Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Garden Of The Good Life Part 1.

A (tentative) users guide to well being.

Happiness or well being is something that I have been considering at length recently. one of my previous posts (Experiments in consciousness) lead me to construct a little parable. What follows is some consideration of what a good life might entail and how to best cultivate such states of well being.

Perceptive readers may well pick up on the term well being as a phrase containing something of Eastern flavour. This is no accident, in my previous post I alluded to my interest in eastern philosophy in particular Zen Buddhism. Though I have no formal affiliation with any group, or believe anything metaphysical. Neither am I an adept-- I would describe myself as a dilettante. There is it seems to me a vast repository of spiritual and contemplative wisdom that has been largely untapped by the West. Indeed on numerous points it seems our spiritual and philosophical concepts compared with the East is the like the gulf between 20th century physicists with their 14th century counterparts. As such much of what follows is indebted to the Eastern traditions however I do have much admiration for the Stoics of Greece.

I think I should talk a little more about what I feel to be the difference between happiness and well being. The core distinction I would make is that I perceive happiness to be transitory. That it is a temporary state in the mind such as the eating of ice cream or enjoying a fine piece of music. It could of course be something more singular such as passing your exams or getting married. Despite the heightened sense of happiness you may well feel it is only temporary and as such echoes out along the corridor of time.

Well being though is something that is not temporary but continues through the various trials and tribulations of life. I quoted Marcus Aurelius in one of my previous posts that a good life can be likened to a wrestler who grounds himself and is not thrown by the difficulties, passions, troubles and desires of life. In other words an equilibrium of mind, a mind that does not suffer the torments of anxiety and the cravings of desire but one that is light and free and open. The mind acts with stoic and calm grace in most or all situations. The Stoics would point to Socrates as being a sage or a master for achieving such a state. Naturally for the Buddhists they would point to the Buddha as an example of an enlightened one.

Upon my first reading and considering these teachings of well being my criticism was that--what is the difference between this say and simply taking anti-depressant drugs or tranquilisers to numb the mind? This is mistaken. I’ll offer a brief counter to this. Zen and to a much lesser extent Stoicism does not deny or discourage joy or rapture, quite the opposite (less so with Stoicism). What it speaks of though is that we don’t become attached or overly affected by emotion. It asks us to simply experience emotion without judging or thinking unnecessarily about it. I may be eating a fantastic dinner but that’s it though. Just that- nothing special. The problem comes when I think during it that when I finish there will be a feeling of dissatisfaction that its over. Or that I need to keep eating, or that my worries will return as soon as I set my fork down, or I feel guilty for eating too much.

One of the most profound and simplest lessons of Buddhism is that thoughts are simply thoughts. That it is our thinking that frequently gets us into trouble. It asks us to simply experience moment to moment our lives without judging or attaching. This is what is meant by openness and equilibrium of mind.

The Soil of life.

What is the first thing we need for the garden? The foundation of any garden is of course soil. Soil contains the nutrients and ingredients for the plants and flowers and vegetables of which we want to grow. Our neurology and genes can be thought of as the soil, the foundation for our well being. Previously I used a metaphor that such things like genes and the various qualities of brain chemistry to something akin to hardware on a computer. Good hardware allows us to download and run good software (ethics and philosophy).

Most likely we inherit the soil that was originally present in the ground that we come to just like with our genes and propensities to things like anxiety and sociability. Of course we can buy soil from a good landscaper if we choose. Buying brains and genes are admittedly a little harder. I’m sure your saying to yourself right now - well what if I don’t have the so called good gene for happiness-- so that’s me snookered then.

Not exactly. Firstly though consider that there is probably not some single gene for happiness or the good life but sets of genes that can get turned on (become more active or less) according to environment factors. Consider this point, though it may sound cold comfort to people who have such conditions. Things like the variability of height, good looks, obesity, alcoholism are largely dependent on genes. Not everyone is blessed the same and in the final analysis whatever your shortcomings you get on with your lot as best you can. That’s of course not to say that we can redress or enhance our features. The same goes with ideas such as how to life a good life.

