deepens our feelings, judgments, and perceptions about the world around us. Even worse is that we live with a voice in our heads, and a conscience that takes all of our experiences and predilections and forms an illusory “self”, an “I”. This is the disease that has stricken us all: the ego, the “I”. The ego is made up of the ideas and beliefs that define you. The ego drives the narrative you live by. All of us live by a narrative that we’ve been constructing since we were children. The narrative fills in the gaps of our deepest existential question: who am I? Through adolescence and into adulthood, our feelings, thoughts, impulses and perceptions are filtered through the story that we live by. These are the factors that come together to create each individual: A value-driven human that seeks self-preservation through attachments to meaning. Once we are attachments are gone, compromised or given a terminal diagnosis – then suffering ensues.

My contention is that suffering can be mitigated if we release our attachments (or greatly loosen our grip) and stop infusing everything – even ourselves – with an essence. How so? By embracing emptiness. To put more concisely, living with the mindset of emptiness is to avoid infusing things and people with solid, fixed, and permanent descriptions. All of the wondrous adjectives that we fill our world with, will one day turn to dust or fade altogether. Embracing emptiness is a way to make peace with that reality.

Let’s go back to my opening illustration of the soon-to-be widow who said, “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” She created a life that was replete with solid and predictable essences: solid conception of her brilliant engineering husband who is her emotional “rock”; fixed dreams that they would travel the world; predictable stable life that gave her the comfortable illusion of normalcy and homeostasis. Once those descriptions are solidified, they pave the way towards expectations and ideals that are just as predictable and fixed, whereby she expects the world and her life to produce the results that she anticipates. When reality is made clear – nothing is solid and predictable – she is now left exposed and raw; she now sees the illusions that guided her life and the deep chasm of emptiness is revealed. If only she would have made peace with the deep chasm of emptiness prior, her suffering would not have spiraled into inconsolable despair.

;klnpo

What is Emptiness

Emptiness is a state of being in which you embody the realization that everything is without an essence. Essence has to do with the qualities we imbue on something/someone that, in turn, affect our perceptions and feelings. To imbue someone/something with essence is to fill them with adjectives, or descriptions that we believe to be inherent in them. For example, you come to view your Starbucks barista as a happy and out-going, yet when overwhelmed with a rush of customers, she is an angry barista. In short, you fill your barista with an essence, qualities that impact your feelings and judgments about this particular barista. Essence is a matter of interpretation; it’s something you are choosing to construct from a host of subjective qualities. Essences don’t exist independent of human perception. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw experience without doing what we’re inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the experience and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence.

Emptiness, then, is to avoid the imposition of instilling an essence in the people and things around you. Moreover, emptiness is to be empty of the affect that impacts our desires, feelings and attachments to things and people. Why is this important? Because suffering is due to the attachments we form; when we imbue the object of our desire with special qualities and an essence – and then the object of our desire is gone, giving birth to suffering. Suffering is mitigated or dampened when we release our grip, unattached to the essence of things/people, and realize the emptiness of the qualities that feed our ego. Thus, to be in a state of peace to is be in a state of emptiness.

Emptiness is a phenomenon in which we are completely free from any obstructions. Emptiness is an opportunity to step back and view the world clearly.  Unencumbered by our prejudices, judgments, and biasness – emptiness quiets our anxious mind, and liberates us to the experience of a still mind.   Emptiness is the canvas and background to your very being – blank. In the West, the feeling of emptiness is often seen in a negative light that connotes nothingness or meaninglessness. When someone bemoans of feeling hollow inside, they are quickly encouraged to take up a hobby, go on vacation, or see a doctor for depression. This kind of emptiness is common in those who feel lost when it comes to meaning and purpose in life. Contrary to a nihilistic hollowness, emptiness is starting point for calmness and peace. Emptiness is our true nature, utterly free from expectations, ideals, status, reputation, and obligations. With no agenda or need to continually protect our fragile ego, emptiness gives us fresh lenses to view and experience the world.

;lkm;lkm

Impermanence and Emptiness

The two threads that weave the tapestry of emptiness are impermanence and non-self. Impermanence is the acknowledgement that everyone/everything is in a state of ceasing to be. Simply put, nothing is solid, nothing is predictable. Even a new-born baby has begun his/her journey towards death. To Westerners, this is dark and morbid thinking, but it’s reality. Impermanence is almost impossible for human beings to embrace because it goes against every ounce of our fiber: at all cost, we fight for self-preservation. So strong is our fight, that even though we know intellectually that we will one day die, we do whatever we can to push those thoughts away.

Not just people, but even the impermanence of things escapes us. I remember watching my dilapidated 1996 Toyota Camry being hauled to a junkyard, and then reminiscing about the day I purchased it and thought it was the most amazing thing ever, possessing a kind of infinite beauty. I ponder the same thoughts about my dad, who, as a little kid, was my invincible superhero – the strongest man in the world (in my eyes). Now in his eighties, he can barely feed himself. The full force of decay and entropy never hits us until the object of our desire is facing complete extinction – but even then, we often continue to deny impermanence. We desperately cling to people, things, and ideas, imbuing them with an everlasting life force to feed our purpose, meaning, and identity. And then when we experience death, loss, or a faith crisis, we find ourselves shocked, utterly bewildered and barely able to get out of bed and face the world –shell-shocked to find our world not as stable, predictable, and in control as assumed.

Emptiness and impermanence go hand-in-hand because the tranquil state of emptiness can only be experienced when you grasp for nothing. Emptiness is experienced when you fully embody the reality that nothing is solid, and nothing is predictable. This is what it means to just be; palms open clutching nothing, and a mind unshackled by the chains of constant thinking. This conception of emptiness doesn’t mean that we avoid enjoying people and things, rather, it means we don’t cling with parasitic tenacity to the concepts, ideals, and expectations of people and things. It means that we are able to take a step back, and simply embrace the now – the present moment. We’re not living in the past and we’re not placing demands on what the future should look like.

.kjn;

Empty of Your Own Identity

The second thread that weaves the idea of emptiness is non-self. If I asked you to tell me where self is located, where would you point? Most people point to their head or heart. If you lose and arm, are you still you? Are you still you if you have a heart transplant? What about if you experience a brain injury? Where exactly is your self located?

At some point in time, we’ve done or said something that we later regretted, and thought, “that wasn’t me.” Or you’ve felt like you weren’t being yourself. You have many “self’s”, for instance, when you are mad, excited, nervous, in front of an audience, alone in your house, at work, or with your friends. So which ‘you’ is ‘you’?

We all live with the illusion that we have a self. We speak with the upmost confidence when we speak in first-person, “I”. If pressed to describe yourself, you will begin listing the attributes that make you … you. In essence, the “self” is the story that we create and live by which is the accumulation of our history and experiences. But the “I” is just that: a story that we’ve created and live by. The story you create evolves every day; morphing based on your perception of life events.

The mistake we make is in seeing our self as a fixed identity. We live by fixed descriptions that we lump together to form the concept of self. These fixed identities are as simple as man/woman, parent/child, smart/dumb, responsible/undependable, optimistic/pessimistic, introvert/extravert, etc. The problem is that we live with the illusion that these descriptions make our “self” solid and fixed. To the contrary, we are a vast array of feelings, perceptions, and responses that ebb and flow and cannot be pinned down to something fixed and solid. The “you” of last year, is different than the “you” of today. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus long ago said, “you can never step into the same river twice.” We are constantly changing, and who you were last week is not the same as today. In the past week, you have experienced many feelings, perceptions, and reactions that – even in the most minuscule of ways – have shifted the way you interface with the world.

