Yosemite religion

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Yosemite reminds us to enjoy rainbows while they last

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2014

As the Fresno Bee commemorates Yosemite history, we should consider Yosemite’s spiritual importance.  The Valley is certainly awe-inspiring.  It’s difficult to imagine not being moved by the view of Half Dome or the thundering spray of Yosemite Falls.  In some people, Yosemite elicits an experience that may even be called “religious.”

The “Yosemite religion,” as one of my colleagues calls it, is based in the experience of the transcendent power of nature.  It is connected to an ecological point of view that sees a continuum between human life and the non-human world.

If there is such a thing as the Yosemite religion, then John Muir is its prophet.  For Muir, religious experience is rooted in the beauty of nature.  He explained, “no synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”  For Muir, the “sublime wonderlands” of the Sierra were manifestations of divinity.

Muir thought that city religions were weak imitations of the direct appearance of the divine in mountains, trees, and rivers.  Muir explained, “the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”  Muir saw himself as a modern John the Baptist.  He felt called to immerse people in “the beauty of God’s mountains” and spread the good news of Sierra transcendentalism.

Evangelizing on behalf of wilderness is necessary because most people do not see the value of the wild.  Some of Muir’s companions thought Yosemite was just a big hole in the ground.

As with any other kind of spiritual experience, receptivity and education matter.  Some people view Christian prayer as dull recitation.  Others see meditation as not much more than daydreaming.  And some people, I suppose, can look at a Yosemite landscape and see only a pile of rocks.

Yosemite can also provoke uneasiness and leave people anxious to return to the city.  The cliffs are daunting.  The waterfalls are intimidating.  And the idea of a bear in camp can make it hard to sleep.

Religions often propose a solution to our anxieties—through ritual, law, and spiritual practice, or through the intervention of a savior.  Civilization offers another remedy—by softening the hard parts of life and flattening out the steeps.  Civilization also keeps us so busy, that we do not think about the meaning of life—or the critters who roam the dark.

The Yosemite religion, however, offers no ritual, law, or savior.  The bears still rule the night.  The cliffs remain dangerous.  And the trails are steep.  Muir’s idea was to leave nature alone.  He also encouraged us to know the earth, its ecosystems, and our place within all of that.  Bears are less frightening when we understand them.  And mountaineers learn quickly to respect objective danger and know their own limits.

Ecological understanding does not always satisfy our narcissistic desires.  Cities and city religions celebrate the importance of humanity.  But wilderness reminds us of our mortality.  Earthquakes, glaciers, and rivers will eventually grind even the hardest mountain to dust.  Ancient civilizations have returned to earth, while the Sequoias have endured.

The indifference of wilderness may provoke anxiety.  But understanding can provide solace.  From the standpoint of geological time, the beauty of these rocks, waters, and creatures is as fragile and fleeting as our very lives.

I recently took a photo of my wife standing in the middle of a rainbow beside Vernal Falls.  The rainbow had appeared for a moment as the sun settled in the west.  And then it was gone.  We are incredibly fortunate to experience rainbows and share them with those we love.  But the mountains remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Muir did not lament death and change.  Rather, he celebrated the lavish abundance of nature and rejoiced and exulted “in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe.”

Yosemite does elicit joy and exultation—as well as gratitude and reflection.  Moments of beauty dawn for a moment and disappear.  We can’t hold them.  But we can love them while they last.  And if we continue to preserve these wild places, we hope that tomorrow our grandchildren may find their own rainbows beneath the ever-changing falls.

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/13/3976526/yosemite-reminds-enjoy-rainbows.html

Murder, Resentment, Revenge, Respect, and Recognition

Love, respect cannot be taken by force

Fresno Bee, May 30, 2014

Another awful story of mass violence comes to us from Santa Barbara — another story of promising young lives destroyed by a nihilistic young shooter. The shooter left a manifesto, reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, that contains an example of the typically horrifying moral reasoning used by those who justify violence.

The murderer resented those who excluded and rejected him. He wanted to prove his superiority over those who failed to love and respect him. He equated violence and cruelty with god-like power. He felt he was giving his “enemies” what they deserved. Guns and mental illness are obviously involved. But the flawed moral argument that led to his dreadful and nihilistic conclusion is also to blame.