There is nothing we can do about our genes but there is of course things we can do to our Neurology. Bluntly speaking there are anti-depressant pills we can take such as SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake inhibitor) which can give a sufferer of depression a better mental standard of living. On another continuum there are illicit drugs such as Cannabis, LSD or MDMA that people regularly consume. MDMA is a case in point, at the level of the brain it operates much like a SSRI only it floods the brain with Serotonin rather than the SSRI which retains it (hence the term reuptake inhibitor). MDMA before it became illegal was used in therapy, marriage counselling and treating sufferers of PTSD and sex abuse with some promising success. There is a growing body of personal testimony that the drug can induce vast differences in a persons well being in only a single or few doses. MDMA is of course Schedule I in America and its equivalent rating of Class A in the UK. You have as much chance of dying of this drug as you would if you take a paracetamol tablet. MDMA is of course better known as its street name Ecstasy.

For people who wish to alter their states of being without resorting to chemicals though there is something that we can do. Insight meditation or Vipassana meditation. The simple counting of ones breath going in and out past the nose. You keep you mind focused on the breath, don’t allow your mind to wander in thought. This is harder than it sounds if you don’t believe me give it a try. I’d wager that most people could not even reach ten seconds without an errant thought invading their concentration even if their life depended on it. This is an acquired skill that can take even years to fully master. However even a small amount of practice can see noticeable effects such as a more quieted mind. It sounds ridiculous but there is plenty of self report from people over millennia’s testifying to its efficacy. There are some therapists who openly use it in their practice and can find great results. Nothing of course need be believed without good reason and as we speak there is a team of neuroscientists working with Zen practitioners to flesh out a contemplative science of the mind.

Best and Be well.

Michael Faulkner

Part Two will follow shortly.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A Letter on Love

Love is a human universal. It cuts across all cultures, all times and all places. Many cultures isolated from one another have independently evolved understandings of the concepts and experiences of love. Both ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese’s have unique expressions for differing ideas of what love is. The world today is vastly different from the one Aristotle and Plato inhabited millennia’s ago, their (Greek) conceptions of love however is as useful now as it was then.

They of course have a term for that notorious state of sexual lust eros which is sensual pleasure and desire allied with mania which is obsession. Consider though agape, self sacrificing, altruistic and thoughtful love. ludus- affection of children. Or philia covering a range of non-sexual love, between parent and child, brothers in arms, travelling companions and business partners.

It is of course sexual or romantic love that writes books, makes songs of lost love and longing, paintings and poetry. It is this love that we hunger for, search, sacrifice, die and ultimately even kill for. The paring and bond of loving men and women is something that fundamentally underwrites our very existence. The eros that frequently brings children into the world and the pragma needed to bring them up in a loving and caring environment.

We all consider ourselves experts and philosophers on this subject. We can ask our grannies on questions about love and romance in a way we don’t ask them questions about particle physics or molecular biology. The experts have stayed largely silent on love and human emotion up until know, even psychology for large swathes of the 20th century remained silent on the subject. The monsters from planet explanation I am talking about are of course the men and women in white coats we call scientists.

Oh dear! You may say. We are going to have to hear about boring explanations and lines about bodily process and chemical change. I’ll take my Shakespeare sonnets any day of the week and your mechanical explanations of serotonin and dopamine can go up your you know what. The purpose of this essay is to show why certain fears of science are misplaced and that much of the conflict between science and the humanities is a non-starter. I intend to show that much of our supposed conflict comes from a confusion of categories, between understanding and knowledge on the one hand and experience and experiencing on the other.

It seems in the West we have an almost culturally ingrained antipathy to science and its promethean ability to unravel the mysteries of the universe and everything in it. This is of course paradoxical to the point of hilarity. We in the West in 2008 enjoy a tremendous standard of living much of which is denied to the rest of the world. These tender fruits are from the tree of knowledge and progress of which science is the mainstay. We have eradicated much of the terrible diseases that have plagued us throughout history, measles, smallpox and rubella. We have cut infant death mortality, we have prolonged life to almost double or triple the age of which millions of our ancestors lived. We have developed life saving drugs, techniques such as blood transfusion which have saved countless souls. We even have the ability to control our means of reproduction thereby freeing women from their historic role of being nothing better than livestock for the bearing of male children. To say nothing of the sheer delight and utility in modern communication, the internet and air travel. The aesthetic and architectural elegance of something like the Golden Gate bridge or the Empire state building. Surely the laptop, In vitro fertilization and a Space Shuttle are masterpieces of human effort, imagination and creativity the same way renaissance painting is or the writing of Shakespeare or the music of Mozart.