What does all this have to do with emptiness? Well, emptiness is the realization that nothing is fixed and solid, just like our concept of self. In other words, in a state of emptiness, you’re not attached to the descriptions and identities that make up ‘you’. Instead, you see yourself as an experiencing consciousness that accepts life as it happens. ‘Accept’ doesn’t mean condone; rather, it means that you face the world with courage, knowing that all events in life – like the ocean – ebb and flow. Moreover, it means that when conflict (psychological or physical) comes your way, you possess the wisdom and insight to know that your identity and “self” is not really being threatened. Rather, like a cloud moving through the sky before dissipating, so too will the conflict that appears to threaten the “self”.

km;lmpom

Final Words

Emptiness means holding onto nothing. The intersection of impermanence and non-self is in the realization that nothing is fixed – even though we live like all is fixed and under our control. As long as we live under the illusion of control and that people/things are predictable and fixed in our lives, pain and suffering will be waiting at the threshold. Like I have already said, while suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachment you have with the world you have created. Making peace with the reality of emptiness is the antidote to deep despair. Emptiness is a state of being that helps accept that everything comes and goes and ebbs and flows. Again, everyone knows this intellectually, but few truly embody this in their daily living. For when we embody emptiness, we approach ourselves and the world with a humble, open and accepting disposition that acknowledges that even though suffering is part of life, it need not overtake us. Negative emotional states will arise and fade. We need not get swept away by the torrid currents of anger, bitterness, and despair. They too shall pass.

 

 

 

 

Image of A Good Life

Written and finished at Starbucks in San Jose with a triple espresso at my side and an EDM band called Tobu blasting in my ears. This is an essay inspired in my continued quest to think deeply and introspectively about the clients that I provide counseling to as they deal with terminal illness.

knpoin

 

I’d like to propose an illustration that, perhaps, captures the image of a good life. For millennia, philosophers and religions alike, have tried to explain what the good life entails. For some, the good life is simply happiness or happiness found in an external agent, like God. Others have pointed out that the good life has to do with love, personal flourishing, or self-realization while doing meaningful activities. With so many theories, it’s easy to feel helpless when confronted with the deeply personal question: what does the good life look like? Rather than succumb to a one-size-fits all answer, I’ll put forth an illustration.

The good life is like a jazz group jamming together.

Allow me to clarify this illustration. The good life is like a jazz group jamming together; whereby people create a melodic harmony through engaging in meaningful experiences through free-flowing unencumbered expressions of living out their full potential. The result is a kind unbroken rhythm of joy and contentment.

You see, with jazz, you get this informal and improvised session whereby the musicians work off one another’s joyful creative expression to form a harmonious whole. Unlike a symphonic orchestra where the group follows a pre-defined musical score, jazz creates space for complex harmony to take place from the free expression of individuals playing together. In order to create harmony, each member must have a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and ‘good of the whole.’ Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’, he does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing himself. There is a self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium or relationship among the performers. There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and – since there is free fulfillment or realization of powers – there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love.

'j[okm

Like jazz, the good life is your creative meaningful expression that’s played alongside other people. In order to have harmony in our lives, we align our meaningful expression with the good of the people around us (good of the whole). Our direction and aim is to realize our potential and true capacity to be better and wiser; and we do this through the lessons learned, and inspiration we receive from others. In doing so, we reap the pleasure, joy and wisdom through the reciprocal melodic love that we give and is given to us.

Does this sound utopian? Absolutely. If only it were that easy. However, we need an aim. We need a compass pointing north. The aim is the good life. Nevertheless, the good life is vague and can be interpreted in innumerable ways that get us nowhere. Going deeper, the good life is a meaningful life, whereby people are able to flourish and reach toward their full potential as human beings. Put more simply, the aim is personal flourishment that is good for the whole. It’s a life in which individuals create values and virtues for the good of the whole. This is the difference between totalitarian and true democracy. The jazz band illustration is representative of the cooperative effort of people to allow space for the discovery of rhythm and harmony through the freedom of meaningful expressions. However, if we reduce the conversation of the good life to an unachievable pipe dream then how would you even know when your life has any value or worth? To the contrary, each jazz band member is challenged to new heights as they play their part for the good of the whole, while realizing that they are not alone in their quest, for they are playing with others who are seeking their own meaningful pinnacle. I readily admit that my answer is vague and anyone can poke holes in it – “meaningful”, “flourishing” and “harmonious whole” are packed full of nuances and contexts that require a proper context. However, they are worthy starting points, albeit a target and aim, that do us well until someone can point to something better.

Lastly, my jazz illustration leaves out is the bass player who goes rogue and messes it up for everyone. And sometimes, we are the rogue bass player. We know what it’s like to experience environments that are rhythmically chaotic, where all seems out of tune. Narcissism, bitterness, resentment, victimhood, poor decisions, etc., all lead to the digression and disharmony of any quest for musical beauty. This is where responsibility comes into play. Just as each jazz musician is responsible for their performance in the band, so to in life each of us must bear our individual responsibility to keep harmony with ourselves and others. While the entire world will never function like a jazz band playing rhythmically off each other in a harmonious whole, we can still take responsibility for our part in the band and play (i.e. live) to our fullest potential. The people around us may be playing off key, however, when it’s our time to engage with life, we can respond and take action in the most meaningful of ways.

jkboin

A Shallow Dive into Meaning

Written at Starbucks in Willow Glen with my usual blonde roast coffee and Avicii on Pandora. This essay is inspired by my counseling sessions with people on hospice, with months to live. More to come.

lnm

Life is intrinsically meaningless. By intrinsic, I simply mean in-and-of-itself. For life is in fact deeply meaningful once we infuse it with meaning through shared experiences and values between conscious minds. A jug of water that sits on the surface of Mars, unbeknownst to any person in the universe is meaningless. However, a jug of water that is found by a dehydrated traveler in the Sahara is profoundly meaningful; for it can nourish his body or even save his life. It takes a conscious mind (an experiencer) to experience meaning. A letter received in the mail is rather meaningless. But everything changes if the letter inside the envelope reveals whether the recipient is accepted or denied entrance into medical school. For then, it’s not just a letter; it’s a portal into another dimension of life. Given these nuances, what then can we say about a meaningful life?

Meaning is an abstract representation of value and significance. When engaged with meaningful activities, we’re induced with visceral feelings that overtake and move us to acknowledge that some-thing or some-one is valuable and significant. Meaning is abstract like love, in that you can’t point directly to it or put it under a microscope to view it- yet we dare not deny its existence. A meaningful life obtains breadth and depth through engagement in relationships and connecting with the world through the expression of values and passions. Meaning is the elixir to life itself, in that, we need it to get through life. Without meaning, why or how would anyone go on? In contrast, our life takes on more purpose and significance when we allow ourselves to be bowled over by such experiences like beauty, love, and generosity, etc.

';om[oi

The responsibility of experiencing meaning falls upon you – the individual. We affect the quality and significance of meaning through our outlook and openness to life. Monday mornings, for example, are intrinsically meaningless. In-and-of-itself, Monday morning serves as a designation of time- that’s it. However, Monday morning gains contours and a complexion through its representation as, for example, the ending of your restful weekend and back to the office for another week of grinding it out. When you get out of bed on a Monday, you can either imbue the beginning of your week with a negative and nihilistic outlook or positive and opportunistic outlook. However, the somber and dismal perspective we put on Monday morning is a subjective expression that we imbue. The same goes with the breadth and depth of meaning in your life: the people, experiences, and perspective you take on life is shaped by the value and worth you imbue upon them.

Meaning gets its force and vitality through the value. My bi-annual trip to Hawaii with my family has a lot of value for me; while my business trip last January to Houston had little value. Laying with my 20-month old son as he goes to sleep is deeply valuable; but if my son is replaced with my cat Muffins, then it loses its meaningful force. Value, in the context that I am using it, is a symbolic representation of the worth and significance of some-thing or some-one. The beauty of our neural circuitry and evolutionary trajectory is that we possess the capacity to feel empathic, connect deeply, and express passionately. We have been blessed with the proclivities and predispositions to be turned inside-out by awe and wonder. Thus, we engage in meaningful projects, political movements, hobbies, and relationships that grip our attention while enriching our lives.

Any cursory discussion around meaning most always ends up with someone asking, “Well then, what is the meaning of life?” Well to start, there is a vast and crucial difference between “meaning of life” and “meaning in life.” It’s amazing how one little preposition can have such an impact! The search for the meaning of life is like the search for the fountain of youth – it’s something outside of you that you need to find in order to make you whole. While the search for meaning in life is your personal quest to figure out what keeps you motivated to get out of bed every morning – day after day. Albert Camus begins his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by stating, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question…” The worth and value of life is found in meaningful experiences, pursuits, and relationships – in life. Meaning is not out there waiting for you to find it, for example, at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. Rather, our day-to-day being itself, is a mosaic of meaningful opportunities and pursuits that should open our eyes to the panoply of beauty and value that surrounds us – in life.

