Monday, December 24, 2012

The Heart of Christmas and Capitalism

Christmas has many meanings, but I want to suggest a human-centered celebration. It was originally based on Pagan celebrations, and later adapted by Christians to commemorate the birth of Jesus. To the detriment of many, Christmas has turned into a capitalistic fiasco. In many households, gifts are expected and received as a normality. I know many people who feel obligated to buy gifts for people they care for, and even feel anxious about not finding the perfect present.

Personally, I don't like buying gifts under capitalistic obligation. It is a distasteful thing to buy a present out of such feelings. For me, the heart of Christmas is the celebration of humanity in its pulchritude. It is not a time to reflect on the evil deeds that plague the world, but a time to reflect, with optimism, upon human relationships. 

Capitalism is the enemy of many endeavors. Anyone attempting to settle down to a joyful Christmas dinner has the thought of capitalism bludgeoning at the door of their consciousness. It is a sad fact that many civilizations depend on this economic system. This, I believe, is why many spoiled, rotten children open their gifts with great grievance when they receive something not wanted. Can they not see that even the most hideous capitalistic commodity that they receive is coveted by the world's poor? The plague of capitalism infects even the most innocent minds.

So, I will make it my personal mission to not dwell on unimportant things. Religious aspects are just leftover traditions of the past and nothing more. The modern approach to Christmas requires much mindfulness of the relationships that we cherish. I am trying my best to not let anything else, whether it be capitalism or religion, distract me from the true meaning of Christmas.

Let's celebrate and enjoy the bountiful goodness.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

When Tragedy Strikes, Humanism is What is Needed

I'm sure I do not need to go into the exact details of yesterday's tragic murders in Newtown, Connecticut. The event put a huge question to the fore, namely, how should one respond to tragedies? Indeed, I have personally taken a lot of criticism for my views, which is to be expected from people who do not understand my way of thinking. I make the point that many people, living in the individualistic society such as this one, politely "turn the other cheek" in response to prayer, if I may use such a phrase. No matter how much I agree that everyone has their own right to their own religious practices, prayer is, at best, the second best choice to respond to such unfortunate circumstances. Why pray when there are more effective tools available to quell your own suffering?

It is the humanist's task, during such grieving times, to equip those who suffer with the means to eliminate such dark and depressing thoughts. Anything else - anything that does not directly impact the suffering - is useless.

To our great benefit, the Stoic school of philosophy has built upon Epicurus' timeless view of death and dying. Epicurus thought that there exists either pain or pleasure, and death does not involve any physical pain. Thus, he concludes that death is nothing to us. Mark Twain seems to resonate with Epicurus when he supposedly wrote, "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not the slightest inconvenience from it." This is the sort of revelation that can, with much contemplation and practice, completely dissolve any sense of fear and grief when the inevitability of death surrounds us.

Stoicism has taken Epicurus' wise views and put them into practice. Seneca is known for his consoling letters to his friends, guiding them to forget their fears of this strange, mysterious thing called death. Marcus Aurelius held this view also, and even Spinoza expounded on it much much later. The bottom line is this:

It is human nature to respond to death with fear and anxiety. But death and the pain associated with its process is relatively short. If the pain stops in the event of death, then suffering is quelled. If suffering is quelled, then why view death as painful and emotionally hurtful? 

Of course, this is easier said than done. I have put these wise ideas into practice and can attest to their usefulness. My grandma passed away recently, and philosophy has molded me into a strong individual that can seem to take on any impossible task with more confidence - even a death of a loved one. She lived a long, fulfilled life. What more could I ask for? I would feel a strange sense of guilt if I responded with childish thinking.

So, when these tragedies happen, we should not merely pray for people. We should teach people how to fish so they can catch fish for themselves. We should lead them to their own inner strength instead of depending on outside forces to do their consoling for them. This, in my opinion, is much more productive than laziness. We should do this as fellow human beings - help the suffering brother or sister in a time of need.

If anyone seems to stumble upon this blog who has been affected by the shootings in Newtown, I express my utmost condolences. I do not, like many others, claim to have a omniscient, all-benevolent being on my side. All I have is myself and those many wise people who have lived before me. I do hope this is enough.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Bit of Jesus, Alan Watts, and Reality

As an orator, Alan Watts is mystical and unforgettable. Listening to his talks are very difficult for me because I always seem to get lost in his mellow voice. His ideas, moreover, are also extraordinary. A introspective practitioner of Zen Buddhism and very knowledgeable about all religion in general.

