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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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

Everything Matters

lkniuni

I walked into a patient’s room today who was unaware of my existence. She lay in a bed, staring at the wall with drool around her mouth. As a hospice chaplain, my job is to provide spiritual and emotional counseling. But in situations like these, I feel useless. Sitting bedside, I twiddled my thumbs, wondering what I was going to eat for lunch. After five minutes, I got up and left. After all, what does it matter?

One of the most difficult interactions occurs with patients who lack the cognitive function to interact in a meaningful way. Often, I’ll sit bedside and play music, or I’ll read poems, or just hold their hand in silence. All the while, the patient just lays there staring into space. It’s these times where I often say to myself, “why am I even here; what good is this?”

I value the interactions where there is a meaningful dialogue. I see my role as a counselor as someone who meets with people in crises and creates a safe environment to process and work through the pressing issues one is facing. It’s the imagery of journeying with the patient through the depths of existential angst that makes me proud to be in hospice. It’s a profound empathic connection that I am skilled and trained to embark on. After all, death and the process of death can be a frightening experience! So, you can see my dilemma when I walk into a room and see a patient who is living with an advance form of, say, Alzheimer’s, and is cognitively alert to almost nothing.

As I left the nursing facility and got into my car, I wondered if I was making a mistake with my abrupt departure. After all, if I felt as if my presence didn’t matter, perhaps the patient didn’t matter either. This didn’t sit right with me, and I felt compelled to delve deeper into my dilemma. For the next thirty-minutes inside my car while my mind ruminated with the question does it matter?

Before I knew it, I was hit with the conviction to test something out. What if I lived the next four hours as if everything mattered? Four hours may not seem like a lot, but given the mental fortitude needed for such a task, four hours seems like it would give me the insight I need. I mean, would I realize that futile interactions are meaningless? Or would my world be illuminated with beauty when I live as if everything matters? I drove off and was ready for my four-hour test.

I went to lunch, and while eating a woman in a wheel chair entered. At one point she began looking around looking confused. Given that the room was filled with so many people, I would normally keep to myself and assume that someone else will attend to her. Not this time. I stood up and approached her cleared a path so that she could get through. She looked so appreciative and even stopped to chat with me for a bit. Turns out that she has cerebral palsy and often feels that when she is in public, she feels that she does not matter much to others. For the rest of my lunch I sat with no earbuds in my ears while being mindfully aware of all that was around me. Often, I sit with my head down while listening intently on some podcast; but today my lunch was much more meaningful.

I then went in to work and was greeted by our receptionist at the front desk. Normally, I simply walk by her with a quick “hello” and get to business. Not this time. I asked her a litany of questions – that seemed most appropriate for office small talk – and she happily answered. She ended the conversation by saying, “thank you for listening.” What an interesting twist when I slow down to see who matters.

After work I went to Starbucks, which is my typical routine. As I approached the barista, I realized that the same barista has been serving me for 2 years, and I know absolutely nothing about her. Realizing that she matters, I made some small talk with her and learned that she is going back to school to study criminal justice and she works two jobs to support her and her daughter. There was also the usual homeless guy sitting in the corner that always waves at me. I usually divert my gaze because he seems really unstable. Not this time. I asked if I could buy him a coffee and he gladly accepted. For the first time, the barista and the homeless gentleman ceased to be simply background objects – they actually matter to me.

I arrived home that evening to greet my wife and 1-year-old son with a wide-open heart. Entering my house, I truly felt as if my ego had dissolved. Oddly, it was an effortless feeling. The obligatory duties that I sometimes begrudgingly do felt like tiny gifts of opportunity to experience life with a little more richness. Taking the time to attend to my family’s needs felt much easier and enjoyable. My inner selfish voice that is so ‘I’ focused was subdued, and so much more around me really mattered.

At the start of the four-test, however, I must admit that I felt like I had to muster up some effort to see what matters. However, hours into it, I felt light and ready for whatever the world wanted to present me. Of course, the next day came, and I quickly feel right back into the ego-driven nature that has been my norm. I’m a work in progress so no need for me to feel like a failure. Enlightenment is a process, not a destination.

When I look back at those four-hours, there are several nuggets of wisdom that stood out. When I lived as if everything matters, I noticed how quickly people ceased to be just objects of my periphery. Rather, I was able to see people as walking stories who harbor a treasure trove of joy, pain, meaning, wisdom, etc. After all, we’re more than flesh and bone who will one day be food for worms. Just as I crave meaning, significance and purpose, so does the barista who serves me coffee. Unfortunately, the preoccupation to protect our fragile persona often stifles our ability to see other humans with significant depth. Fear of exposing our secret shadows and vulnerabilities often propels us to view those outside our inner circle as a means-to-an-end or as background props within our scope of vision.

In contemplating my test, I became disrupted by the question: if I have intrinsic value and see myself as one possessing dignity, should I not bestow the same value and dignity to others? What makes me so special that I can be so discriminatory to those around me? For most, the tendency is to see the value of ourselves and those whom are exclusively within our inner circle, whom we have a relationship with. Thus, we gladly acknowledge the value of ourselves, relatives, friends and those whom we feel a kindred connection with. We soon become, however, amnesic to the intrinsic value of others as they stand outside our inner circle.

What does this mean when I’m with a cognitively impaired patient? Well, it means they are more than flesh on a bed. They are ambassadors of life. They are a living testimony of perseverance and gumption. Though I may deny or repress it, I am looking into my reflection. This very well may be me some day, lying in a bed unable to do anything for myself. This reflection inextricably connects me to the patient in front of me. I recognize that the patient matters just as much as me. Just has I have intrinsic value, so does the patient.