.kjn;

Mental Self-Sabotage

m, ;in

Okay, let’s start by trying to recall a specific date in your past. Close your eyes, and think back to your experiences from Tuesday, January 20, 1998 to Sunday, February 8, 1998. For those 20 days in 1998, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you would have experienced a range of thoughts, leading to emotions such as joy, frustration, anxiousness, happiness, etc.

What I want you to do now is, recall specifically some of the thoughts you thought during those 20 days in 1998. I pose this thought experiment to many of the people that I counsel, and most will remember absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say you would have most definitely experienced, even if for only for a few minutes – thoughts leading to emotional states such as anxiety, sadness, anger, etc. My question is this: what happened to those thoughts? Well, for starters, those thoughts have dissipated into an oblivion. Like morning fog rolling through the terrain, so too those thoughts have dissipated into space.

The importance of my thought experiment is to highlight how fleeting thoughts are. The problem, however, is that despite our transient thoughts, we often get tangled up in our thoughts and spiral into emotional anguish. Mental suffering occurs when a thought arises, then we attach harmful judgments to those thoughts, thus allowing a strong emotional charge to take over our mind.

If thoughts just simply arise in consciousness only to eventually fade away, then why are so many people tormented by their thoughts? I’m sure that I spent at least three minutes in psychological distress during those 20 days in 1998, only to have those thoughts fade away. But why sabotage myself, even for three minutes of mental anguish, when the initial thought will soon evaporate into the ether?

lkjnl

A healthy way to deal with thoughts is to observe the thought rather than judging or analyzing. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe your reaction. For example, your boss criticizes you for a mistake you made on a project. Rather than identifying with the thought (thought: I can’t do anything right, emotion: self-loathing or sadness), you simply observe the thoughts arise, without critique. Then you choose the appropriate response that is within your control. You may respond my saying, “Okay, now I know better for next time,” or “I need to shift some things around in my life so I can be more effective at work.” But even if emotions of anger or sadness (naturally) creep in, simply observe them.

Why should you avoid judging and analyzing thoughts? Because that’s how emotions get charged. When we attach labels to our thoughts, we pour gasoline on the fire. Before you know it, a thought has turned into ruminating dark thoughts leading to charged emotions.. At this point, you have completely identified with your thoughts. Rather than watching the thought, you have become the thought. Self-sabotage as begun.

Thoughts are just thoughts. They come and go. Like large waves that crash and run up onto shore, then recede back into sea. Why fight the waves? Let them come and go. Watch them. You had over a million thoughts fly through your head in the aforementioned 20 days in 1998, and they floated away. You will have a million more thoughts float in your head in the next 20 days, let them come and go.

;klnpo

The Need For Ancient Stories, Even When They Are Barbaric

Written over two days and finished up while vacationing in Palm Desert. This essay was inspired after meeting with my monthly philosophy group which broached this topic. I finished this essay with a Venti blonde roast coffee at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi playing on Pandora.

ki

Let’s begin with some rhetorical questions. Is democracy bad because we can isolate some really bad historical offenses? Is science evil because it produced the hydrogen bomb and eugenics? I can say that I have pursued nobility and virtue in my life, but should I be deemed a vile human because I went through two years of narcissistic rebellion from 16-17 years of age? There is a tendency in our culture to isolate grievances within history, and then focus solely on the injustices born from those evils to the exclusion of anything good or lessons learned. This is the current tenor, especially when it comes tearing down statues of southern Civil War generals, demonizing Western Civilization, or dismissing and lambasting religion due to its abhorrent bronze-aged ethics. My point is that just because transgressions occur in history, even horrendous evils, doesn’t mean we should broad-brush with equal opprobrium.

Along these lines, it’s common for secularists to criticize and reject religion because it leans heavily on stories with histories in which “barbaric ethics” were accepted, as opposed to our more enlightened value system of today. I readily admit that I would much rather live in our current era, as opposed to ancient or even medieval times. Our current morality has progressed in such a way that societies have more freedoms, liberties, and rights – all of which contribute to a flourishing society. The mistake, however, is the wholesale repudiation of religious stories due to the ignoble period from which the stories are derived. Secularists are mistaken because these ancient stories address timeless existential concerns that speak to the human condition. Moreover, we interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action.

In this essay, I will focus on the secularist’s error in broad-brushing religion as insubstantial due to the savagery “endorsed” in holy writ. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight one of the most widely used stories secularist use to expose the ignobility of the Old Testament God: Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son. How can an ancient story that seemingly endorses human sacrifice be beneficial in our current era?

Here is short synopsis of the story. When Isaac grew to be a young boy, God tested Abraham by telling him to take his son (Isaac) and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Though filled with sadness and grief, Abraham obeyed God’s words without hesitation and took Isaac to the mountain. Abraham had complete faith that God would provide a way out and that he would not lose his son. At the moment that Abraham tied up Isaac, the angel of the Lord stopped him and said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”[1]

This is a wonderful story that has been interpreted a thousand different ways to personify such virtues as faith, love, sacrifice and loyalty. One can see Abraham’s radical faith in his “ultimate” love (i.e. God). One can distill from this notion the idea that we all have an Ultimate in life that reflects a deep foundational purpose for each of us – and making sacrifices to fulfill that purpose is what brings out the richness of life. The story can also reflect the relationship of love God has for Abraham in that God doesn’t want Abraham’s blood, God wants his heart. Moreover, the sacrifice aspect of the story is a motif that the church has adopted through lent, in an effort to deepen one’s dedication to God through sacrificing something meaningful to the believer. We can think of the story as taking us away from our narcissistic self so that we can re-focus on connecting with ideals and worthwhile pursuits that are truly more meaningful.

Unfortunately, secularists have sought to use pseudo-rationalism to dilute any valuable meaning from the story. The secular person will often note the savage ethics “endorsed” in the story which include, a call for child-sacrifice, a supposed loving God ordering Abraham to commit homicide, and the irrational blind faith of Abraham. But is this a fair assessment? I mean, this is a story preached every Sunday in some church or synagogue in America each week, and the rate of child-sacrifices due to divine command is, nevertheless, a non-issue.

The secularist’s curtailment of the virtues within the story is nothing more than the classic fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. In other words, the secularist presumes absurd and ridiculous conclusions. I can think of no church in history that regularly killed babies due to this divine fiat in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because ancient stories like this have been recognized for their deeper meaning and virtues. This story has not been used to justify any horrendous evils because humanity has been smart and practical enough to realize that more significant lessons for life may be gleaned.

It’s important to acknowledge that there have been one-off examples of child homicide due to divine commands, but those are cases in which psychological disorders were diagnosed and swift punishment was carried out. In 2004, Deanna Laney killed her two young sons because God told her to do it. She stated in an interview, “I felt like I obeyed God and I believe there will be good out of this.”[2] This is similar to Andrea Yates of Texas who, in 2001, drowned her 5 children in the bathtub because the voice of God in her head ordered it. These cases are ones in which both Christians and Jews alike firmly believe are egregious and amoral. Moreover, psychological illness is the culprit, not a well thought out interpretation of the text. Never do we see faithful adherents of the Old Testament defending the actions of these one-off cases.

Another retort from secularists is to suggest that we set aside stories like this and conjure up a different story or select a real-life story that conveys Enlightenment virtues? This is a much more charitable rebuttal to the Abrahamic story. However, I would still argue that this suggestion fails to take into consideration the pragmatic elements of these ancient stories which speak directly to our human condition. Ancient stories abound and resonate througout milennia because they address fundamental existential concerns. Ancient narratives such as the Gilgamesh Epic (Sumeria), the Enuma Elish (Babylonia) and Egyptian Book of the Dead all provide motifs that include a fall into chaos, a struggle with evil or suffering, and then redemption – which is the relevant reality that impacts the 21-century person. Thus, whether you are in 3000 BCE Sumeria or 2019 Idaho, the quest to make meaning from suffering still permeates the soul.