Physical dominance through violence cannot create love, admiration or respect (or god-like power). Bullies, terrorists and murderers don’t understand this. They resort to violence in an apparent effort to get what they want. But they also seem to know that the tool they employ is incapable of providing them with what they want. So they end up destroying the very thing they desire.

Murder and resentment are nothing new. Homer’s “Iliad” chronicles Achilles’ murderous rampage. Achilles kills everyone he encounters, without mercy, even desecrating his enemy’s corpse. The Bible begins with the envious Cain killing his brother Abel. The terrain of resentment and revenge has been explored in various ways by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Shakespeare.

The Star Wars film series provides a contemporary example: Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is fueled by resentful rage. The Santa Barbara manifesto fits this mold. A young man experiences rejection — and turns his rage against the entire world.

Literature, religion and popular culture remind us that villainous and vengeful pride leads only to the graveyard. But murderous young men seem not to care about this, willing their own deaths along with others — an absolutely nihilistic endpoint along the continuum of social instinct.

The experience of resentment and the desire for revenge afflicts us all from time to time. Who hasn’t felt insulted, excluded or envious? Who hasn’t been tempted to tell someone off or push back against an indifferent world?

When resentment rises, however, most of us are able to control it and prevent it from boiling over as vengeful rage. We learn that anger and revenge simply do not work to get us what we want. Most of us figure out how to soothe wounded pride with positive action. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, we learn that hard work, a sense of gratitude, the spirit of forgiveness, kindness, mercy, humor and love help to heal our wounds and create a better life.

Social philosophers describe the social world in terms of a struggle for recognition. We desire recognition by others. We feel resentment when we believe that we have not received the respect we deserve. Resentment is more than mere anger. It contains a moral judgment and develops when we believe that others should treat us better.

The agony of wounded pride is often deeper and longer-lasting than the pain of physical wounds. Resentment festers and broods, incubating plots for revenge. Revenge aims to pay people back for not giving us what we deserve, to take from them what they owe us.

But that is where resentment and revenge unravel. Violence takes what is not given, attempting to force others to give respect or love. But this destroys the very thing that is sought. Love, respect and recognition cannot be taken by force — we only receive them as gifts from others. Violence annihilates the conditions under which these social gifts can be given.

The struggle for recognition ought to properly lead to mutual recognition and reciprocal respect. This means that to be respected you have to work hard to earn it. To get love, you have to give it. And violence cannot get you what you want.

One moral of contemporary stories of mass murder is found in the resilience and compassion of the survivors. In the long run, positive social instincts such as empathy and care are much more powerful than the dark resentments that fester in the deranged minds of angry young men. Let’s hope that somehow someone will find a way cure these angry young men, so that these horror stories no longer keep happening in real life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/30/3952685/ethics-love-respect-are-given.html#storylink=cpy

 

Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/16/3930743/science-not-enough-ideas-and-thought.html#storylink=cpy

 

Kid Brother Surveillance

Be aware of your actions in this age of surveillance

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2014

We live in an age of constant surveillance, where our words and actions can be made public by anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection. In the old days, morality was enforced with the thought that God was watching. In the era of totalitarian states, God was replaced by Big Brother.

Today, surveillance has become democratic, as each of us has the power to record and publicize the misdeeds of anyone we meet. Big Brother has been replaced by a billion kid brothers who keep sticking their cameras into other people’s business.

Secret recordings have exposed some egregious stuff. The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling were exposed in this way. A few weeks earlier, a Golden State Warriors assistant coach was fired for making secret recordings of his team.

In 2011, an NPR employee was caught saying that tea party activists are xenophobic racists. Also in 2011, President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were caught speaking privately about their dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2012, a secret recording of Mitt Romney caught him saying that 47% of the public were dependent on the government.

The law provides some protection against clandestine recording. But once the cat is out of the bag, the law won’t fix a damaged reputation. It is hard to hide anything in the era of crowd-sourced, pocket-sized surveillance. Racists, sexists, adulterers, and crooks should know that in the Facebook era, your bad deeds are only a click away.

While we might question the motives of the kid brother snoops, there is no denying their power and the serious loss of privacy this creates. But prying eyes can force us to behave ourselves. Whatever you say or do — in a business meeting, on the golf course, or online — can end up being made public.

