Sunday, September 30, 2012

Unhealthy Emotions

Buddhism, as opposed to many western philosophical traditions, has an elegant way of describing and labeling harmful emotions. In an article entitled Buddhist and Psychological Perspectives on Emotions and Well-Being (Ekman et al.), two Buddhist practitioners (Ricard and Wallace) describe the ailments of three particular emotions.

First, they address craving:
Craving is concerned with acquiring or maintaining some desirable object or situation for "me" and "mine," which may be threatened by "the other" (61).
The quotation marks may confuse someone who has not been exposed to Buddhist thought or teachings.  Buddhists think that the root of all the confusion and existential conflicts result because people are quick to objectivize (if I may invent such a word) their own personal experience within the confines of reality. Craving, as defined by the authors is afflictive because it gives rise to anxiety, misery, fear, and anger. But, more specifically, craving "... falsely displaces the source of one's well being from one's own mind to objects" (ibid.). What good is the mind if it is so easily swayed by things external to it?

The second unhealthy emotion is hatred:
... hatred... is driven by the wish to harm or destroy anything that obstructs the selfish pursuit of desirable objects and situations for me and mine (ibid.).
The authors then go on to say that "Hatred exaggerates the undesirable qualities of objects and deemphasizes their positive qualities" (ibid.). They draw the conclusion that hatred causes the mind to observe external objects as the source of all suffering. Therefore, hatred definitely has the ability to sway an individual off the course of the peaceful life. People could become consumed in attempting to overcome those specific obstacles that cause pain.

Lastly, they identify the final unhealthy emotion, which is a bit more difficult to grasp:
The third, most fundamental affliction of the mind is the delusion of grasping onto one's own and others' reified personal identities as real and concrete.  ... people habitually obscure the actual nature of the self by superimposing on reality the concepts of permanence, singularity, and autonomy. As a result of misapprehending the self as independent, there arises a strong sense of the absolute separation of the self and other. Then, craving naturally arises for the "I" and what us mine, and repulsion arises toward the other (ibid.).
Where craving and hatred are described as unhealthy emotions that associate with objects, the delusion mentioned in this quote is mainly associated with other conscious beings. I am not exactly sure if this is the main point that the authors wished to express, but it is how I interpreted this last emotion.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Seneca's Prioritizing

It is always something enlightening when I receive insight into the priorities of philosophers; it allows me to see how they make decisions along with their reasoning. I believe it was Aristotle who said that people become accustomed to virtues through those who accurately practice noble virtues. It is good to have an example or an ideal to mirror oneself. I think that this goes for all other actions as well - not just simply finding exemplars of virtue. In the case of Seneca, I admire his ability to prioritize. In the modern age (especially in developed countries such as the United States), priorities seem to be grounded in personal pleasures and overly selfish well-being.

I recently finished Seneca's incomplete collection of letters entitled Letters from a Stoic (2004). His knowledge is so sublime and his aphorisms have the ability to open the gates of one's intellect. There are numerous passages that are well worth looking over and studying. Perhaps one of the most intriguing passages has to do with prioritizing things in one's life:

The man who does not value his wife or a friend highly enough to stay on a little longer in life, who persists in dying in spite of them, is a thoroughly self-indulgent character. This is a duty which the soul should also impose on itself when it is merely the convenience of near and dear ones that demands it. And not only if and when it feels the wish to die, but also if and when it has begun to carry out the wish, it should pause a while to fit in with their interests (184, Letter CIV).

This quote deals with one of the great existential problems that Seneca struggles with: the choice either to live or die. But the quote delves even further than this mere conflict. Seneca imples that the selfless character should die (or even live) in consideration of others. This profound insight, this prioritization of others, is the result of great wisdom and practice.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Conscientious Revelation

There is a stunning and insightful revelation that has come upon me recently. Most of the time, I pass and mosey on through my day's work with a routine. I sometimes fail to notice and attune myself to the various interactions with others. We all do it; we don't always make that effort to get to know - not just the person - but the moment of interaction between you and the other person.

This other person - this other conscious being who has been equipped with the same tools in which they view the world - seems like an anomaly in nature. Not just their sensual capacity is the highlight of this discovery, for even animals have the innocent and unreasoned capacity to view atoms in motion. The fact that this other being can reason is such a profound revelation in itself.

Current biological evidence seems to imply that no other organisms function with reason intact. Of course, when looking at the vastness of the universe, there is a great possibility that other beings will be discovered. When you notice this, do you not feel intense feelings of responsibility, pride, luckiness?

I think that this conscientious revelation has the ability to dissolve hatred for humanity. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Philosohpy at a Grocery Store...

This actually happened about a week ago, I just never had the chance to post a blog about it. I was manning my post at the counter of the deli. Tom looked up at me, and in great gleefulness he smiled just like he always does. He is not like me.

It's interesting to notice when people think differently than yourself. They might have a different way of reasoning about things or might talk about sports more than you do. But Tom is a very logical thinker- to the extreme. (So is my formal logic professor, on an obvious note). Tom is a mathematics professor for Wildwood Community College and he is very wise.

I do not think that I was ever logical or wise.

Tom knows I am a philosophy major, and he surprisingly likes to talk about ethics. One time we were talking about what to do about corporate corruption. But this past week, he actually told me a story that involved himself.