Ancient stories are timeless treasures that expose the vulnerability and inclinations of the human mind. Stories from the past, even tall tales, fables or legends, unveil the psychological architecture which propel man to navigate the world – and from which we can look back and learn. Shall we set aside Plato because of the orgies and sexism found within his text? Shall we do away with the lessons and ideals of the Reformation because Martin Luther was anti-Semitic? It is simply intellectual pride to apply the pseudo-rational strategy of the secularist whereby modern moral superiority is exalted at all cost.

My argument holds true for other so-called abhorrent ethics of ancient writ. We interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action. Progressive Muslims are currently doing this with the difficult texts in the Quran. While a very small interpret the ancient commands as literal – which I admit is scary – a vast majority are able to employ Enlightenment values onto the Quran and glean life lessons that embolden virtue for today. And this is how culture works. Truth is found in what is useful, practical, and works within a given community. The reason why societies have progressed throughout the centuries is that we are able to view moral conundrums through the question: what does better look like? Thus, the complexion of freedom, liberty, and justice evolve throughout past centuries to reflect to norms and values as we pursue what ‘better’ looks like. Communities have proven that we are pretty good at improving on our mistakes, especially when you compare, for example, the Medieval period with today, or even 1900 ACE with 2000 ACE.

For these reasons, we ought to give these ancient stories their due. We glean what is useful and beneficial. We use them as road maps to live with more vitality and meaning. We recognize that even though they were written within a different context along with different values than we may have today, they nevertheless address the fundamental elements of the angst of being a human being in a world filled with chaos.

[1] Genesis 22:12 (NIV)

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/god-told-me-to-kill-boys-says-mother-54427.html

War on Cops and Mass Incarceration: Do we have a problem?

cops

We live in interesting times. Even though we currently live in the safest period in history, you would never suspect it. A recent wave of scholarship—including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” – has converged on the interpretation that the present disparities we see in society continue as a form of blatant racism. Furthermore, liberal media outlets drum the narrative of an epidemic of mass incarcerations and rampant police shootings of black criminals. This has given rise to the Black Lives Matters (BLM) movement and has permeated into the political sphere with rhetoric that casts blacks as the victims of white privilege and structural racism. These narratives have coalesced into the belief that racism is behind the disparities we see in society. But is this narrative true? In this essay, I wish only to address and challenge the narrative which says that America’s epidemic of mass incarceration and rampant police shootings of black people is evidence of structural racism. My claim is that behavioral and cultural factors, as oppressed to structural “racist” agendas, are in fact what explains high incarceration rates. Furthermore, I will use data to so show that there is no clear evidence that blacks are specifically targeted and killed by racist officers.

The 2014 Ferguson shooting of a black man, Michael Brown, sparked a movement of remarkable proportion in America. This event birthed a narrative that claimed rampant and unjustified force by cops, particularly white cops, around the country. BLM took to the streets all across the country claiming that the shootings proved that racism is more prevalent than ever. The ACLU came out in full force, helping to spread the message that black men are at risk at the hands of white cops. In 2018, NYU hosted a panel discussion called, The Epidemic of Police Brutality, which, like the media, casts the problem as something both excessive and flagrant. Perhaps you’ve noticed that if a black assailant is shot by a white cop, the message and coverage on CNN automatically assumes racist intent without any due process.  So, is this message from the Left true? Is structural racism so pervasive that our most trusted institutions are intentionally targeting black people?

Well, statistics shed light onto the myth of structural racism. In 2018, 998 people were shot and killed by police. Of those 998, 210 where black and 405 were white.[1] If white victims of shootings almost double that of blacks, how is that racism against blacks?[2] This stat should cause the Left to pause and think more about their arguments – but it hasn’t. Moreover, black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to fire a gun at blacks than white officers. This is according to a Department of Justice report in 2015 about the Philadelphia Police Department, and is further confirmed by a study conducted by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway in 2015 that determined black cops were 3.3 times more likely to fire a gun than other cops at a crime scene. Moreover, blacks are more likely to kill cops than be killed by cops. This is according to FBI data, which also found that 40 percent of cop killers are black. According to Heather Mac Donald, the police officer is 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black person than a cop killing an unarmed black person.[3]

Here is the problem, the slightest hint of disproportionate action on law enforcement is blamed on structural racism. Black intellectual, Larry Elder, highlights the sheer lunacy of such reactionary exclamations at the 2015 BLM protests in Baltimore over the shooting of Freddie Gray. While his fellow blacks insisted upon structural racism thriving in Baltimore, Elder insightfully points out that the Freddie Gray shooting happened with a black police chief at the helm, with a majority of black officers protecting the city, and a city council possessing a majority of black democrats, with a black Attorney General in office, and a black President of the United States running the country. How is this structural racism?

The Wrong Benchmark

The prevailing argument follows this thesis: any inequality is inequity. In other words, if things aren’t equal then it’s unfair. If blacks make up only 13% of the population, the 210 deaths of black victims shot by police are now disproportionally magnified. The rhetoric of mass incarceration follows the same argument: if blacks are a higher percentage than other races in the prison system, then it means that they are targeted unfairly. Nevermind how particular cultures lack certain values and virtues that breed a strong work ethic, or grit, or appreciation for education. The Left shifts the blame to external factors – an insidious use of power and oppression brought on by white people. Thus, if there is a disparity within the overall population, it must be due to racism.

npin

The population-ratio argument goes like this: if blacks make up only 12-14% of the population, how come they are killed by police and incarcerated at a greater percentage to the population. The problem with focusing on population is that we are talking about crime. First, consider that because there is such a concentration of criminal violence in minority communities, this will mean that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force. The Wall Street Journal notes that 2009 statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that blacks were charged with 62 percent of robberies, 57 percent of murders and 45 percent of assaults in the 75 biggest counties in the country, despite only comprising roughly 15 percent of the population in these counties. Such a concentration illustrates how unlikely officers will confront someone other than black in those urban areas.

Crime should be the benchmark, not population-ratios,  because this is what officers respond to. But this hasn’t stopped the Left from using population-ratio to assert racism with regards to arrests, racial profiling, and stop-and frisk laws. This, however, is precisely the core flaw of left-wing anti-cop rhetoric: the failure to define the proper benchmark for evaluating police behavior. Inevitably policing is compared to population ratios, for example, in NYC about 50% of all pedestrians stopped are black, yet blacks are only about 23% of the population. According to the Left and especially BLM, this shows that police are racist. Again, this is the wrong benchmark. Blacks in NYC commit 71% of all shootings, if you add Hispanic shootings, both account for 98% of all shootings in NY. Whites are 34% of the population and account for 2% of shootings. Again, the benchmark should be crime since that is what police address. Here is a counter argument that exposes the lunacy of this logic: males make up around 50% of the population, yet are disproportionately incarcerated more than females. Thus, it must be systemic bigotry. Perhaps it’s males that actually commit more crime?

Black-on-Black Homicides

The BLM movement is waging a war with perceptions and illusions. The real fight, however, is backed by solid data. Blacks die of homicide at 6x’s the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. This is a massively alarming statistic that should unite all races in finding a solution. And the solution ought not be anti-cop rhetoric. Predominantly black inner cities need cops the most.

The BLM movement is a farce, end-stop. I agree that black lives absolutely matter. This is not up for debate. The anti-cop BLM message, however, has wasted so much time on an illusion of structural racism rather than the black-on-black crime and homicide.

In 2016 there were 4300 people shot in Chicago – that’s 1 person every 2 hours – they were all black. Can you imagine if 4300 white people were shot? The media doesn’t care about black bodies, unless their shot by a white cop. They do care about white bodies, and we see this if there’s a school shooting and white kids are taken out – it’s the end of the world. In magnitude of deaths, there’s a school-type shooting every couple of months in black communities and nobody gives a damn – except the police and families in those communities. If BLM wants to make a difference, they would shift their message to address the death rate of black-on-black crime in inner cities.