One solution is simply to avoid saying or doing dumb and immoral stuff; and don’t be a hypocrite. We ought to behave — even in private — in ways that we are proud to affirm. We ought to avoid saying and doing those sorts of things that get the gossips talking and the cameras recording. If you wouldn’t say it in public, then don’t say it at all.

Hypocrites change their speech and behavior to fit their audience. Hypocrisy rests upon a tangled web of lies, masks, secret alliances, inside jokes, winks, and nods. Hypocrites say and do things in private that they condemn in public and vice versa. Gossipy snoops love to expose hypocrisy.

Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested that publicity is the remedy for social diseases. He said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” While this idea is often used to call for greater transparency in government, we forget that sunlight is an equal opportunity enlightener. We are all being observed and recorded all the time.

This is a bit scary. But kid brother surveillance does make it harder to keep immoral behavior and vicious ideas hidden. Some citizens are even turning the cameras on Big Brother himself. Earlier this year, someone smuggled a video recorder into the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the first time the court had ever been recorded. And camera phones have been used to record police brutality.

The prying eyes of a kid brother with a microphone can be irritating to those who value privacy. Sometimes we just want to be left alone. And liberty seems to require zones of privacy. Unfortunately, while it might be nice to imagine retreating to a world of pre-electronic privacy, the cell-cam Rubicon has already been crossed. One consolation is to recall that the good old days were also full of racism, sexism and other hypocritical diseases that fester in private places.

Kid brother surveillance means that privacy is a lost dream. Everyone you meet is armed with a camera. The constant threat of public exposure makes it harder for the hypocrites and racists to hide. The downside is that we each have to confront our own hypocrisies. Each of us now has the capacity to act as our brother’s moral keeper. But we ought to first take a selfie, before we turn the camera on someone else.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/02/3907055/ethics-be-aware-of-your-actions.html#storylink=cpy

 

Calendars, Politics, Religion, and History

Culture has deep influence on Easter

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2014

Political and religious histories give shape to our lives. Holidays like Easter remind us of the deep influence of culture. The power of culture extends even into the way we organize and count time.

Consider the mystery of the date of Easter. The Easter date is determined according to an arcane system, which links the phases of the moon and the occurrence of the vernal equinox. This is based upon the ancient calendar for calculating the celebration of Passover. The Easter dating system, codified in the fourth century, continues to influence us. Secular spring break is linked to this ancient notion of ritual time.

To complicate matters, western and eastern churches celebrate Easter according to different calendars (although they converge this year). Eastern churches rely on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar who instituted it. That calendar does not properly calculate leap years. Over millennia, it slowly became untethered from the solstices and equinoxes. Western churches updated their calendars in the 16th century under Pope Gregory XIII.

Popes and emperors determine how we keep time. Two of our months are named after Roman Emperors. July is named after Julius Caesar. August is named after Augustus. And our calendar is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory.

Our seven-day week appears to reflect the Judeo-Christian creation story: God labored six days and rested on the seventh. But the Genesis story is not the only source. The names of the days of the week commemorate the seven ancient planetary gods: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Saturday is named for Saturn, Sunday for the Sun and Monday for the moon.

The English names for the other days of the week reflect the names of Germanic gods. For example, Thursday is named for Thor. This trace of paganism in our calendar is a reminder that our culture is an impure mixture.

All of this makes one wonder whether we know what we are doing when we commemorate these ancient stories. Does it make sense to celebrate a Christian holiday like Easter on a day named after the Sun in a calendar with Roman imperial residue?

Things could be different. Christians might like to rename the days of the week to purge the calendar of pagan elements. Secularists might want to update the calendar and make it more rational. Is there a good reason for seven-day week that is not connected with ancient theology?

A scientific calendar would fix our odd 12-month year and its irregular number of days per month. A more rational system would make each month exactly four weeks long. We would then need 13 months (plus one day) to complete a 365-day year. (Do the math and you’ll see!). But perhaps superstitions about the number 13 would prevent that.

In the 1790s French revolutionaries attempted to rationalize the calendar. They created a 10-day week, along with a decimal system for clocks. The revolutionaries also introduced a decimal system for measuring other things, which eventually became the European metric system.