Intrinsic value is not limited, and ought not be limited to only those who can communicate or reason. My hospice patients are a living embodiment of a lifelong effort to strive and fight to make sense of this complicated universe. Even if they cannot articulate their effort, they are nevertheless entwined within the thread that weaves all of humanity together. The universal thread encompasses the truth that all of us are thrown into the universe without consent and doomed to piecemeal our existence into some type of meaningful narrative. The patient represents this truth, and this matters.

They matter to their loved ones and friends. Even if they lived as an isolated recluse, their life serves as a symbolic representation of the sacredness of being human. As they lie in bed staring into space, they are an image of you and me. Every wrinkle, nonsensical babble and repugnant odor reveals the fragility of life. Moreover, it shows the irony of life: we helplessly soil ourselves as babies and then again at the end of life – that is, if life doesn’t take us out in one quick swoop. This, however, need not serve as a depressing picture. This is life. Hardly depressing, life is a vigorous unfolding of meaningful experiences that takes us through the depths of darkness and the peaks of joy. The innumerable unfolding of meaningful experiences is what creates value for the individual. As a helpless patient lays in bed, they are the sacred representation of the intrinsic value of humanity. Thus, they matter.

During those four-hours, I also noticed how easier it was to be present. Being present is a common term that has recently gained momentum in Western thought. Being present means that we are grounded in the now, not being emotionally pulled into the past or having a mind possessed by the future. When guided by the presupposition that everything matters, being present is easier because you are more consciously aware of the world around you – in that moment. You’re aware of that specific flower in front of you, that person in the corner, that face that looks distressed, and that laughter in the background. The more present we are with the world around us, the more meaningful it is. While I’m accustomed to living on auto pilot, I must admit that life seems to be bolder, colorful, and meaningful when I slow down to allow myself to be aware of all that’s around me.

Being present clears one’s vision to see what matters. I want to be the kind chaplain who walks into a patient’s room and is keenly present to the needs and concerns as they arise. I want to sit at the bedside and accept all that emanates – without any pretense or judgment. When I live out the phrase everything matters, I’m able to calm my urges that are possessed by own self-serving perspective. When I’m present and everything matters, humility rises to the top of the ladder of virtues. What a rich experience it is to step outside the mask that protects the ego and allow life to unfold.

I can’t help but think what would I want if I was alone in a nursing home without the ability to communicate in a coherent way? I hope that a chaplain will sit at my bedside and realize the sacredness of my final chapter closing. I hope they will be able to hold a space of calm reverence and holy recognition of my pursuit of meaning and significance in life. Though some may call it a vegetative state, I hope they will be able to transcend clinical language and see that I am a powerful metaphor. I am the leaf on a tree that has gone through the dynamic and vibrant seasons; and now Winter is here. I am the drop of water in the vast ocean, part of the beautiful sea of humanity, and now the wave is taking me to shore. I am an actor on the stage of my own Shakespearean play, and will be exiting the stage quite soon. When these metaphors crescendo, they reveal that the hospital bed is in fact on holy ground. Indeed, the ground supports the hallowed phenomenon of a person’s very last breath. For any visitor that enters during my final moments, I hope they create a compassionate space to tenderly sit with me as my hundred-millionth breath comes to an end.

Perhaps when you see a patient or loved one who is about to fade to black, it will hit you that your exit is also inevitable. Rather than depress you, perhaps this will inspire you to re-evaluate your values and pursuits. Death need not be a nasty shadow that you suppress to the farthest reaches of your subconscious. Though death destroys us physically, the idea of death can save us. It’s precisely because that there is a finality that life can be experienced with an intensified preciousness. The infinitesimal wisdom found in experiencing life is why everything matters. We would all be blessed to live everyday as if everything matters.

To be fair, I realize people may disagree and argue that stress can arise when one feels the weight that everything matters. If everything matters, then you may feel that you must always do something or rise to the occasion to give every experience it’s proper due. What a chore! I think this is where the idea of being present may provide the antidote to the pressure of everything mattering. Living as if everything matters is more about the way we posture ourselves when we confront the world rather than a burden that we carry. Thus, the more we cultivate the mindset that everything matters, the more our initial reactions are subdued and less reactive. It’s as if we our creating space in our psyche for a peaceful and compassionate reaction to what is happening to us in the now. Far be it from being a philosophy that weighs us down, rather it’s a way of looking at life that make the present moment significant and beautiful.

With this approach to the world, the next day I went back to the patient that I so abruptly left the day before. I entered her room with fresh eyes and a renewed understanding. I saw an 85-year-old woman who matters. I knew I was on holy ground in front of a woman with intrinsic value. I called her daughter who lives out of state and inquired as to what here favorite songs are. We listened to Frank Sinatra during the visit, and not once did she speak or make eye contact with me. It’s okay though. This sacred moment matters because it highlights the preciousness of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Reality is the Placebo

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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.

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**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.    

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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.

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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.

 

Subverting Rationality (Part 1)

Written over 2 days after my philosophy group called Symposium, met to discuss myth and objective rationalism. This is a short 700 essay that attempts to buttress my claim that the only thing(s) real are that which is most meaningful, as opposed to that which is objectively demonstrable through empiricism.

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One of the most important foundational questions to our existence is this: How should we best construe the world if we are to determine how to act properly within it? The world in which we live can either be construed as a forum for meaningful action, or a place of objective things. The former finds its place in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, and literature and mythology. In this construal, meaning is shaped by our social interactions which produces a guide to action. The latter manner is a world of things and finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. In this construal science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validated properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools.

These binary construal’s – one aimed at meaning and the other aimed at reality as it ‘is’ – ought to prompt us to ask another foundational question: How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon Pre-Enlightenment nonsense? I frame the question this way because modernity has a way of elevating today’s (post-experimental) objective rationalism over-and-above (pre-experimental) mythos of meaningful action. However, if a culture grows and survives, does it not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? It myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?