Mass Incarceration

Let’s start with the obvious: many of our inner cities foster a culture that normalizes violence and criminality rather than nurturing family values and a strong work ethic. After all, impoverished neighborhoods from L.A. to New York are not leading the nation in high school graduation, 2-parent households, or credit scores higher than 700. Moreover, the murder rate in the U.S. inner cities, comprising of all races and background, is around 22x’s higher than Germany.[4] However, nested in concentrated poor urban communities in America, is a culture that sees violence and criminality as the norm.

In her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander argues that the American criminal justice system itself is an instrument of racial oppression. “Mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race,” she says. What gives Alexander’s message force is a subtle trick that involves disproportionality and overrepresentation are cast. The sweeping popularity of Alexander’s ideology needs to be addressed, as she has emerged as a major voice within the BLM movement.

threat

What ‘s the trick that Alexander and Left uses? It goes like this: any disparities between races, with population rations as the benchmark, prove that racism and oppression at work. This strategy is the similar to the one mentioned above regarding crime. Again, population is the benchmark, albeit, the wrong benchmark. With incarceration, Michelle Alexander and other Leftists frame the argument in terms of overrepresentation. Thus, if blacks make up only 13% of the population and 33% of all prisoners[5], while whites are 64% of the population and make up 30% of prisoners, well then, blacks are overrepresented. Now we have the ideologically charged narrative: if blacks are overrepresented over and above whites in prison, then it must be because of racism. Now, the NAACP can cry foul and alarm the masses with rhetoric that says, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.”[6] Oh, then it must be racism.

But wait. Could the problem be that blacks are actually committing crime more than other groups? In 2013, the FBI has black criminals carrying out 38% of murders, compared to 31.1% for whites. The offender’s race was “unknown” in 29.1 per cent of cases. What about violent crime more generally? FBI arrest rates are one way into this. Over the last three years of data – 2011 to 2013 – 38.5% of people arrested for murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault were black. Naysayers will hint that the problem is that a high arrest rate for blacks is evidence of racism, but academica have noted that the proportion of black suspects arrested by the police tends to match closely the proportion of offenders identified as black by victims in the National Crime Victimization Survey.

What about the narrative that blacks are convicted disproportionately to whites? Our judicial system actually under-prosecutes murder in minority communities because minority communities are under-policed. When the police do come into contact with the black community, police are less likely to kill black people, according to Peter Moscos at CUNY.[7] In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing. They concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms.

A 1987 analysis of Georgia felony convictions, for example, found that blacks frequently received disproportionately lenient punishment. A 1990 study of 11,000 California cases found that slight racial disparities in sentence length resulted from blacks’ prior records and other legally relevant variables. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas discovered that blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites did and that they were less likely to be found guilty at trial. Following conviction, blacks were more likely to receive prison sentences, however—an outcome that reflected the gravity of their offenses as well as their criminal records. The media’s favorite criminologist, Alfred Blumstein, found in 1993 that blacks were significantly underrepresented in prison for homicide compared with their presence in the arrest data.[8] This hardly sounds like systemic racism.

Internal Culture vs External Power

If there was one knock-down argument that shows the myth of systemic racism, it would be the comparison of American born blacks with black immigrant West Indians (Afro-Carribean). With this comparison you have two groups of blacks, who for all purposes, look indistinguishable. In other words, they are subjected whatever level of systemic racism exists. Whatever “system” is holding one group back would logically hold the other back as well given the, so-called, systemic racism pervading American life. So here is the million-dollar question: do West Indian blacks experience the same structural racism that American born blacks face?

According to much research, and noted by Thomas Sowell, West Indians have a much different experience than American born blacks. Sowell, who is black, notes that second-generation West Indians living in the same cities as black Americans were earning 58% more. Moreover, West Indians have higher rates of high school education, college enrollment, and professional occupations than their American black counterparts. Also, the West Indians crime rate is much lower in comparison. If we look at the facts and data, it demonstrates that the “racist system” is virtually non-existent for West Indian blacks.[9] If structural racism were true, then West Indians would have similar crime rates, incarceration rates and single-parent households. Again, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a West Indian and your typical black person on the street. If structural racism exists, why is it that West Indian blacks have more wealth and career mobility than American born blacks? Perhaps, the answer for the disparities is not found in racism, but behavioral factors in groups.

The core difference between a liberal and a conservative outlook in the world is that liberals will only accept structural explanations for socio-economic disparities, and they will not ever accept a behavioral explanation. For example, when you look at poverty, the biggest driver in American poverty is having children out of wedlock. If you are a single mother, the chances are really high that you’re going to be poor and your child is 5x’s more likely to be poor if he were a child of married parents. The Left leaning Brookings Institute noted three things to become middle class: graduate high school, wait until your married to have a child, and work full-time. 73% of people who did this are not poor. We can always blame external boogey-men for making life unfair, but at some point, we have to consider the behavioral values and virtues which are nourished within groups.

Ask yourself this: what would black culture look like if they acted like Asians for 10 years, in all things? What if blacks lived with the same negligible rate of child rearing, the same fanatical involvement in school, and the same parental involvement and drive. If they adopted strict Asian values, do think they would maintain their high crime rate? Do you think their poverty rate would improve? Only a fool would assert that nothing would change for the life of a black person.

However, if that though experiment would happen, and we still saw socioeconomic disparities – then and only then would I entertain institutional and structural racism as a problem. As long as the behaviors are so vastly different – in California right now, the truancy rate is 5x’s higher for blacks than any other ethnic group – as long as those behaviors are different, I think it’s premature to say that the only possible explanation is structural racism.

 

[1] Washington Post database for police shootings.

[2] Even back in 2015, the stats show similar findings. 995 people were shot dead by police officers, 497 were white and 259 were black.

[3] War on Cops, 37.

[4] Furthermore, Another difference between the US and other relatively safe developed nations is that the US has a much higher homicide rate than similarly “safe” countries. 14,827 people were murdered in the US last year. This is way down from the 24,526 US murders in 1993, yet still leaves the US at 4.8 murders per 100,000 citizens. In comparison, Japan has .4 murders per 100,000 residents. Germany has .8, Australia 1, France 1.1, and Britain–who has recently garnered media attention for being the most dangerous wealthy European nation– has 1.2. https://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/violent-crime-us-abroad/.

[5] Pew Research Center, 2018.

[6] https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

[7] http://www.copinthehood.com/2015/04/killed-by-police-2-of-3-race.html

[8] Heather McDonald, War on Cops, 153.

[9] Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks, White Liberals.

Illusion of Self

Finished at Starbucks in San Jose while listening to Sublime on Pandora. Drinking a blonde roast and wondering: “Do I have a self?” Here is a 2000 word articulation of my thoughts on “I” and “self”.
dcdc

The “I” is a constructed idea, a collection of fluid opinions, beliefs, ideals, projections, and emotions, rather than something fixed. Because there is so much fluidity in our opinions, beliefs, and ideals, the sense of ‘self’ is always evolving. So just as Heraclitus said, “you can never step into the same river twice,” the same holds true for the elusive ‘self’. The sense of ‘self’ is simply a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.

Stop for a second, and ask yourself where your “self” or “I” is? Most people will point to their head or stomach area. Most everyone is aware of the inner voice in their mind (technically known as the homunculus, meaning, little man), who gives opinions, analyses, guides, etc. Is the inside voice your “I”? Each of us lives with a sense of a self. We feel like we have an independent and existent “I.” We all yearn for clarity to the questions “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you.” It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we really don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? Does the ‘self’ survive even if I lose an arm or leg?

As a relatively new dad, I’ve been pondering this question. When will my son realize his “I”, his self, his identity? As a one-year old, he barely has control over his bowel movements. But somewhere along the path of childhood, he will start to develop a sense of self-identity and pride. My interest is this: what will constitute my son’s “I”, and is it real, or an illusion?