Unlike the metric system, decimal calendars and clocks did not catch on. Some traditions are apparently woven too deeply into the fabric of our experience. It is difficult to imagine a week without a Thors-day or Easter not falling on the Sun’s day.

We inherit a cultural matrix of meaning, language, traditions and symbols. Although our cultural inheritance is not permanently fixed, it does form a nearly immovable background for our lives. Imagine how difficult it would be to change our calendar or time-counting methods.

However, the Easter season reminds us of the possibility of freedom and a new future. The Hebrews escaped from Pharaoh during Passover. Jesus escaped from death at Easter. Whether these stories are true or not, one cannot deny the transformative power they symbolize. This includes the most radical change in counting time: the move from B.C. to A.D. Imagine the difficulty of the cultural shift that led from Roman paganism to Christianity.

We are captive to the great cycles of objective time. The motions of the planet — the equinoxes and lunar phases — are all beyond our control. But human beings give meaning to these changes and create a cultural world that is as real as the stars themselves

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/18/3884398/culture-has-a-deep-influence-on.html#storylink=cpy

 

Skepticism, Anarchism, and Utopianism

Skepticism of Politicians is Important

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2014

The accusation that a California state senator was involved in gun trafficking is the most recent and appalling in a long list of scandals. Governors, senators, representatives, mayors, and even presidents have cheated on their wives, taken drugs, lied, cheated and misbehaved.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of blundering bureaucrats and pathetic politicians.

We might think that military and security forces are better. But down the road in King City the police took cars from poor immigrants. Scandals have swept national security agencies. Secret Service agents were caught partying on the job. A sex scandal forced former Gen. David Petraeus to resign as head of the CIA. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s sexploits were splashed across the headlines. And the airmen tending our nuclear arsenal have been caught cheating.

Decades of dysfunction and scandal include: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, WMD in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Bridge-gate, IRS-gate and so on. The government even shut down last fall. Our motto “in God we trust” should continue to say, “… in government we don’t.”

This comes as no surprise to students of history, philosophy and religion. The world’s traditions express deep skepticism toward political power. Moses battled Pharaoh. Nathan rebuked David. The blind prophet Tiresias condemned Oedipus and Creon. And Socrates was put to death for speaking truth to power.

The most important story of the Western tradition can be read as an indictment of political power. The story begins with King Herod massacring children. To escape the slaughter, the holy family flees to Egypt. Jesus is finally arrested, tortured and brutally executed under Pontius Pilate. Jesus reminds Pilate and posterity that his kingdom is not of this world.

Some have derived anti-political conclusions from this story. Christian abolitionists in New England in the early 19th Century rejected political power that permitted slavery and injustice. They declared allegiance to the brotherhood of all mankind. Some explicitly refused to support human governments, withdrawing from the mainstream and forming separatist Christian communes.

Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, was part of that milieu. He criticized slavery and unjust wars. His famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” explains that the best government is the one that governs least.

Like the ancient prophets, Thoreau aimed to live his life as a counter-friction to the machine, even breaking the law out of obedience to a higher law.

This skeptical standpoint resonates in our era of political crimes and misdemeanors. The wisdom of the ages suggests that we should not expect too much from political power and that enlightenment is to be found somewhere beyond the political fray.

Of course, this skeptical critique has its blind spots. Not everyone in the political barrel is a bad apple. And the legal system is better today than it was in the 19th century or in the time of Jesus. Slavery has been abolished. Women can vote. We no longer crucify dissidents. But it is important to note that this progress often has been the result of the difficult and dangerous work of those who speak truth to power, while remaining committed to a higher law. The prophets, abolitionists and dissidents play a crucial political role.

While anarchist utopianism is inspiring, it is important to note that the flaws that plague our politicians are shared by all of us. People are ignorant; some are evil; and most make mistakes.

Big institutions magnify these human faults. Skepticism about human nature afflicts all utopian dreams. If we can’t trust the politicians, how can we trust our neighbors or even ourselves?

No utopian solution or political scheme can completely straighten the crooked timber of humanity. The Christian anarchist communes of the 19th century did not last long. States and governments also fail.

While it is difficult to imagine a future of anarchist communes united by brotherly love, it is equally difficult to imagine a successful state run by incompetent and wicked people.

It’s enough to make one hope that there is another world in which stability, order and justice might reign.