At this point you may wish to interject with some damming counterexamples. Firstly we have Einstein’s monsters which allow us the capacity to destroy every single person on the planet, this is of course the atomic bomb. The development of the lethally poisonous Zyklon B allowed the Nazis to streamline their genocide of Jews during the second world war. Following the train of association we have the closely linked development of science, technology and weapons development. From this we have horrors such as napalm, white phosphors grenades and Sarin gas. I could go on……

These abominations though say less about the “evils” of science than they do about the dark chasms of human nature. Science is morally neutral. Stephen Jay Gould the American palaeontologist had this to say “Science shows us how the heavens go not how to get to heaven” Science is our greatest tool at apprehending reality, it explains how things work and how they came to be. We look to things like moral philosophy or ethics or religion for guidance on how to behave.

Is it not baffling when many men and women who can be very well educated are leery and fearful when science comes anywhere near human nature? This attitude cuts across the political and socio/economic spectrum. The culture wars in America have the near comical spectacle of the religious/conservative right joining forces with the extreme left (who share almost no common ground whatsoever) to batter back Science and its discoveries.

Its worth the trouble pondering where these hostilities arose from. For Religion the matter is easy. The creation myth of Genesis has God forbid man to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Right at the core of the Abrahamic faiths we have a taboo about learning and knowledge. Jesus himself said that we should be as little children. The Catholic church has continually opposed nearly every kind of scientific and ethical progress in human history, only absolving Galileo of heresy as early as 1992. Martin Luther the pillar of Protestantism had this to say- “Reason is the devils harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does”

If this all sounds piddling and an abstraction then consider the real world consequence of unreason. Consider Bush and his bioethics council. Bush a member of the United Methodist Church-a Protestant staffed his committee mostly with hard-line Catholic intellectuals (it would seem there was a shortage of “intellectual” Protestant men and women) This council which advises Bush on topics such as genetic manipulation of animals and humans, cognitive enhancing drugs and stem cell research. The Bush presidency has of course blocked funding for stem cell research clearly on the back of the dogma that ensoulment begins at the moment of conception. His councils report which was their justification and argument for the refusal to fund federal dollars for stem cell research was littered with biblical passages and vague conceptions of human “dignity”. Much of the passages were added uncritically without thought to either their accuracy or relevance. Needless to say none of the contributors were people with relevant backgrounds to the subject such as a life scientist or a psychologist, neither was a sociologist or a historian present.

America the most technologically advanced nation and among the most brightest has allowed superstition to stifle one of the most potentially promising scientific and medical advances in history. The belief that somehow the “dignity” of a collection of human cells in a Petri dish should trump a little girl wasting away with leukaemia is simply obscene. It is tirelessly pointed out though that “Judaeo-Christian” values underwrite our “civilisation”

The academic left, the arts and humanities have their pet dogmas as well. Perhaps a large figure looms in the presence of Keats. Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow. This was of course in response to Newton’s discovery of using a prism to decompose white light into a visible spectrum. In his poem he writes “conquer all mysteries by rule and line, empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine-unweave a rainbow…

Keats wrote in the romantic tradition but this antipathy to science-that it is cold and sterile and un-imaginative has carried through to two of the major art movements of the 20th century. Modernism and Post-Modernism. Although the romantics it seems never challenged the veracity of science, simply labelling it as empty and sterile. The Modernists and Post-Modernists though attacked not just enlightenment ideas such as progress and its marriage to science but its authority on truth. This of course is the schoolyard chant that there is no such things as facts or truth. The American anthropologist Matt Cartmill wrote on this dogma

Anybody who claims to have objective knowledge about anything is trying to control and dominate the rest of us…there are no objective facts. All supposed “facts” are contaminated with theories, and all theories are infested with moral and political doctrines.

This is a good approximation of the kind of sub Marxist paranoid conspiracy theorising that can take place. Its funny don’t you think that no one says that gravity is not a “objective fact” while flying at thirty thousand feet in the air? And for the life of me I cant see how the Copernican revolution with its removal of earth as the centre of the universe is “infested with moral and political doctrines” can you?