To answer this question, I’m reminded of Charles Cooley’s tongue-twisting claim about the self: ‘I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am’. In other words, my son’s “I” will be molded from what other’s think of him. Simply put, we discover who we are, and we come to value our self, based on what others think. Earning respect and social acceptance from others is probably one of the major preoccupations that we can have. The self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us. People shape themselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person to the next. Spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans, and beggar in the street each hold a looking glass up to us every time we interact, and we present a different self. The illusion is that we think we alone are calling the shots. We think we know what our true authentic self is, and can literally put our finger on it.

lol

Realizing the delusions of our self is akin to the little dog Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinations of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the Land of Oz, the Wizard was dominant, all-powerful, and authoritative, and everyone deferred to him. This is like our ego, telling us what to do and convincing us that it alone is wise and knows all. Then, one day, we get fed up and tired of being sent on wild goose chases, and we discover that the big Wizard is only a rather small, insecure, and powerless old man shouting into a microphone. It is all ruse. The Wizard dominated for his own benefit; Dorothy never needed him to get her “home.” Our personal Wizard might be the internalized voice of our parents, or of society, or of our profession. The Wizard is not us, however, and we don’t actually need him in the driver’s seat. Invariably, getting “home” and overcoming our self-destructive tendencies require us only to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal our own false sense of self.

My argument can be summed up in three points:

  1. The “I” is a constructed idea
  2. There is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I”
  3. We predispose ourselves to expect that we live out the “story” which we think defines us

First, the “I” is a constructed idea, a collection of opinions, projections, and emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.

We all manufacture an elusive “I” filled with character traits, virtues, and a back-story so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect our fragile ego’s. We cultivate a “self” from the amalgamation of our experiences, memories, and extensions.  A man’s “I” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his accomplishments and status.

The “I” is our constructed story that forms and shapes our identity. We are the chief architects of our individual selves as we build up a sense of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and the pronominal ‘I’. During the different phases of our development we morph into the ‘smart one’ or ‘the athlete’ of the family; or the ‘shy girl’ or ‘the funny guy’ in high school. We are constantly sizing up people and experiences around us in order to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. We adapt by creating defenses and extensions so that our world becomes more manageable. We adapt by using denial, “That’s not really me!” and projection, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything.” We use are extensions to help us with our role and status in society. Thus, our extensions become our looks, our cars, our houses, and what appears on our Facebook feed. In essence, our extensions become our identities.

Second, there is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.” We see this in our ever-evolving acting roles given the experiences we face and the situations we find ourselves in. I may say and feel, for example, that I am a father, husband, counselor, writer, son, impatient driver, mellow driver, good triathlete, funny guy, contemplative guy, coach, and so on. But I am none of these concretely, permanently, solidly, independently, or absolutely, even if I do believe I exist in all those ways at certain times and places.

ec

Sometimes I am a husband, but with my mom – I assume the role of son. I play the role of good driver when my wife and son are in the car, but I’m like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights when I am in my car alone and I am late for an appointment. I’m professional and serious at work, but I’m goofy and crazy with my close friends. Am I a husband, good driver, and goofy constantly and absolutely? Not at all. I simply can’t nail down my identity or “me” because I play a plethora of roles in order to adapt to my environment. Moreover, if tomorrow I lose everything and find myself bankrupt and alone, I will assume a new role and character. Simply put, the self and “I” is not physical, but it’s symbolic. The “I” is an ever-changing symbolic narrative we mold as it undergoes perpetual construction, refining, and re-definition.

Why am I so focused on deconstructing the illusion of “I”? The reason is simple: I’m concerned with how we predispose ourselves to live out particular “stories” that we think define us. How you define yourself will color how you see the world and influence how you handle problems and suffering. Often when we have an experience, we generalize it to a personal trait. So, when going through various experiences, we typically reinforce an imprint of who we think we are. In a sense we could say we predispose ourselves to expect that we will live out the “story” that we think defines us, even when that story leads us into perpetual failure or self-destructive habits.

When we fail to recognize the illusion of the “I”, we end up fusing our identity with our emotions. We all, most likely would agree that we are not our beliefs, our experiences, or our roles. We know intellectually that we are not solely any of these limited things, but there’s the rub. Despite this understanding, we often behave and react otherwise. We “forget” in the heat of the moment. We live in a kind of consensual hallucination brought on by our emotions, which are experienced so fully and directly, it’s as if they take over our mind and we “fuse” our identity with them.

Just look how we talk about their emotions. We say, “I am hungry,” and “Boy, I’m tired,” or “I’m mad at my boss.” In the moment we become hunger, tired, and anger. All day long we are constantly identifying with our emotions, and we treat them as if they are the infallible barometer of our true self. The reality is this: when we fuse our emotions to our (constructed) identity we cause our own anxiety by projecting specific beliefs, perceptions, and values onto the situation.

bhbh

Currently, I am stressed because I have a rocky relationship with a co-worker. I have anxiety over the way that this co-worker treats me and false assumptions she has of me. But this anxiety is my own fault and my own doing. I am clinging to my sense of “I” that says, “I need to have a good reputation,” and “I deserve to be liked by everybody.” This is part of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. This, however, begs the question: if I don’t get perceived by others that way, then am I the opposite? Am I thus, a person with a sketchy reputation who should not be trusted? It certainly feels that that’s the perception. Quite honestly, my identity feels threatened! My anxiety, then, is the direct result of this aversion and/or desire I have around a specific identity (e.g. reputable, well-liked), and my attachment to the outcome.

Do you see the emotional fusion? Anxiety is fused with the desire and attachment to an insatiable need to be liked and respected. Why? Because I have constructed an identity that says, “Wes is a reputable person who needs to be well-liked and respected.” That is the role, identity, and “I” that I have constructed.

Just because I believe the “I” is an illusion doesn’t been that we have to resign ourselves to a feeling of floating nothingness. It’s impossible to live 24/7 denying the “I”. The reason for this is because we all have experiences; and experiences are the catalyst for the formation of the “I.” Thus, we are destined to always construct a story of our “self,” as well as concretize an identity and story we wish to live out.  Given this inevitability, my suggestion is that we approach our personal “I” with open-mindedness and flexibility. I’d much rather adapt to a role in which “I” is known as, “Wes, the compassionate person,” rather than, “Wes, who is needy of attention.” The point I want to make is that you can take a step back and re-cast your role within the world, such that, your “I” is one that is mindfully aware of how to best integrate into the world and get along with others and yourself.

In reality, the “I” doesn’t actually refer to anything. You can have an elaborate story about “I,” and you can refer to that story and worry about how that story is going, but there is no-thing that all of that refers to. “I” is just a lot of memories patched together to make what we call a self-image, which is an accurate description of it – it’s an image. In the end, it turns out that “I” is just thoughts about “I.”

 

 

 

 

 

Your Reality is the Placebo

imageshbhb

My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every (real) experience, (real) belief and (real) worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

Your Reality is the Placebo

Let’s just dive right into my argument … Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

We commonly think of a placebo as pill or injection used to trick people into believing something that isn’t true. Thus, we reduce it to simply a trick. What is often left out of the conversation is that when the patient takes the pill, if they truly believe in the supposed outcome, there can in fact be physiological and psychological changes that move the patient towards the presumed outcome. In other words, the patient creates a reality based on the belief that the pill will work. To minimize it as only a trick or delusion is to ignore the objective evidence that the placebo effect can work. Before moving on, allow me to explain in greater detail just how the placebo works.

The Elements of the Placebo

The placebo effect has three vital elements: conditioning, expectation and meaning. First, if a person keeps taking the same substance, his brain keeps firing the same circuits in the same way – in effect, memorizing what the substance does. The person can easily become conditioned to the effect of a pill or injection from associating it with a familiar internal change from past experience. Because of this kind of conditioning, when the person then takes the placebo, the same hardwired circuits will fire as when they took the drug. As associative memory elicits a subconscious program that makes a connection between the pill or injection and the hormonal change in the body, and then the program automatically signals the body to make the related chemicals found in the drug.

Second, expectation is formed around what we’re conditioned to believe will happen when we take the pill, and what we think that everyone around us (including our doctors) expects will happen when we do, thus affecting how our body responds to the pill.

plplLastly, the process of expectation elevates the meaning of the experience by which you consciously marry your thoughts and intentions with a heightened state of emotions, such as joy or gratitude. Once you embrace that new emotion and you get more excited, you’re bating your body in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. It could be suggested that you’re giving your body a taste of future experiences. Your brain and body don’t know the difference between having an actual experience in your life and just thinking about the experience – neurochemically, it’s the same. So the brain and body begin to believe they’re actually in the new experience in the present moment. Quite simply, the conscious mind merges with the subconscious mind. Once the placebo patient accepts a thought as reality, and then emotionally believes and trusts in the end result, the next thing that happens is a change in their psychology and physiology.