We have made the great mistake that the “world of spirit” described by those who preceded us was the modern “world of matter,” primitively conceptualized. That is not true – at least in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science – but that does not mean it was not real. We have not yet found God above, nor the devil below, because we do not yet understand where “above” and “below” might be found.

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Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is qualitatively different phenomena. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique for shared affective valance, their value, their motivational significance.

Much of the clash between mythos and objective rationalism is that the modern notion reduces ‘true’ and ‘real’ to that which can only be demonstrated empirically while completely stripping the affect of every encounter we experience. But let’s take the ancient Sumerians as an example. The “world” of the ancient Sumerians was not objective reality as we presently construe it. The Sumerians were concerned, above all, with how to act (were concerned with the value of things). Their descriptions of reality (to which we attribute the qualities of proto-science) in fact comprised their summary of the world as phenomenon – as place to act. They did not “know” this – not explicitly – any more then we do. But it was still true.

The ancient Sumerians faced the same challenge as we do today: How do we live with purposeful meaning? This is the fundamental drive for human beings. We wake up in the morning and begin moving towards some-thing, meaning. Meaning means implication for behavioral output. Therefore, there are three excruciatingly important questions that guide our being, and they are: (1) What is? (2) What should be? and (3) How should we therefore act?

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Objective rationalism is silent and utterly impotent to these questions. Not even analyzing brain states can tell us why any meaningful experiences even matter. To the contrary, we are all moved by a goal that resides in an imaginary state – in fantasy – as something (potentially) preferable to the present. We then tweak how we act within the world so as to one day obtain the idealized future we have in our head. What I am describing is a forum for action; it’s what every myth is based upon. No, it’s not ‘true’ or ‘real’ in the modern sense, but the affect on us is absolutely true, and real.

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Using Pragmatism to Reconcile Religion and Science

This was written over several days and finished up in a coffee shop with a blonde roast at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi classical sets in my ear. In this essay, I take ideas from William James, John Dewey, Paul Tillich, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida and Marin Heidegger and synthesize them into a short treatise on the reconcilability of science and religion. Drawing from pragmatism, I hope to dissolve some of the talk of [T]ruth and focus on show how science and religion are tools that accomplish a particular purpose with the goal of meeting particular human needs. My contention is that you can be science-minded and religious while retaining a clear semblance of intellectual responsibility.

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Science and religion are often said to be irreconcilable. The principle argument for this claim is that it’s intellectually irresponsible to both believe in the existence of a benevolent omnipotent creator of the universe and to accept the results of modern science. I’m dubious of this notion of intellectual responsibility.

Let us consider an illustration that may put my argument into perspective. Imagine an evolutionary biologist who is also a religious believer. Let’s call this imaginary person, Professor Mastersen. Mastersen spends her time trying to find ways to bridge the gap between Darwin’s story of how the mammals and, in particular, human beings came into existence. Her work is done within and against the background of the usual story of the history of the physical universe; the first story told by Lucretius, and enlarged upon by Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. It’s a story about elementary particles batting about without purpose and coming together accidently to form stars, planets, protein molecules, and eventually everything else. God, however, does not get into the act.

On Sunday’s, Professor Mastersen goes off to Mass, recites the creed, takes communion and all the rest of it. She doesn’t think much about the relationship between her weekday and Sunday activities. She was raised a Catholic and she relishes the experience of communal worship. Ever since she realized her oldest son is gay, she’s had doubts about the church’s views on various issues, and she regards the present Pope as a little too preoccupied with sex. But she figures Popes come and go, and the next one might be better. Although she is married to an agnostic, her husband agreed that the children would be raised Catholic. When her kids were studying the Catechism, they would ask her the usual questions of just how God managed to create the world out of nothing, how God managed to be both fully God and fully man, and how the consecrated host on the alter manages to be the divine substance while retaining its previous appearance. She shrugs the questions off, for she has little interest in theology and she is quite content to toss in the phrase “mystery of faith” whenever it will do the most good.

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Many people like my fictional Professor Mastersen actually exist. There’s lots of people who view themselves as perfectly good and perfectly sincere believers in some standard version of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, nevertheless, accept unquestionably the propositions the Darwinian theory of biological evolution, which many other Christians think incompatible with the creeds of their respective faith. These people are the despair of both the swaggering atheistic scientific colleagues and the less liberal members of the clergy. Professor Mastersen is well aware and rather amused that her parish priest would like for to take the Pope’s pronouncements more seriously. She is also aware that her atheistic colleagues make jokes about her religious beliefs behind her back. She is equally indifferent about both.

The question I want to discuss is this: Is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why?

We can hold contradictions by making distinctions

One might retort that we all have a moral obligation to think logically. Well, I say it’s not, perhaps, so off logic that one shouldn’t hold contradictory beliefs. For it’s always possible, as St. Thomas remarked, we can dissolve a contradiction by making a distinction. It may seem for example, that I should not both accept the Copernican sun-centered theory, and still believe that the sun is moving steadily closer to the horizon. But, of course, I resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between the astrophysical and the common-sense descriptions of the sun’s motion. For most people, it is common-sense to think that the sun moves around us, simply because that’s the way it appears! At Mass, it may seem that I should not both believe that there is wet bread on my tongue and that I am partaking of the various substance of my God. But I can resolve that contradiction by distinguishing between the theological and the commonsense description (albeit theological description) of what’s going on. We make this kind of contradiction-distinction all the time.