Coming back to Keats and to my main point. Understanding something and experiencing something is not the same thing. Newton unravelled the mystery of the rainbow but even with this knowledge can we really say that it is any less beautiful to look at? I don’t have enough room to refute the charge that science is incapable of producing states of awe and reverence and that it is sterile and cold. My purpose here is to illustrate how understanding and knowledge do not lessen our personal experiences any less.

My favourite food is homemade Spaghetti Bolognese, for years my mum made it out of a ready made jar. Around four years ago I purchased an Italian cookery book since then my mum makes the recipe from scratch. I have myself learned to make it, though more emphasis is placed on chilli powder when I make it for myself.(I am a fanatic when it comes to hot stuff!) Here is the recipe-

30ml ½ tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

5ml 1/1 tsp dried mixed herbs

1.25ml ¼ tsp cayenne pepper

350-450g/ 12oz-1lb minced beef

400g/ 14oz can chopped Italian plum tomatoes

45ml1/3 tbsp tomato ketchup

15ml/1 tbsp sun dried tomato ketchup

15ml/1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

5ml/ tsp dried oregano

450ml/ ¾ pint/¾ cups beef stock

45ml1/3 tbsp red wine

400-450g/ 14oz 1lb dried spaghetti (Fresh is better- my emphasis)

Salt and ground pepper

Freshly grated parmesan cheese to serve

(for kicks I would use red pepper and fresh bird eye chillies and copious hot chilli powder, its also good to have some fresh baguettes to eat along with it-)

When I was sixteen all I knew that was in spaghetti bolognese was spaghetti, mince and tomatoes and It was my favourite meal. I’m now 22 and I know the ingredients and know how to make it and its still my favourite meal.

We could subject this to all manner of analysis. Study the chemical properties of parmesan cheese. Follow diligently the process of slaughtered cows to meat processing plants to supermarket displays to its cooking. We could investigate the ingredients and see if they have any welcome health benefits such as tomatoes which have been linked to reducing cardiovascular disease. We could even I’m sure study the effect of heat and the chemical interactions that are taking place in my stove. If we wanted we could hook up my brain to nodes and see how and where my brain lights up when I take a forkful of my favourite nosh.

I could go on ad nausea but ask yourself the question does knowing all this make my experience of when I eat any less pleasurable or important? You may see where I am going with this and if you find this analogy a little too facile- let me offer something more substantial.

Consider cancer, this disease is a killer that does not discriminate. You could be a neurosurgeon or a gardener and still fall prey. Now no one in their right mind would say we should not study or explore cancer least it leave the sufferer or potential sufferer a robot or empty or somehow robbed of humanity. Indeed we actively welcome research on this topic and any knowledge can be put to use combating it. As you read this there is a very high possibility that a person is wasting away from this disease who holds a degree in medicine, who fully understands the history, nature and composition of the disease yet still they live in abject pain and suffering. Their knowledge does not diminish their suffering and experience in any shape or form.

It is the same of love or any other human experience. Cancer and love are of course very different but they are rooted within our bodies they have a physical nature. There is no ghost in the machine that turns on love. Love is real, it has both physical and chemical properties. Consider some of the recipe for romantic sexual attraction.

Male signs of attraction

Enlarged pupils

Flushed face

Brushing back hair etc

Gazing into the eyes of beloved

Female signs of attraction


Nervous laughing

Pupils dilating

Touching face and or hair playfully

Caressing a cylindrical object

Physiological responses regarding sexual attraction

Males experience swelling of the testes.

Males will experience penile tumescence and erection

Females will experience increase in breast size

Females will experience erection of the clitoris and labia

Females will experience vaginal lubrication and enlarging of the vagina

Brain Chemistry in association with love and sexual attraction

Elevated levels of testosterone and estrogen present when men and women respectively become romantically attracted to each other.

During the initial phases of love, when monogamous bonding has occurred raised levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are present.

Oxytocin- which has been linked to long term bonding and marriage. Oxytocin has been linked with empathy and trust.