As I was driving home from school, I listened to his commentary on Jesus. In a speech recorded as Jesus and His Religion, Watts notices a "good news" that transcends most petty, immature beliefs about the text:

"The real gospel - the real good news - is not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God. He was a powerful son of God who came to open up everybody's eyes to the fact that you are too. This is perfectly plain. If you go to the tenth chapter of St. John, verse 30, there the passage says, 'I and the father are one.' There are some who are not intimate disciples around and they are horrified, and they immediately pick up stones to stone him. [Jesus] says, 'Many good works I have shown you from the father, and which of these do you stone me?' They said, 'For a good work we stone you not, but for blasphemy because you being a man make yourself God.' [Jesus] replied, 'Isn't it written in your law I have said you are Gods?' He's quoting the 82nd Psalm..."

He observes a more subtle profoundness to what Jesus said. Watts notices that Jesus,  makes himself - and all others - Gods. They are Gods in the sense that they are the sole controllers of their personal subjective reality.

What insight. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happiness Envy

When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don't lose the rhythm more than you can help. You'll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it. -Marcus Aurelius (Meditations Bk. VI, XI.)

Envy is a widespread human emotion, and has quite a broad range; it arises from small, petty observations (jealousy of another person's luck with green lights on a busy street) or from more outstanding realizations (envy for another's financial success).

Recently, we watched the film 13 Conversations About One Thing in my philosophy of happiness class. It was a very interesting movie, and artfully filmed. The film focused on a group of people who had varying definitions about happiness and how it is achieved.

One character stood out. Gene English is portrayed as an insurance company manager, who is constantly under the extreme stress involving his drug-addict son. He has an unhappy demeanor, and this is displayed in many dialogues with different characters. Perhaps the most interesting observation is his seemingly envious attitude toward one of his co-workers, Wade Bowman. Wade's character is exactly the opposite of Gene; he has a generally happy attitude and laughs and smiles often - some of the typical signs of contentment. But Gene is so encumbered with chaotic life circumstances and unhappiness that he is openly jealous of Wade's happiness. In one point in the film, Gene, seemingly purposely following his agenda to avoid happy people, lays off Wade.

This brings up an interesting difficulty in attempting to define the nature of happiness. Of course, many philosophical schools (including the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius or the zen practices of D.T. Suzuki) attempt to distance the self (ego) from the lived circumstance. But, technically, the lived experience is not the same thing as another human being. Such philosophies realize the need to distance the self from the environment, but largely seem to ignore the jealousy that is bound to arise from one who experiences a less fortunate life excerpt than another who experiences advantageous standings.

The conflict is apparently epistemological in nature, for it deals with the realization of the more prosperous circumstance of the other person. Interestingly, envy seems to have nothing to do with actually perceiving the advantages of another (as in Gene's case with Wade). Let's take the thought experiment of the two prisoners. Two prisoners are serving seperate life-sentences for some extreme crime. Both prisoners are in solitary confinement and cannot, in any way, perceive one another; both have been in confinement for a considerable amount of time. Tiresome and isolated from human contact, the inmates sit alone. One of the prison guards give one of the prisoners a battery-powered radio so he can listen to the radio while serving his time. When the guard reveals to the second prisoner that he had given the other inmate a radio, he will surely become infuriated with intense envy for the other prisoner. No perceptions were made for this result. All that was needed to create envy in the second prisoner was the fact that some sort of existential injustice has occurred. This does not sit well with him.

In the thought experiment, no perceptions were made by the envious prisoner. It is also interesting to note that he would not feel envious if the other prisoner did not exist. If the guard laid the radio in an empty solitary cell and then told the prisoner of his actions, the prisoner would not feel envious. So, it is reasonable to conclude that certain feelings of happiness could become affected by the observable advantages of others.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Spiritual Misinterpretation

When I think about my past religious experiences, I oftentimes find it pleasing to reminisce about those "deep" experiences of my evangelical Christian faith. Numerous worship concerts and revivals come to mind, with the deeply spiritual and emotional atmosphere. Many of the gatherings openly appealed to the emotions.

And I still remember the warm feeling. We all remember the warm feeling.

I think a sort of spiritual misinterpretation happens when the practitioner experiences such circumstances. Modern neurology has seemed to prioritize studies that deal with the interaction of brain chemicals, and some progress has been made on spiritual experiences. It seems plausible that religious experiences involve very complex interactions with different areas of the brain. (Check out NPR for a general overview of some of the discoveries and questions.)

The apparent misinterpretation arises when the subject mentally classifies the said neurological experience as a truly religious spiritual experience. A "spiritual high" results from very emotional, elaborate experiences in religious context. Also, it strengthens cultural religious interactions between the subject and the environmental context of their upbringing. It has the effect of solidifying the religious practitioner's bond with the certain cultural religious memes, as Richard Dawkins would say.