Beliefs Are Placebos

My contention is that by connecting the placebo effect with the beliefs we hold, we can thus uncover the architecture of belief. We can define belief as trust and confidence in the acceptance that a statement or concept is true or exists. While belief consists of many trivial things (i.e. I’m typing on a laptop right now, and, I believe I am wearing a gray shirt, etc.), for the sake of brevity I will focus on the concepts that deal with life’s deepest existential questions such as: why should I not kill myself, and what is my highest aim on this planet? To answer these questions requires some kind of a belief-system that offers explanations or guidance.

gtgtgThe beliefs we hold, concerning one’s existential condition in the universe, follows the pattern of the placebo effect just mentioned: conditioning, expectation and meaning. The two examples I will simultaneously use to demonstrate this claim will be identified as (1) and (2), and explained as such:

(1) the religious belief of the justice of God provides hope in the midst of suffering

(2) the secular belief/goal in the pursuit of human flourishing provides gratitude in working together for a common good.

Both (1) and (2) conditions the person to the experiential effects in holding (1) and (2). The effects are varied but not limited to:

-Feeling of security in having a “why” deep life’s deepest concerns

-Feeling of hope and purpose with life

-Feeling of intentionality with life

-Positive feeling in having a plan/perspective to life’s challenges

It’s important to note that these feelings impact the neurochemistry of its adherents with hormonal changes that effect one’s physiology. As evidence of this claim, simply think of the emotions that rise when you think about how someone you care deeply for went out of their way to help you when you needed it most. The pleasant hit of dopamine in your brain is much different from the stress hormones of cortisol released when your flight/fight reflexes kick in. In essence, you get conditioned to accept that this is, well, good! The conditioning is further solidified in the environment when you surround yourself in a community of other fellow adherents, thus reinforcing that this belief is worthy of pursuing.

The expectation of (1) and (2) is grounded in the mental rehearsal in past experiences that creates the future reality that you will indeed receive the same dose of joy, security, hope, etc. Now (1) and (2) gain anticipatory feelings that look like, for example, (A) resting in God’s love will give me peace, and (B) a deep concern for the well-being of others will bring me happiness. Thus, expectation in now grounded in one’s psyche. The end result is that the conditioning and expectation gives the belief meaning. Now, the belief is concretized and justified as a noble pursuit.

kkmkmJust as the patient gives power to the external agent (the pill), you and I give power to beliefs. The power we give to the pill or belief will mold our reality. This is crucial when it comes to worldviews that we adopt to help guide us through life’s most perplexing existential questions. For example, hope and gratitude, at an existential stratum, are two psychological pillars of emotionality that – at a fundamental level – keep one from killing oneself. Hope gives the good, bad and the ugly a positive, optimistic or guiding context. Gratitude gives us the attitude and disposition for all of the good, bad and ugly.

Moreover, the psychological benefits of hope and gratitude prove to be the placebo that dampens the dread of death and tragedy, so much so, that religious people call it by another name: the justice of God. The justice of God is a conceptual placebo packed with propositions that has morphed throughout history to give man a “why?” to the most difficult questions. Therefore, the justice of God helps the religious person psychologically posture themselves before, during and after tragedy strikes, with the presupposition that whatever happens – no matter how bad – is part of God’s perfect and good plan.

Even secular man tackles the “why?” with other placebos that are, like the justice of God, rooted in hope and gratitude that are purely conceptual. For example, hope in leaving behind an altruistic legacy and hope in the progress of compassion and love. All of this with an attitude of gratitude that civilization has astonishingly blossomed from hominoids all the way to vast democracies where people cooperate and flourish. Herein lies the placebo of hope and gratitude, that function as the scaffolding and architecture of the reality we create. This is what gives belief power and meaning to life’s deepest existential questions.

In closing….

Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

A deeper point I wish to glean from my premises is that your reality is the placebo. Your reality is the placebo that shapes your attitudes and beliefs, thus altering your neural and physiological chemistry. The goal, however, is to realize that the placebo is not in the external pill, but in what your mind produces.

Just like a patient given a placebo pill who places their power in the external object (the pill) to bring about change, there is an internal placebo (e.g. beliefs/reality) that we give power to, that brings epigenetic changes. The internal placebo is the power we give to beliefs through conditioning, expectations and meaning. The power we give to beliefs change our physiological and psychological disposition.

 

My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every experience, belief and worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

gvgv

**Possible Rebuttals**

My essay is done, but…..

It’s here that I can imagine someone quoting some positive psychology of “The Secret” that basically says: dream it and it will come true. Again, my argument is not centered on dreaming up your reality, or, faking it till you make it. Rather, it’s recognizing that our lives function as a story, and we are the lead actor in our life-long drama. And the way that we interpret our life depends on the beliefs and worldviews we hold dear. We alone are the one’s who give power to those beliefs and worldviews, just like the patient who gives power to the placebo pill. Moreover, the beauty of the placebo reality is that it can really change our psyche and physiology, thus improving our well-being.

I can also hear the secular person saying, “but at least my naturalistic worldview is more real than the religionist worldview.” By this, I presume he is meaning that the naturalistic worldview is more ‘objectively real’ than most (or all) religions. This, however, is a reductionistic argument on the part of the secular person, for it presumes that what is real is that which can only be objectively demonstrated. My claim is that reality has innumerable layers that lay subterranean beneath that which can be only falsifiable or testable.

For instance, we can say that the numbers 9 and 11 are objectively real – timeless symbols that are part of a mathematical system. However, they are so much more than that. One layer deeper, and we form a calendar whereby 9 stands for September and 11 stands for the days in September. A layer deeper than that triggers emotions of sadness, for it symbolizes tragic loss. Moreover, a layer under that is a shift in perception of “ground zero” in New York, and terrorism in general, since it hit so close to home. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s birthday is on September 11, so for her, her reality of those numbers are not all sad. My point is that “reality” is a multi-varied metaphor that is not necessarily objective, rather, it is subjectively experienced.

 

A Defense of Self-Transcendence

The reason I feel compelled to write about self-transcendence is because it is an extremely nebulous word that gets tossed around without proper explanation. Second, self-transcendence is deserving of attention because it is fundamental to the human quest for experiencing the meaning in life. Lastly, I feel obligated to defend self-transcendence against the skeptics attempt to reduce it to just brain states. To the contrary, self-transcendence involves real experiences that can illuminate life, meaning, purpose and significance.    

st

Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)     – Abraham Maslow

Recently, I was at the bedside of a patient as he breathed his last breath. As a hospice chaplain, this is a rather common experience. However, this experience was different than most cases because it served as a transcendent experience that changed me.

It was just he and I in the room. His breathing had become labored with the typical ‘death rattle’ in his breathing caused by fluid in his upper chest and throat. He was only 57 years old and had absolutely no one in his life to support him during his last minutes on earth. I sat with one hand on his shoulder, in a cold and sterile room while the final chapter of his life comes to an end. In that eerie and lonely moment, I saw myself in his place. The image in my mind was me as a 57-year-old actively dying man, all alone, in a dimly lit shabby county care facility. The feeling was haunting and chilling. I was haunted by the conception of dying alone in a cold and emotionally desolate environment. It was then that a door in my mind opened up, and thoughts of my wonderful wife, beautiful newborn son, and loving family permeated every fiber of my being. In that moment, I experienced transcendence that was more than a feeling; it changed me.

The experience united me with the axiom that every relationship is precious. Now, to say “every relationship is precious” doesn’t sound very deep or profound. However, sometimes it’s simple truths that hit us like a mack truck. Often, it’s the simple realizations that flip our world upside down and expose the self-centered illusions that entrap us. My transcendent moment brought me out of the mundane and into the experience of being alive. It woke me from my routinized slumber and brought to light something greater than my self-interested mindset. My transcendent moment was a revolution of my soul.