When the courts decide hard cases, for example, they make distinctions that nobody has ever drawn up before in the hopes of avoiding the charge that they are treating like cases in unlike ways. This is done, for instance, in murder cases that make distinctions between premeditated and unplanned murder, as well as voluntary and involuntary murder. The courts make further distinction if the defendant is criminally insane. Thus, one can hold contradictory beliefs: one murderer ought to get life in prison because it was premeditated, while another murderer should be given leniency because he fell asleep at the wheel killing another motorist, involuntarily. The “logic” is not crystal clear. It’s never easy to say when such distinction-making is legitimate and when it’s not. The same judicial opinion is often described with equal conviction and honesty, as brilliant analysis and as disingenuous rationalization.

Two Different Vocabularies: one religious and the other scientific

When it comes to the purported clash between religion and science, however, it may seem difficult to wiggle one’s way out of the appearance of contradiction. For surely the universe was either planned by an intelligent being who’s concerned for our welfare and actions, or it’s a fortuitous assemblage of contingencies. It seems too simple to say that it can be described in one way on Sundays for religious purposes, and a different way on weekdays for all other purposes. The difference in describing the two ways of the universe are just too important to be shrugged off as distinction between alternative purposes. Furthermore, the differences between these two descriptions doesn’t seem analogous to the differences in the common-sense and the scientific descriptions of the motions of the sun and earth. For in the latter case we can escape contradiction by saying it is handy and harmless to have two different vocabularies, one for everyday purposes and another for scientific purposes. The relation between the statements made in these two vocabularies is not exactly contradictory but just a matter of speaking crudely and precisely.

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The crude way of speaking which tells us that the sun moves across the sky can be replaced with a more precise description of what’s going on, a description which saves and explains the appearances. But the scientist who is also a religious believer can hardly say that neither biology or the Catechism is a crude oversimplified but convenient way of speaking. For the scientific and religious vocabulary are equally refined and precise. Both purport to describe how we got here and where human beings come from – so one of them surely must be wrong. Anybody like Professor Mastersen, many people would say, must be schizophrenic or at least intellectually irresponsible.

Paul Tillich: science deals with the literal and religion deals with the symbolic

One particular way to defend people like Professor Mastersen against this charge of intellectually irresponsibility, is to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. Paul Tillich, the great Protestant liberal theologian of the mid-century, said that the statements of science are to be taken literally true whereas the statements of religious faith are what he called “symbolic expressions of our ultimate concern,” that is, attempts to describe whatever it is that we love with all our heart, soul and mind. Tillich said we all have symbols of our ultimate concern, only some of which are personalized deities, the revolutionary power of the Proletariat is such a symbol for Marxists. Moreover, the incarnation is such a symbol for Christians and the poetic imagination was such a symbol for Coleridge. Just as Marxist allows for no empirical facts to spoil their image of the Proletariat, and just as the Positivists allow no one to interfere with physics and mathematics, so do Christians allow no empirical facts to dissuade their sure and certain hope of resurrection.

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Tillich’s point is that a debate between Marxists and Christians or between Marxists and Positivists is not like a debate between advocates of Ptolemy’s and Copernicus’ theories about the motion of the earth or like a debate between Darwinian’s and creationists. In the latter case, there is plenty in agreement about what phenomena need to be explained and room for debate about which explanations of those phenomena meets best familiar criteria. But in the case of the Marxist verses the Christian or the Buddhist verses the Hindu, it seems silly to try and get agreement on which phenomena need explanation or about criteria for satisfactory explanation. The whole idea about explaining phenomena seems out of place in reference to these disagreements. So liberal theologians like Tillich say, let’s think of religion and philosophy as dealing in symbols and science as dealing in facts. The same facts are compatible with the invocation of many different symbols.

I don’t think that Tillich was intellectually dishonest, but I also don’t think that his notion of symbols is particularly helpful. The cache value of the term ‘symbolic’ seems to be merely irrelevant to prediction and control (that is, the ‘literal’ is the stuff in science books that help us cure diseases, build bombs, etc. and the ‘symbolic’ stuff in non-scientific books is not useful for that purpose but is useful for some other purposes).

Science and religion are tools, rather than ways of getting to Truth

Tillich’s interpretation of theology as symbolic expression of Christian concern merely reiterates the claim that theology nowadays mustn’t compete with natural science in explaining how things have come to pass (how the human species got here for example). Nor is it to compete with science for making predictions, for those days are gone, once upon a time in the 17th century, the church made competing and predictive claims, but since then, they have given up on making those claims. This is why the church has become immune to empirical disconfirmation and why acquiring or losing belief in God is more like falling into or out of love than winning or losing an argument.

It seems more helpful to forget about the literal/symbolic distinction (of Tillich) and just to say that since the development of modern science, religious and scientific beliefs have become tools for doing different jobs. Scientific belief helps us predict and control events in space and time. This job, before the Enlightenment, was to be done by cosmogonic hypothesis pervade by priests and prophets, but it can now be done better. Religious belief gives us a way of thinking about our lives that puts them in an emotionally satisfying context. Religion oversteps its bounds when it picks a quarrel with science, as when the Christian clergy picked quarrels with Galileo and then with Darwin, and science oversteps its bounds when it tells us we have no right to believe in God, now that we have better explanations of the phenomena that God was previously used to explain.

This way of reconciling science and religion requires one to abandon the idea that there is one way the world really is, and that science and religion are competing to tell us what that way is. Abandoning that idea is easiest if one thinks of beliefs as tools for accomplishing a purpose rather than as attempts to represent the intrinsic nature of reality, the way things are in themselves. Instead of insisting there is such a way, one will hold that although there are alternative descriptions of things [descriptions useful for different purposes] none of these get us any closer to the way things really are than any other. On this view the sole virtue of any descriptive vocabulary is its utility. It can’t have a further virtue called “getting things right”.