Basically, Tom was backing out of his parking space at the store and a woman drove up behind him and blocked him. After getting out of his car in great haste and befuddlement, Tom addressed the woman. He said that the woman was driving an average car with a child in the back seat. He said that the women asked him for twenty-eight dollars in order to purchase a ticket to see a distant relative.

After pondering the possibilities, Tom decided to decline her request and get back into his car. He also told me his decision was affected by the fact that he had pickpocket experience that involved him in Paris. The fact that the woman was heavy set did not add up to her being in need of any nourishment; and she was driving a car.

Regardless of the soundness of his argument, it is just awesome to actually take time to talk to someone else about ethical issues and situations. It lets me escape from the theoretical realm of books and enter into actuality.

"Philosophy actually exists in the world," thought I.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Importance of Creative Intelligence

A person's identity is unique insofar as they think for themselves. For as long as there are numerous and diverse people, there will always be numerous and diverse life philosophies. The only thing that is standing as an impediment to this sort of creative intelligence is the robotic adaptation of someone else's philosophy. These people are like mimes. They cannot, for the sake of them, think outside of another's ideals, whatever they might be. University of Rochester philosopher Richard Taylor, in his book Virtue Ethics: An Introduction, describes this type of mediocre individual:

They are essentially people without personal biographies except for the events which the mere of passage of times thrusts upon them. In this they are like animals, each of whose lives is almost indistinguishable from others of its species, simply duplicating the generations before it... What it does, others have done and will do again, without creative improvement of any kind. Its life consists of what happens to it. And people who are like this have a similar uniformity. They do much as their neighbors do and as their parents have done, creating virtually no values of their own, but absorbing the values of those around them... You see these people everywhere, doing again today what they did yesterday, their ideas and feelings having about as little variation (235).

If life is a process, shouldn't one be able to identify different levels of progress? There is no progress in the lives of individuals such as this. They might as well be members of an exclusive religious cult. The minds of the frail live with no sense of creative intelligence. People will live and people will die, this is for certain. In the end, thoughtful and justifiable variation is seen as interesting and will most likely influence future generations.

Why live the life of someone who already lived?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

One Fine Day

This past Labor Day, Toni and I had a really wonderful time being immersed in Japanese culture. My sister Sarah, in her loving kindness, brought back some weekend passes to the Japanese festival at the Botanical Gardens. I found ourselves enjoying the change of scenery; our experiences drifted far east toward a country completely alien to ours.

And it was beautiful.

Anyways, after looking at most of the craft stalls and listening to the live taiko drum ensemble, we strolled back to the main entrance building to see a one hour lecture. I do not recall the speakers name, but she was a Japanese anthropologist. She gave a lot of autobiographical information, primarily focused on the fact that she studied in Kyoto for many years. Then, the lecture transitioned from discussing Japanese geisha to the differences between traditional dress and modern fashion. But, soon after, she began to discuss the many different influences of Japanese culture. She said something along the lines of:

"The Japanese are simple people and live life differently from many western nations. They maintain their focus on the circumstances instead of living in the past." She then started to comment on the different meanings in the conception of the common cherry tree in our cultures. And as if by some oracular event, she read a Matsuo Bashō haiku. It was a mesmerizing experience. The example she used was so perfect and proved her point. Regrettably, I am disappointed to say that I do not remember the exact poem. All I recall is that it was very profound to me.

Here are some of his haikus:

Occasional clouds
One gets a rest
From moon-viewing.

In the Cicada's cry
There's no sign that can foretell
How soon it must die.

Lightening -
Heron's cry
Stabs the darkness.

On my travels, stricken—
my dreams over the dry land
go on roving.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Aristotle's Eudemonia and Zen

Upon returning once again to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I was able to make some connections between Aristotle’s conception of eudemonia and Zen Buddhism. Being introduced to the Zen tradition recently, I am beginning to notice subtle connections between the eastern precepts and western styles of thinking. This is one of the joys of philosophy, mainly, to consider different belief systems and finding similarities between them. Of course, I am by no means a Zen master. For the sake of philosophy, however, I will explain my observations.
In Book I of Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out to examine different forms of living. He concludes, near the beginning of the book, that there are three prominent types of life: that of pleasure, political life, or the contemplative life. After Aristotle blueprints the three ways of living, he attempts to clarify a common misconception about external sources of success. The example he provides is one that addresses honor:

… A consideration of the prominent types of life shows that people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor… But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one’s own and not easily taken from one (Cahn and Vitrano 20).

Aristotle asserts that such external dispositions are unsatisfactory. The apparent vanity lies in the fact that honor is a title bestowed by others. This is the weakness of similar external designations; the subject has no control over such titles. It would seem that Aristotle would favor a source of happiness that proceeds from the individual. In this way, the subject has complete control of himself or herself. Happiness, in this view, would solely depend of the individual.
            Moreover, Zen principles imply this as well. Freedom does not depend on external things:

The term that Zen uses to express the idea of “freedom” is “jiyū” and it consists of two characters; “ji” meaning “self on its own,” while “” means “out of.” When they are used together as a compound, the phrase as a whole designates an action arising out of self on its own[1].

Nothing outside of the practitioner’s consciousness maintains control over the ego. The mind itself creates its own happiness as well as its own predicaments. In the end, it is up to the subject to interpret reality in complete freedom.

[1] Nagatomo, Shigenori, "Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.