Defining Self-Transcendence

Self-transcendence is an altered state of awareness by which we transcend the mundane and banal routinized modes of life and connect with a greater sense of meaning. Self-transcendence takes you from your myopic, isolated, and individual conception and connects you with a deeper, more meaningful way of existing. For example, we may experience self-transcendence through meditation, music, religious activities, professional sports, nature, drugs, and political beliefs. Self-transcendence occurs when one is deeply stirred by Mozart or the Beatles; when one is united with the whole as you stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon or you celebrate your team’s victory; it’s felt in contrite prayer or LSD; and through feeling love at the deepest visceral level or while eating the best Chilean sea bass you ever had. Self-transcendence is crucial for our well-being for the obvious reason that we each yearn for meaning, purpose, and connection. The opposite of self-transcendence would be all the routinized banalities of life. While my morning routine of showering, brushing my teeth and getting dressed is an experience, it most definitely is not a transcendent one. However, my nightly twenty-minute meditation is a personal example of self-transcendence by which my sense of ‘self’ slowly dissipates and I unite with what feels like an uncontaminated sense of peace.

Why the Need to Transcend?

Self-transcendence is one of the fundamental pursuits of being human. In the deep recesses of the soul is the yearning to be part of something bigger than the idiosyncratic isolated self. On one hand, we live life as individuals fulfilling our individualized goals and desires. On the other hand, we live in a highly socialized world and we see the benefits cooperating with people for a greater good. As Darwin noted, human beings came out on top because we learned how to cooperate in groups. In essence, man found the good in transcending the individual and embracing the unity of the whole. The stronger the affinity for the group, the stronger the group will be and the more likely the group will persist. Like bees and ants, we group together and circle around ideals and truths we hold to be sacred. Religion and politics are two palpable examples that illustrate how people transcend the ordinary routines of daily life and transcend to ideals and virtues that make life worth living and fighting for.

We can go to an even deeper substrate as to why there is a need to transcend. One of the most basic and elemental reasons why self-transcendence is sought and valued is because life is suffering. We are unwillingly thrown into a world rife with pain and suffering while having to solve the most complicated question ever advanced: how can I live a life that is significant, meaningful, and purposeful? The need to transcend the mundane is a ubiquitous pursuit given our close proximity with isolation, alienation, boredom, death and trauma that befalls every person. You are the lead actor in your personal drama of life, and we all want to be the hero in the play that is life; the heroic journey involves transcending the monotonous chaos of life, while reaching up for the deeply meaningful.

jlkjn

Self-Transcendence as a House With Many Rooms

Self-transcendence can lead to rather ambiguous and esoteric ideas, so allow me to present a helpful metaphor to make it a bit more lucid. Think of the mind like a house with many rooms, most of which we’re very familiar with, but sometimes it’s as if a doorway appears almost out of nowhere, and it opens onto a staircase, we climb the staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness or awakening. The transcendent experience is the ‘ah-ha’ moment which illuminates our way of being. Another way to put it is that it unites us with the sacred.

As a hospice chaplain, I am often surrounded by self-transcendent experiences. Death has a way of catapulting people out of their comfortable little box and into a world of the unknown. Sometimes death opens the door leading us to the stairway of self-transcendence. Once, a daughter of a dying patient of mine described the last minutes of her father’s life. She said that the room was engulfed in peace and all went quiet except the birds chirping outside. Then, she felt as if her ‘self’ simply melted away and all she felt was a unity and love with her father that she had never experienced before. The image that she felt was the warm embrace of her father, and the calm realization that his time on earth was up. He passed minutes later. She would later would tell me how that experience awakened her to a more mindful realization of how meaningful family truly is. For her, the staircase led not to only intense feelings, but it re-oriented her life in such a way that she became a better person for it.

I should clarify that self-transcendence experiences are not necessarily always profound life-changing epiphanies. Often, when the door at the top of the staircase opens, we are awakened to a truth or ideal that causes only minor tectonic shifts in our perspective. When I listen to pianist Michele McLaughlin’s song “Dismissed,” I often experience self-transcendence that enlivens me to a kind of pure joy. It doesn’t, however, leave me in a stupefied ecstatic state that completely rocks my world with awe. Nevertheless, it is still a self-transcendence experience that lifts me from my run-of-the-mill life.

Self-Transcendence Connects Us With the Sacred

Self-transcendence helps us identify what is sacred for us. When something or someone becomes sacred it means that the significance of the thing/person/experience is elevated to a status deserving of reverence, honor, and is hallowed. In religious talk, it’s holy. Our ability to identify things/people/experiences as sacred is paramount for us because the sacred is precisely what makes life worth living. The sacredness we imbue upon, for example, family, love, capitalism, faith, relationships, a hobby and being Republican or Democrat, enlivens us with a greater purpose and meaning in life. A deeper way to think of it is that the transcendent experience re-directs or re-orients us to the sacred. It acts as a reminder, exposing to us what ought to be pursued.

It was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim that spoke of man being homo duplex (man as two). The sacred is part of what makes man homo duplex, which is to say that we occupy (at any time) one of two domains: the sacred or profane. A fundamental aspect to being in the world is that we move up and down a vertical line between the sacred and profane. The sacred and profane is not to be confused with the value judgements: good (sacred) and bad (profane). The sacred and profane are simply two modes of being. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Self-transcendence is the act of ascending the vertical line, leaving the customary and common for the luminous and lustrous.

Connecting With the Collective Consciousness

Self-transcendence connects us with the collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is when you forget your own individual desires and decide to integrate into the whole. ‘The whole’ is representative of the collective ideas, beliefs, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. Collective consciousness creates a solidarity of beliefs through mutual likeness. The totality of sentiments common to the average members of the society form a determinate system with a life of its own. Some examples of collective consciousness include the ideals that ‘love is better than hate’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, and ‘flourishing is [most often] better than pain’. Granted, not everyone embodies these beliefs, however, these axioms take us out of our individualistic world and propel us towards solidarity with the whole. History reveals the force of the collective consciousness with examples such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berlin Wall coming down, and 9/11. We join with the collective consciousness when we transcend our boring and tedious lives, and our awareness is ruptured by mass devastation and trauma or random acts of kindness and when our team wins the Super Bowl.

A Rebuttal to Skeptics

Skeptics often roll their eyes at stories of transcendence because they are not real. By ‘not real’, I mean that self-transcendence does not point to something objectively real (i.e. empirically verifiable through scientific method). The claim is that self-transcendence is [just] a subjective experience, thus, not real. Moreover, the skeptic often claims that self-transcendence is just a feeling. Thus, self-transcendence is sterilized and diminished to the compressed notion ‘feeling high’.

The problem with the skeptic response to self-transcendence is twofold. First, it’s a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) to conclude self-transcendence is just a subjective feeling; as if to infer that the subjective has nothing to do with reality. Pain, hunger, and anger are subjective states, but they are nevertheless real to the experiencer. When the religious person has a near death experience, it is real to them. Just as when the secular person falls in love, that euphoria is real to them. The religious and secular person both experience self-transcendent moments and, most importantly, they embody these subjective realities which cause by real physiological states in their body. It is absurd to dismiss or reduce self-transcendence simply because it cannot be empirically verified through demonstration.

Second, the skeptic is falling into an error of category. What I mean by this is that the realness of subjective experience is in a completely different category than realness in the objective world. There simply is not only one category of reality that all knowledge can fit nicely into. In short, the realness of the computer I am typing on is different than the realness of my hunger. One relies on sensory perception and the latter relies on a physiological reaction. Both are real, yet both are known and/or experienced differently, because they occupy different categories of realness. We need not fall into error by conflating the two.

I do, however, feel the skeptic’s frustration when people use their self-transcendence experience to make objective or absolute truth claims. Again, two different categories (or domains) that need not be conjoined.

Final Words

This is my attempt to define self-transcendence. It will nevertheless always be a nebulous term with numerous interpretations. My goal is to paint a clearer picture so that people can awaken to the reality that life has innumerable opportunities for experiences that are deeply meaningful. We each get one shot at life; that’s it. After being at the deathbeds of hundreds of hospice patients, no one has ever said that they wished they had spent more time in the office or bought more stuff. Satisfaction, contentment and courage come from the ability to transcend the mundane and reach for those moments that remind us the preciousness of being.