Neither science or religion get us to the Truth

To assume there is an intrinsic nature of reality is to assume that there is a portal to an absolute [T]ruth, concrete essence, and knowledge that is grounded. This is akin to Plato’s perfect Forms floating high above in the heavens as pure representations of the things below. To believe in the intrinsic nature of reality is to think that [T]ruth is floating somewhere in the heavens and scientific proofs can uncover that [T]ruth or that holy scripture or Divine revelation can reveal [T]ruth. The idea that science helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking that phlogiston theory uncovers the truth of combustion and rust. The idea that God helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking the saw is the best tool for building a house. The idea that rational arguments help us uncover truth is has useless as Aristotle thinking ‘the facts’ show that the earth is at the center of the universe. Just as it is useless for the religionists to say morals come from a moral Lawgiver, it is useless for the secular person to argue that “the facts demand …,” “logic demands …,” or “reason demands …,” as if there is an external [T]ruth that fact, logic and reason point toward.

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A pragmatist’s view: we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well

This technique of reconciliation also requires one to say there’s no such thing as the search for truth, if that search is conceived as something distinct from the search for greater human happiness. For all we know about truth, from a William James and John Dewey pragmatist view, is that we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well. We want prediction and control, and scientific beliefs give us that. We also want our lives to have significance, we want to love something with all our heart, soul, and mind, and philosophical and religious belief gives us that. Different human needs give rise to different ways of describing ourselves and the world, thus different candidates for belief. These candidates are, so to speak, running for different offices so they need not get in each other’s way. They all deny that things have intrinsic nature as opposed to useful descriptions.

These ways of thinking about truth, belief and reality add up to the view of knowledge common to the American pragmatist, to Nietzsche, and common to such post-Nietzschean European philosophers as Heidegger and Derrida. All these thinkers give up on the idea of reality as-it-is-in-itself, and the idea that the search for Truth (capitalized “T”) is an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of things.

The views these thinkers share is sometimes called social constructivism, but that’s misleading. These thinkers are not saying that what we use to think was discovered is actually our own invention, rather they are simply reiterating that we can make no sense of the suggestion that one description is closer to the way things really are, apart from any human needs, purposes or interests than some other description. The best we can do is discover that one description is more useful for the satisfaction of one or another human need but hardly for the satisfaction of all human needs.

These philosophers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida) all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence. Any proposed test would have to compare the ways we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about- and we have no idea of what such comparison would look like. For example, if we want to talk about Western Democracy being the best form of government, we have no independent [T]rue form of Democracy by which to test it up against. For every democracy is tainted with something that can be perceived as undemocratic. So ‘democracy being the best government’ cannot correspond to something “out there”, by which, we can then conclude, “Ah Ha! This is true!”

Who do we demand evidence from?

Is evidence something which floats free of human projects or is the demand for evidence simply a demand for the satisfaction of one particular human need – the need for agreement and belief when engaged in cooperative social projects? William James thought it was the latter.

On James’s view he says: it’s reasonable to demand evidence from those of whom we are engaged in a common enterprise, for example, when we are dealing with judges who are trying to make our country’s laws hang together. But when we are engaged in private idiosyncratic projects, such as the search for meaning in religion, it’s not clear that we have an obligation to produce evidence. For James, to search for truth is to search for beliefs that work; for beliefs that get us want we want.

When Professor Mastersen searches for the best explanation for a puzzling biological fact she, of course, is bound to look for an explanation which will be supported by evidence available to her fellow scientists. But on James’s view this is not because she is seeking truth as opposed to happiness, rather she is seeking tools that will do a certain job that certain human beings have taken, namely putting together a comprehensive narrative of what spatio-temporal events were casually linked to which other spatio-temporal events, in particular how biological evolution works.

When she expresses her contempt of fundamentalist Catholics who reject Darwin, Professor Mastersen is expressing contempt for people who try to use old tools when new and better tools for doing the same job have already become available. When Professor Mastersen attends Mass, takes communion, and recites the creeds, she is not taking part in a cooperative quest for the best solution to a practical problem. She is no more answerable for demands for evidence than when she decided for whom to marry, or when she decided what graduate training to take up. She is seeking happiness in her own way, on her own time, for her own sake.

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We have no responsibility to truth; only a responsibility to other human beings

We have no responsibility to something called “truth.” To the contrary, our only responsibility is to other human beings. The question of whether there is evidence for a belief is a question of whether there exists a certain human community which takes certain relatively controversial propositions as providing good reasons for that belief. Where there is such a community, a community to which we want to belong, we have an obligation to our fellow human beings not to believe a proposition unless we can give some good reasons for doing so. Reasons of the sort the relevant community takes to be good ones. Where there is no such community we don’t. No one knows what would counts as non-question-begging evidence for the claims of the Catholic or Mormon Church to be the ‘one true church.’ But that should not matter to the Catholic or Mormon community. Biologists, on the other hand, know quite well what counts as evidence for Darwinism or creationism.

James, unfortunately, thought of the opposition between the responsibility to our fellow human beings and to ourselves in terms of a distinction between intellectual grounds and emotional needs. I think that that was a mistake. For that way of talking suggests a picture of two human distinct faculties with two distinct purposes, one for knowing and another for feeling. This picture has to be abandoned once one gives up, as James and others do, the idea that there’s a special human purpose called ‘knowing the truth’ interpreted as ‘getting in touch with the intrinsic nature of reality.’

It would have been better if James would have thrown out this faculty of psychology that draws a nice clean line between reason and emotion and substituted something like a picture of human minds as webs of belief and desire, so interwoven with one another that it’s not easy to tell if a choice has been made on particular purely intellectual grounds or emotional grounds.