Every single person in the world could learn this and then safely place it back on the shelf when experiencing the bliss of romantic love. A man may hold his wife in a loving embrace, smelling the summer fruit scent of her hair and feel absolutely euphoric. He may even attribute such states to elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine. But does that diminish his love for her and his wish to be with her for the rest of his life in any way? Of course not and I can prove it. There is a maxim, I forget who said it- “to question whether or not you are in love means your not” you are either experiencing it or not and when you are, when your under it you know for sure for its unlike anything else. Now of course what is the ultimate guarantor of this observation? Our own experience, our self report of what it feels like to be in such a state, and these reports can be checked against others who have experienced it.

Having knowledge, even scientific knowledge of human emotions does not stop or diminish or trivialise them or make people zombies. To say otherwise is like claiming that understanding of the human digestive system stops you from having a shit or trivialise what you “feel” on the pot or that knowing this makes you any more “robotic” or “deterministic” during your daily sit-down on the john.


Michael Faulkner


I recommend reading the work of American Anthropologist Helen E Fisher who has researched and published findings and theories of love and sexual romantic attraction.

Anatomy of Love – a Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

Here also is a exciting talk she gave to TED

For a fuller discussion on Keats and his quarrel with science I recommend Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow, Science, Delusion and the appetite for wonder.

For the Academic Left--

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science By Paul Gross and Norman Levitt.

For a critique of Bush’s bioethics committee and its pernicious ideas of dignity- Stephen Pinker’s article from the New Republic

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Catholic Absurdity


By Richard Dawkins

Readers of yesterday's thread "It's a Goddamned Cracker" will be aware of somebody called Bill Donohue, whose grasp of reality is so poor that he can't tell the difference between a wafer and Jesus. The shrieking hysteria of Donohue and other Roman Catholics over the temporary removal of a communion wafer from a church service epitomises all that is ridiculous in the religious mind.

Today's development is that Donohue is now inciting a witch-hunt against PZ, and is trying to whip up Roman Catholics to write to the President of the University of Minnesota, urging him to sack PZ. We need a massive counter flood of letters in support of PZ Myers. Please write, bearing in mind PZ's two requests:-

1. Please use your own name, not a pseudonym
2. Please take care to write in a good, literate, adult style, in order to increase the contrast between the letters of support and the incoherent, juvenile flaming that will doubtless characterise the letters from the Catholics.

For details of the address to write to, see Pharyngula, here (or PZ's post below)

Please rally round and show support for PZ, in the face of this hysterical latter-day Grand Inquisitor.

Thank you



Here is the post that started it.


I urge everyone to write in support.

send you email here

Here is my email of support.

I wish to convey my support for PZ Myers over the controversy regarding the catholic cracker incident. I sincerely wish not to see any kind of formal disciplinary procedures enacted against PZ for something so trivial as threatening to abuse a cracker.

Ill not bother to list the misery that the Catholic church and Catholics have perpetrated over two millennia on the back of irrational dogmas. Academic freedom and the right to criticize without fear of being oppressed should be a cornerstone of any democracy and academic establishment.

I trust you will not give in to catholic rabble rousers with nothing better to do than attempt to get a distinguished biology professor fired for the insane idea that a wafer is the actual body of Christ.


Michael Faulkner.

Comber, County Down, Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Experiments in consciousness.

Last Sunday (29/06) I decided to do a little fasting or rather giving up of attachments. In certain spiritual traditions attachments are seen as one of the root causes of our suffering. This bondage can take many forms, pleasurable activities such as sex, food, drinking and illicit drug use, attachments to routines, to ideas, to our most standard ideas of self. My renouncement of worldly attachments was far less grand and ostentatious than the above list but nevertheless served to provide much in way of unexpected discussion and insight.

I decided to give up Coffee! So what you may say, but the giving up actually produced some unwelcome changes. I gave it up not out of some major health concern but for simply demonstrating to myself the freedom gained by being unbound to attachments. Well within 24 hours several interesting things began to occur which were amplified over the next 48 hours. The effects of which prompted me to hold several discussions over some cherished ideas and practices.