But in this world, in the meantime, skepticism is in order.

There are no perfect politicians because there are no perfect people. They are us. We are them. And the work of justice is never done.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/04/3860782/ethics-skepticism-of-politicians.html#storylink=cpy

 

Take care in making judgments about morality

Fresno Bee

March 21, 2014

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html

A report published last week by the Pew Research Center concludes that many people think that belief in God is essential for morality.

In the U.S., 53% of respondents believe that belief in God is essential for morality. These numbers are higher in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The numbers are high in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, where only 37% link belief in God with morality. In European countries the numbers are lower. In France only 15% affirm the religion-morality link.

This data seems to correspond with research done by Will Gervais and other social scientists who indicate that nonbelievers have a bad reputation. People tend not to trust atheists. They don’t want their children to marry one. They are reluctant to hire one. And many will not vote for one.

These sorts of surveys are interesting — but limited. Morality and religion are complicated topics. We should be careful about reducing a millennia-long conversation about religion and morality to a few factoids taken from public opinion polls.

The morality-religion linkage is quite complex. One approach — the Divine Command theory of ethics — holds that morality is based upon God’s commands, understanding moral rules as created by God’s will. Related to this is a claim about moral knowledge: that without a revelation from God, we would not know the moral rules. Furthermore, the motivation to be moral is thought to come from hope for an eternal reward or fear of final judgment.

Critics of atheism may think that since atheists do not believe that there is a judging God, atheists have no reason to be moral. They may think that since atheists reject revelation, they can have no knowledge of morality. And they may think that without God as the source of morality, morality becomes completely groundless.

But this overlooks much. Many religious people do not simply ground morality in God’s literal commands. They interpret and apply moral rules using reason and common sense. It is also true that many atheists are not anti-religious zealots who think that there is nothing to learn from religion or traditional morality. Indeed, many atheists are careful and attentive students of religion.

Atheists and theists can agree that morality makes life easier and better. Murderers, rapists, liars and adulterers lead difficult and miserable lives. Generous, truthful, caring and courageous people tend to be happier. Eternal rewards and punishments raise the stakes. But morality and happiness are closely linked in this world.

A further problem is posed by religious diversity. Those who maintain that belief in God is necessary for morality still have to explain whose God and which morality. Even within a religious tradition such as Christianity, there are big disputes about morality. Christians themselves disagree about a variety of issues, from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Disputes about religion and morality are deep and contentious. In a world of religious diversity, a broadly tolerant and humanistic approach to morality may be our best hope for finding common ground. We might agree, for example, that everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, so long as they respect others’ right to the same freedom of belief. Belief in God is not necessary for belief in religious liberty.

As our awareness of religious diversity increases, we must avoid simplifying the morality-religion question in the way that the Pew Center poll does. Simplistic thinking and stereotyping of this sort can foster intolerance.

Atheists are not necessarily immoral. Nor is it true that religious people are close-minded bigots. Such gross generalizations are disrespectful, unkind and unhelpful. Despite our fundamental differences, we are each struggling to make sense of life and live it well. If we acknowledged our common struggle to live well in a difficult world, we might learn to be more tolerant, generous and caring toward those who do not share our understanding of religious or moral truth.

A global morality of respect for persons and love of our neighbors is fundamental to a free and peaceful world. Morality in this sense is not the exclusive possession of any particular religion (or non-religion). Instead, it is a condition for cooperation among people who disagree about life’s hardest and most important questions.

 

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html#storylink=cpy

Happiness, Compassion, Dalai Lama, and Maternal Love

Happiness comes from caring for others

Fresno Bee March 7, 2014

Compassion is deeply rooted in our biology. Human beings are conceived in love. We are carried in our mother’s bodies. And for the first days of our lives, we are nurtured by mother’s milk. How is it, then, that we become exploitative, selfish and unhappy?

That question was raised by the Dalai Lama when he spoke recently at Santa Clara University. I was fortunate to attend that event, which began with the 78-year-old monk recalling the nurturing love of his own mother. He argued that compassion grows from the experience of maternal love.

In one of his writings, the Dalai Lama suggests we should learn “to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all.” The idea of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism may help. If a stranger may have once been my mother or my child, I might view that stranger differently. In another place, the Dalai Lama writes that he tries to treat each person he meets as if she were an old friend.