Nor is it useful to divide areas of cultures or of life into those of which there is only objective knowledge and those of which there is only subjective opinion. These traditional epistemological distinctions are misleading ways of making a distinction between areas where we do have an obligation to other people to justify our beliefs to them and other areas in which we don’t have an obligation.

Religionists owe us no justification for their private internal beliefs

James intellect/passion distinction should be replaced with what needs justification and what doesn’t. A business proposal, for example, needs justification. However, a marriage proposal – in our romantic and democratic society – doesn’t. If someone asks you to marry them, you don’t demand, “justify your proposal.” But if someone asks you to invest in their company, it is on point to demand they justify why I ought to invest. This pragmatist ethic says, along with John Stewart Mill, our right to happiness is only limited by other people’s right to have their own pursuits of happiness interfered with. This right to happiness includes what James called “the right to believe.” More generally, it includes the right to faith, hope, and love. These three states of mind can also not be justified and typically should not have to be justified. Our only intellectual responsibilities are responsibilities to cooperate with others on common projects. Projects such as constructing a unified scientific theory or quantum physics, and not to interfere with their private projects of faith. For the latter, such as getting married or engaging with religion, the question of intellectual responsibility just doesn’t arise.

This may beg the question, when do people of faith assume responsibility for the justifications of their belief? Notice in the previous paragraph I spoke of common projects. Just as scientists, collaborating on common projects, need to justify their claims because it directly effects the public sphere, so do religious people when their claims go from personal to public. When we speak of legislating laws based precisely on religious suppositions, then justification is needed. But Professor Mastersen owes no one any justification as to why she attends Mass or takes communion.

Last Words

The initial question I set out to answer was this: is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why? My contention from the outset is that she is in fact not behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way. Moreover, religion and science are simply two different tools used for different purposes. Just as Professor Mastersen owes no one justifications of why she chose to be a scientist rather than a gardener, she owes no one an explanation has to how she derives meaning, purpose and significance from a belief in the divine.

 

 

 

Concepts as Absolute Truth

 

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I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.

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My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.

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Necessary Illusions: for the secular and religious

 

“With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live, one needs illusions” – Otto Rank  

kjoiubNot too long ago, I visited a husband who had just put his wife on our hospice service. I was there to provide counseling and guidance given that she had just received a terminal diagnosis. What made this case unique was that the patient and husband are only 41 years-young, with four beautiful children. I remember sitting in the car in front of their house’ preparing myself for the hurricane of grief and despair that await. Despair, however, was not what I found. I was greeted by the husband, I’ll call him Mike, who gave me a big smile and welcomed me into the house. I met two of their children and the patient as well. She shuffled into the living room appearing so frail and weak like she could break in two at any moment. The mood in the room was not at all what I expected. While they were obviously concerned and saddened by the recent news of terminal brain cancer, the family nevertheless smiled, laughed, expressed gratitude for hospice and the physicians, and kept thanking me for taking the time to visit them. Towards the end, I couldn’t resist, I had to ask the husband, “How is it that you are able to appear so positive given your wife’s dire condition?” He looked at me with a smile and said, “We’re Christian, and our faith in the overall goodness of God’s plan is what keeps us optimistic, even though terminal cancer is now a part of our story.”

I remember leaving the house thinking I was in the Twilight Zone. Surely their faith was a house of cards that would tumble to the ground as reality set in. He must be in denial, and his faith is a crutch that will leave him utterly disillusioned and inconsolable when the reality of being widowed sets in. I stayed in touch through their time on hospice. I was waiting – and assuming – that the veneer of optimism and hope would shatter, thus exposing the futility of a hope in God’s plan which includes cancer, pain, and heartache.

When she died a month later, Mike didn’t shatter. I remember calling him not long after she passed, and he spent the entire call expressing gratitude and joy for the time he had with his wife, and for his church family that surrounded him with love and compassion as he adopted his new role as a widow. There was that hope and optimism again! Sure, there was sadness at the loss, but he stood strong in the midst of the pain believing that God is good and in control.

This story buttresses what I have been long suspected, but have denied. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Whether Mike truly believes that God is literally real and watching over him or not, is not the point. The point is whether or not his belief has adaptive features to help him cope with life. Some people might say Mike is delusional in his thinking. Often people consider faith in a higher power as a crutch in order to deal with reality. But the truth is, every human – religious or secular – devises illusory crutches in order to cope with a chaotic world. In fact, our mental health depends on the illusory crutches that infiltrate our minds.

My contentions is simple: we need illusions to cope with life. Furthermore, religious belief is beneficial to mental well-being. In this essay, I will focus on the adaptive measures and necessity of illusions in our lives.

We need illusions because reality is crippling

I once heard atheist apologist Matt Dillahunty say,  “I want to believe as many real and true things as possible and as few false things as possible” (paraphrase). While this sounds reasonable, he forgets the fact that reality is crippling. What’s real is that one day my body will be shoved into a crematorium and reduced to ashes. And one thousand years from now, nobody will remember anything about me. While it’s true that what I do matters to me now, from a bird’s eye view of the grand scale of history –  it is utterly futile. To cope with the fact that every day is one day closer to the end, I must lean on illusions in order to avoid despair and suicide. We all do.

imagesnmnmT.S. Eliot had it right when he said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We cling to our illusions even if they contradict the obvious. Could it be, though, that reality is not an illusion but that our version of reality is an illusion? In other words, none of us are perceiving reality for what it is but rather for what we wish it to be. The problem with reality is that it’s like a dinner party in which each guest is confined to their own experiences, interpretations, biases, and presuppositions. Thus, one guest thinks everyone is boring, another that some are judging them harshly, and another thinks they are the most intelligent in the room. One simply cannot see things as they really are, we cannot be aware of reality, given that illusions act as mediators.