On Sunday I made up my list of things to do for the week along with the things I wanted to give up, one amongst them was coffee which contains caffeine. Come Monday morning for my breakfast of cereal and bagels I simply had milk to replace the warm, luxurious, unfathomably dark, 5 strength ground coffee I drink. Throughout Monday I felt tired, and a slight headache which I attributed to my consuming of eight bottles of beer over the weekend--I’m not a heavy drinker and get generally get sore heads if I do too much. By Tuesday however I noticed several things. I had a persistent though not migraine level headache. I was very tired, nodding off when reading or meditating. I also became very irritable and slightly obnoxious.

On Tuesday I had to shop for a suit for a friends wedding. I remember passing some oddly dressed person on the street and thinking to my self “God what the hell is he dressed like!” This and other similar remarks I made which appeared to me as out of character, especially since in the last few months I have felt a general equilibrium in the mind.

By Wednesday I was expressing several negative attitudes towards myself and situations. I still felt tired and continued to have headaches. Going to the gym I felt a decreased lack of motivation and still persistent negative thoughts which I overcame by simply focussing on my present activities and silencing the mind. When I got home I decided to look up the “dreaded” effects of caffeine dependency.

Now I had played the good little empiricist and had taken into account numerous variables, such as the other things I had given up, like chocolate and milk. Or that low mood could be the result of the perennially crappy weather we get in Northern Ireland. My tiredness could have been a result of lack of sleep and my headaches could be the result of some other problem. By the way I knew that headaches was a withdrawal symptom of caffeine as I had mocked my cousins over their complaints of clucking for a caffeine fix whenever they did not get their mug of coffee.

I looked up the great reservoir of knowledge the indispensable Wikipedia. Sure enough I saw headaches listed as a symptom caused by blood vessels dilating. Irritability was there as well as nausea though thankfully I got none of that. There was one side effect which surprised me though- severing the use of caffeine causes a reduction of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin, a chemical which is responsible for things like mood, motivation, sleep, sexuality, aggression. Low levels have been demonstrated to be the cause of depression. The clinical term for anti-depressants are SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) what this does is inhibit the uptake of serotonin by the synaptic vesicles which means there is a normal level of serotonin coursing through the brain. Attempted suicide victims have been shown to have extremely low levels in the brain. The opposite of this is something like MDMA which unlike the SSRI actively flood the brain causing a profound change in a persons mood and sense of well being.

I was quite surprised at this discovery of serotonin depletion via caffeine withdrawal and also to discover that I am a caffeine “abuser” as my friend humorously noted when I told him. I consume daily over a thousand mg’s of coffee a day which according to Wikipedia is more than enough to cause tolerance of it.

I have long accepted that certain archaic ideas of a Cartesian dualism between mind and matter is a null hypothesis and that much of our welfare and states of mind are dependant on our biochemistry and neurology behaving normally. Still what does it mean for our ideas of maximising our welfare through spiritual practices?

This question was pertinent to me, as for the better part of a year I have engaged in practices such as Vipassana meditation, the reading of Stoic philosophy and its eastern counterparts in Buddhist traditions. I do mean to say I am a Buddhist just a selective consumer of certain literature and practices. In myself I have noticed several key changes, not least an openness and lightness of mind, sereneness and a better feeling of community with others. There is of course much for me to unpick and interrogate which I will not go into here. But on a pragmatic level there has been a change and if I can credit these states of mind to things like contemplative literature and practices then what does it mean when these states evaporate when I do something so trivial as stopping taking coffee with my bagels?

As I sat preparing to meditate I jolly well asked myself questions like-is this a waste of time? Is this bullshit? I do not have definite answers in my experiments in consciousness but I think there is much reason to suggest that my practices were not in vain. Still it disappointed me to experience a mild depression because of this withdrawal. I explored the issue a little more in my head and concluded that its not that practices and the use of ones attention is a waste of time. Or that we merely be passive in the face of the fact that without the aid of pharmacology we cannot change our biochemistry. but it is the idea that our very wellbeing is precarious, like ships tossed in a storm or a solitary leaf facing the turbulence of autumn, that our consciousness is subject to every fleeting whim and affect of which we have no real control over.