Religious metaphysics aside, there is no denying that we are social animals. We possess a basic tendency toward community and cooperation. But the seeds of compassion are fragile. They must be nurtured and can easily be destroyed. The Dalai Lama suggested that our mode of life promotes selfishness, which increases anxiety and undermines community.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s presentation was surrounded by the stresses of modern life. The Bay Area traffic was difficult. The audience had to endure long lines and security searches before entering the building. Police roamed the hall. Protesters gathered outside. The political situation in Tibet remains complicated. Before his visit to California, the Dalai Lama met with President Barack Obama. The meeting outraged the Chinese government.

The Dalai Lama’s message is a deceptively simple antidote to all of that turmoil. On Thursday he delivered a prayer in the U.S. Congress, where he said: “Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow.” Easier said than done in the U.S. Congress!

At his Santa Clara speech he said that compassion reduces stress, produces inner peace, builds trust and engenders happiness. Selfishness destroys relationships, breeds anger and leaves us lonely. He indicated that much of this has been confirmed by medical science. Indeed, some studies show that smiling can decrease anxiety and that happiness is contagious. Compassion is linked to health and longevity.

When we concern ourselves with the happiness of others we become happier. When we give happiness, we get it in return. When we ignore others, we suffer more. There is a paradox here: To get what you want, you have to give it away. But by giving happiness, your attitude changes so that you no longer selfishly desire your own happiness. You find happiness when you are no longer obsessed with it.

It is easy to dismiss this, along with the idea of reincarnation, as silly, superficial and superstitious. Some horrors cannot be cured with love. The causes of unhappiness are biological, social and political. Compassion is important. But it needs to be organized and mobilized.

Compassion cannot eradicate traffic jams, security queues and war. Hardness and cynicism are coping strategies in a broken world. Most of the time, we live quite far from the nurturing simplicity of mother’s love; and some people, like the Dalai Lama, live in permanent exile.

But strategic cynicism should not undermine imagination and hope. Love is difficult to imagine before it happens. I never imagined the transformative power of love until my own children were born. My desire for their happiness is strange and unexpected. I am happy when they are happy. I suffer when they suffer. How odd! But here is a kernel of hope.

The Dalai Lama’s focus on maternal love is a reminder that each of us can discover a capacity for care that was previously unimagined. What if we could learn to love all of our neighbors as we love our own children? What if we could see strangers as relatives and old friends? A story about reincarnation may help. Or we may simply need to remember that each of was loved and that each is worthy of love. And we might thank our mothers for that.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/07/3809766/ethics-dalai-lama-reminds-us-that.html#storylink=cpy

 

Washington’s Story and Slavery

Washington’s story teaches to learn from mistakes

BY ANDREW FIALA

Fresno Bee February 22, 2014

George Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732. Washington was a great man who owned more than 300 slaves. Washington expressed regret for slavery. His will stipulated that his slaves should be freed after his death.

Despite his regret, his slaves were emancipated only after he died. Washington’s fortune was built on slavery, and his enlightenment dawned a bit late. Is Washington a saint for freeing his slaves posthumously? Or is he a hypocrite for keeping slaves his entire life?

It may be anachronistic to apply contemporary standards regarding slavery to Washington. But we should also note our tendency to burnish the reputations of our heroes. No one — not even Washington — is perfect. Entire cultures can be mistaken. Favorite stories are often biased, incomplete or untrue.

Consider the story of Washington’s confession regarding the cherry tree. Young George chopped down his father’s favorite tree. When confronted by his father, he confessed saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”

The story is most likely not true, despite its edifying lesson about the importance of true confession. The purpose of this story — with obvious parallels to a story about a father and tree in the Garden of Eden — is to inspire and teach children about virtue. And so it goes with hagiography. Convenient stories, told for a variety of purposes, turn human beings into saints.

True stories are more complicated — and more interesting. Here’s a true story about Washington. As a young man, he copied down a code of conduct as part of a writing exercise. The code, known as Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” concludes: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Perhaps that call to conscience influenced Washington during the rest of his life. Washington’s posthumous emancipation of his slaves is a sign that the celestial fire did enlighten him in the long run. But does this late act adequately atone for the injustice of a life built upon slavery?