There is a difference between what something is and what we think it is. Actually what
we think, is utterly inconsequential to what is. Illusions do not exist in the world (out there) but in here. The inner world is fertile ground for illusions to take root which then get projected into the world, thus influencing the perception of others about reality. These distortions, in the realm of reality, have no purpose other than to help us cope with the uncertainties that life brings. But first, what is an illusion?

An illusion is a perception that represents what is perceived in reality. An illusion is a false mental image or conception which may be a misinterpretation of a real appearance or may be something imagined. It may be pleasing, harmless or even useful [Random House Dictionary, 1976, page 662]. Lying subterranean within us all, is the knowledge of our mortality. We do not want to live in reality. We are perfectly comfortable living in an illusion that we believe provides gains that outweigh the effort needed to eliminate them. Most importantly, these illusions keep one mentally healthy.

What are the attributes to a mentally healthy person

To begin with, the vast majority of religious belief serve to enhance one’s mental well-being. Most religious beliefs promote virtues which include reverence for the sacred, abstaining from the profane, an appreciation for strengthening social bonds through community. While religion does have a bloody history, the Enlightenment has helped us apply more reason to faith. My focus is not on the extremely small percentage that are radical dogmatist who seek to use religion as a battering ram. My focus is on the majority who use religious beliefs, albeit illusory, to cope with the uncertainty of life. Overall, modern religion possesses strategies to enhance one’s mental well-being.

dyuuyuIf we are going to discuss mental well-being, let’s discuss the attributes of a mentally healthy person. Most experts agree that the ability to be happy, or at least relatively contented, is one hallmark of mental health and well-being. The acclaimed psychologist Marie Jahoda identified several additional criteria that will help us understand what good mental health looks like. Jahoda notes that ideal mental health is the ability to hold positive attitudes towards oneself, rather than to feel distress or anguish over one’s inadequacies or short-comings. Second, the ability to grow, develop, and move towards one’s goals. Finally, the capacity to develop an autonomous self-regard that does not require the reassurance of other people for meaning and sustenance. We can couple Jahoda’s criteria with Sidney Jourard and Ted Landsman’s viewpoint:

[The healthy personality] is guided by intelligence and respect for life, so that personal needs are satisfied and so that the person will grow in awareness, competence and the capacity to love the self, the natural environment, and other people. (Jourard, S.M., & Landsman, M.E.P. (1980). Healthy Personality: An approach from the viewpoint of humanistic psychology (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan.)

Most religious belief does not impinge on personal growth, self-awareness, and respecting life. In fact, most religious belief strives to enhance all of the criteria listed above. Again, we can always point to religious extremists who subjugate, oppress, and incite anger; but this is not the norm. To the contrary, most religious strengthen social bonds and provide strategies for coping with the evils of the world through illusions of an afterlife, a personal loving God, and a view of the sacred.

The secular person may respond by listing all the evils of religion. Fair enough. My concern, however, involves whether or not the illusion has adaptive or maladaptive consequences for one’s mental health. Thus, if religious belief involves killing or oppression, we can put it up against Jahoda and Jourard’s research on the attributes of mental well-being and have a dialogue. Just as we can draw distinctions between good health and bad health, so we can with adaptive and maladaptive aspects of the beliefs or illusions we hold.

Illusions are ubiquitous

UCLA Psychology professor, Shelly Taylor, notes in her book Positive Illusions, “normal human thought and perception is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. These illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear to actually be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining good mental health.” We ought not think that the religious person is full of fanciful magical thinking, while the secular person is fully in-touch with ‘reality’. What research shows is that even the secular person embraces illusions that serve an adaptive feature to personal well-being.

uiuiIn my line of work in dealing with death and dying, the most common illusion [especially with secular people] occurs when death is experienced. I am perpetually baffled at how people convince themselves that they are alright, just after their spouse of 50 years had died. Obviously, the act of denial serves a self-preservation role: if I act like it didn’t happen, I won’t feel the pain. And, in a lot of cases this illusion can be adaptive, as it can prevent one from spiraling into despair, suicide or depression. But it’s a common illusion nevertheless. The protection of our self, ego, and identity is so important; and we will adopt whatever illusions we can to preserve our ego intact.

I believe this is a very important point in demonstrating the ubiquitousnous of illusions, so allow me to provide eight palpable examples of the illusions that both secular and religious people live by:

#1 We overestimate our abilities: We are introduced to self-deceptive methods early on in life. Young children do not differentiate very well between what they wish could be true and what they think is true, and thus they show wishful thinking in their estimations of their abilities [Stipek, D.J. (1984). Young children’s performance expectations: Logical analysis or wishful thinking? In I. Nicholls (Ed.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 3, pp. 33-56), Greenwich, CT: JAI Press].

#2 We carry illusions to protect our image. When asked to describe themselves, most people mention many positive qualities and few, if any, negative ones. Even when people acknowledge that they have faults, they tend to downplay those weaknesses as unimportant or dismiss them as inconsequential [Alicke, M.D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and uncontrollability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1129-1140].

#3 We carry illusions to bolster our self-conception. Most people see themselves as better than others and as above average on most of their qualities. When asked to describe themselves and other people, most people provide more positive descriptions of themselves than they do of friends. This tendency to see the self as better than others occurs across a wide variety of tasks and abilities [Brown, J.D. (1986). Evaluations of self and others: Self-enhancement biases in social judgements. Social Cognition, 4, 353-373].