This is of course not original, there is many things which would greatly affect our states of mind, the sudden death of loved ones, a horrendous car accident or the realisation that one has 3 months to live. I settle on the idea that what is truly unsettling is that we have no control over our wellbeing that it is subject to chance whether we can live a good life or not. The conclusion perhaps to that is we might as well take pills all day to make us happy. Though this depends by what we mean by happiness which I wont get into for the purpose of this essay.

There is a more optimistic conclusion, it comes from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. He said that life is to be likened not to a dancer, subject to the whims and changes of the music but a wrestler who grounds himself and is not swayed or overthrown. As such we should not let our minds be thrown by unruly passion, greed, malice, desire. That we should keep a ready and alert mind to take on whatever life throws at us. All of our attention and practice then should be used as a bulwark against the stormy turbulence just over the horizon of our lives.

When I thought of this passage the events of the last few days were refocused in a new light. The disparaging comments I made in my mind about people and myself did not go unnoticed. I noted them. One of the key practices in Zen philosophy is the recognising of thoughts as thoughts and to label them. When I saw the oddly dressed man walking down the street and when I made my comment I noticed its malice and that it was an unwholesome comment along with it being jarring from the state of mind I have been in the last few months. My thoughts of unhappy work ethic at the gym on Tuesday were labelled by me as simply thoughts without good justification (I did a well above average workout) and that if I was unhappy I should simply work harder. During the workout itself my fixation on negative thoughts was recognised, this allowed me to purposefully focus on the present activities or think about something neutral. Awareness of ones thoughts and actions is of course liberating and powerful for change. The key difference between now and say two years ago was that I did not assent to the thoughts. For example rather than say I am “depressed” or “upset” (this purports to be an objective fact about my state of mind) I observe that my thinking is upsetting me or I am thinking negative thoughts, (which is to say it is not objective but purely subjective) Marcus Aurelius sums it up better than I can with his maximum that “all is as thinking makes it so”.

I have a tentative proposition, perhaps we view things like spiritual practice, whether it be prayer, meditation or fasting along with contemplative literature as software for the brain. The hardware of course being thinks like neurology, genetics, a particularly labile mind. Getting our neurology right allows us the ability to utilise and maximise spiritual discourses like the 8 fold path or the 7 factors of enlightenment or to get the best out contemplation. Perusing though my contemplative books I settled at random on this passage

“The five basic precepts, not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not using wrong speech, and not taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and make it dull.--

Killing-- it feels so much better to gently remove an insect from inside our home and put it outside put it outside than to kill it

Not stealing means not taking those things which are not given to us

Sexual misconduct can be most easily understood as refraining from those actions of sensuality which cause pain and harm to others, or turbulence or disturbance in ourselves.

Wrong speech- not only tell the truth but refrain from useless and frivolous talk. Restraint of speech is very useful to making the mind peaceful. Our speech should be gentle, cultivating harmony and unity between people.

On first reading we may not find these passages remarkable, as every culture throughout history has had injunctions such as these. Read the passages again though and consider the link between spirituality, ethics and emotions. These are not commandants to be followed out of faith. They give reasons for acting wholesomely in that they help cultivate harmonious states of mind which in turn lead to better social action. We should expect to feel better about ourselves when we follow these precepts. As a guide to living there is much that can be admired in the above passage. These are empirical questions, Love is more conducive to happiness than hate, anger and greed are opposed to serenity and kind generosity. This calls for as the author Sam Harris urges a genuine contemplative science of the mind. As such we already have a wealth of testimony spanning several thousands years pointing to elevated states of wellbeing and how to achieve them. Insight meditation has also been shown to alter the structure of the brain especially the parts associated with cultivating wholesome states. As we speak there is a team of neuroscientists and Zen practitioners working away to uncover spiritual and ethical truths about ourselves--

In the future we will be able to identify the right sets of genes, biochemistry and spiritual practice to fully maximise our potential and live well adjusted lives. In conclusion to my little story about Caffeine I decided to follow another little pearl of wisdom this time from Aristotle “excess in moderation.” I promptly went and made myself a strong cup of coffee.

Michael Faulkner.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Help Save Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh!

Pleas read and sign this petition. A young journalist is under threat of death by a bunch of theocratic fascists for the crime of blasphemy. Before we go on though about how backward and medieval Islam is we should remember that it was just his year in the UK that we got the Blasphemy law repealed.

please sign. Here is the link