#4 We carry illusions to enhance our ego. A consistent and ubiquitous research finding is that people take credit for good things that happen and deny responsibility for the bad things that happen [Bradley, G.W. (1978) Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36, 56-71]

#5 We use the illusion of logic and order in order to fend off dread. As Ernest Becker stated, “Through the imposition of logic and order on the world we spare ourselves the constant realization of the random terror of death.” As an example, we believe that people succeed through their own efforts, and this leads us to impute effort to those who are highly successful and laziness to those who are not. Even if evidence is all around us suggesting that events are less orderly and systematic as we think they are, rarely do we develop a full appreciation of this fact. The failure to recognize the role of random, unsystematic forces in many aspects of life may come, in part, from our need to see the world as a systematic and orderly place [Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Vintage Books].

#6 We carry with us the constant illusion of control. Psychologist Ellen Langer argues that most people succumb to an illusion of control, in which they believe they can affect events more than is actually the case. For instance: gambling. Gambling is a clear case in which the relative importance of personal control and chance are often confused. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who once took a job as a croupier in Las Vegas, noted that dealers who experienced runs of bad luck, leading the house to lose heavily, ran the risk of losing their jobs, even though the reason for the run of bad luck was ostensibly chance.

#7 We don’t [want to] appreciate chance because illusions give us a sense of control. When people were able to choose their own lottery card, as opposed to having it chosen for them, they were less likely to turn it in for a new lottery card that offered them a better chance of winning, simply because they felt it was not their card and they wanted to hold onto it. The longer a person held on to a lottery card and presumably had time to think about the likelihood of winning and he could do with the money, the less likely he was to turn the lottery card in for a ticket in a drawing with better odds. E.J. Langer was able to show that perfectly normal people engaged in a wide variety of superstitions and nonsensical behaviors in chance situations, when cues suggesting skill had been subtly introduced [Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975) Head I win, tails it’s chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955].

#8 We are able to generate illusory self-serving models of thinking. Psychologist Ziva Kunda suggests that people actively construct theories of why positive and negative events occur; in so doing they draw on their own attributes in order to defend against the possibility that the negative events might befall then and to enhance the perceived likelihood that the positive events will happen to them. For example, upon learning that the divorce rate for first time marriages is 50 percent, most people predict that they will not be in the 50 percent, but rather will remain married to their spouse throughout their lifetime. They convince themselves that this is the case, Kunda has shown, by highlighting their stable attributes that might be associated with a stable marriage and downplaying the significance of or actively refuting information that might suggest vulnerability to divorce. Thus, for example, one might point to one’s parents’ fifty-year marriage, the close family life that existed in one’s early childhood and the fact that one’s high school relationships lasted a full four years as evidence to predict a stable marriage. The fact that one’s husband has already been divorced once – a factor that predicts a second divorce – mist be reinterpreted not only as not leading to divorce in one’s own case but as a protective factor (“He knows he does not want this marriage to fail like the last one, and so he’s working especially hard to keep our relationship string”). The ability to draw seemingly rational relationships between our own assets and good events and to argue away associations between our own attributes and negative events helps to maintain unrealistic optimism [Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal theories. Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 636-647].

These examples illustrate that we are guided by a self-serving bias because we deeply care about the self that has been created. In order to protect our ego, self-conception and identity, we are held as prisoners to our own our self-schema. Self-schemas are enduring beliefs that people have about themselves. Descriptions such as intelligent, musical, overweight, funny – are examples of self-schemas. Self-schemas enable us to take in the information that fits our prior conceptions of what we are like and what interests us and simultaneously helps us cement those self-impressions. Self-schemas, then, reinforce our ego and sense of identity. To shatter one’s ego and self-schema is to leave one hopeless, disillusioned, and worthless. Illusions, however, help keep our ego and self-schema intact.

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Illusions on a Supernatural level

If illusions are ubiquitous, then why do religious people take it to a supernatural level? The tendency for humans to take their illusions to a supernatural level involves what psychologists call locus of control. Evolutionary psychologist Michael Shermer notes that “people who rate high on internal locus of control tend to believe that they make things happen and they are in control of their circumstances, whereas people who score high on external locus of control tend to think that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them.” (The Believing Brain, 77) Psychologists find that having a high internal locus of control leads you to become more confident in your own personal judgment, more skeptical of outside authorities and sources of information, and have a lower tendency to conform to external influences. In fact, people who consider themselves “skeptics” about the paranormal and supernatural tend to score high in internal locus of control, whereas self-reported “believers” in ESP, spiritualism, reincarnation, and mystical experiences in general tend to rate high in external locus of control.

The level of uncertainty in life can exacerbate the illusions that take over us. Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous studies of superstitions among the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrates that as the level of uncertainty in the environment increases so, too, does the level of superstitious behavior. We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. In Malinowski’s words,

“We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the elements of danger is conspicuous.”

What Malinowski found with the Trobriand Islanders, is that the further they sailed into the deep seas away from land – where risk was higher – the more illusions and superstitious behavior there were. Many of us are no different. Whether it is a belief in God or the secular person believing in the self-serving idea that they are more stable or intelligent than most people, the illusions serve an adaptive feature that helps us cope and persevere.

meaningFinal Words

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” In the context of this essay, the abyss is the subterranean reality that resides in us all: we will one day cease to exist. Self-preservation is the disease that affects us all, and illusions are the medications we rely on. Illusions are the necessary distractions that turn our faces from the abyss, in order to avoid being engulfed in its darkness. The afterlife, God, Buddha, identity, and ego are the illusory constructions that make up the scaffolding of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Most of these illusory constructions serve an adaptive purpose. They help us cope with death, they incentivize the pursuit of virtues, and they strengthen social bonds. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Even the secular person needs illusions. After all, when you see through life’s illusions, there lies the danger.