One lesson of the story of Washington and his slaves is that we are each subject to circumstances that we do not choose and cannot master. Even the best of us can be tainted by the corruption of the cultures into which we are thrown.

The 110 rules that young George transcribed represent decent behavior as imagined in a culture based on rank and deference. The rules tell us when to stand up, when to bow, when to take off our hats and how to blow our noses. These are the rules of a hierarchical society. The rules were given to George and he copied them down — as we do with all of the rules of the cultures we inherit.

Central to this code is the idea that some people are better bred and have greater “quality.” Those of lesser quality are instructed to avoid looking their betters in the eye. Lesser persons are told to walk behind their betters, to defer to men of quality and step aside, allowing their superiors to pass.

Washington inherited his first slaves at age 11, at about the same time that he was copying down these rules. It is interesting to imagine young George thinking about these rules, practicing his penmanship and learning to manage his slaves at the same time. The rules and the slaves were part of a cultural legacy Washington inherited and did create.

This story tells us much more than the story of the cherry tree. The story of George and the slaves is a tale of moral and cultural blindness. The founding fathers were unable to see the wickedness of excluding slaves from the exalted goods of rights and equality.

Washington is not alone in suffering from moral blindness. Hypocrisy is a common human affliction. It is difficult to see injustices in our own lives and in our culture. The light of conscience flickers dimly and we simply accept the world we inherit.

Washington’s enlightenment came too late to benefit the men and women he owned. But his story is a reminder of the need to keep the flame of conscience burning. In the long run, we may be able to get things right by regretting and confessing our mistakes and by breaking the old rules when we need to.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/21/3784492/washingtons-story-teaches-to-learn.html#storylink=cpy

 

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

BY ANDREW FIALA

Fresno Bee February 7, 2014

Some have prayed to God to end our drought. But drought is not about God’s will. It’s about our habits. Human beings choose how to use the rain that falls. Despite the recent showers, we still need the wisdom to adapt to changing conditions.

Drought is a relative term that depends upon long-term average rainfall. Drought in the Olympic rain forest is different from drought in California. But we may have misjudged California’s long-term average. The 20th century was wetter than previous centuries. Less rain may be the new normal.

We must respond to local conditions and new circumstances. But we often ignore the constraints of our ecosystem, insisting on our own preferences, failing to harmonize with the land and its changes.

Aldo Leopold, the great conservation ecologist, warned that contemporary American life was out of synch with the land. Unsustainable practices do not respond to the unique beauty and integrity of the local environment. Leopold’s famous “land ethic” aims to find harmony with the land.

Harmony is an interesting concept. Musical harmony joins together different tones to make a synchronized and beautiful whole. Harmonizers respond to change in creative, sympathetic and peaceful ways. They don’t insist on their own tone. Rather, they learn to blend by listening and adapting to what’s unfolding around them. Grace, balance and harmony are essential for a happy life.

Harmonious living is a central idea in the Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoist myths explain that Lao-Tzu, the old master of Taoism, despaired of the disharmony of political life and left civilization behind. But before he retreated to the wilderness, he reminded people to be less like rock and more like water: to flow with the world. Taoism links harmony with flowing water. The Tao Te Ching warns that without harmony, valleys dry up and life withers.

This discussion of harmony may sound frivolous in the face of the hard reality of drought. Drought forces tough choices about distributing harms and benefits. Do we need more dams and reservoirs? Should old rivers be restored? What about the fish? What about the farmers? Ask those questions around here and you’re bound to find conflict.

That is part of the problem. We’re in conflict with one another and in conflict with the land. We don’t listen, and we don’t blend.

A Taoist would suggest that toughness and hardness are part of the problem. To adamantly insist on living in a way that is not responsive to the natural world is to miss an opportunity to harmonize.

Green summer lawns, to cite one obvious example, are out of tune with the reality of our dry summer climate. To live harmoniously in California we may have to give up green summer grass. Someone might object, “A lush, green lawn is central to our way of life. And we’ll be poorer without them. Let someone else sacrifice. I want to live how I want to live.” When each party insists, conflict ensues.

We become adamant when asked to reassess our idea of what is needed for a good life. Drought, however, requires a reassessment of priorities. A different way of living would be beautiful in its own way, so long as it harmonizes with the world.

The point is not to advocate asceticism, self-denial and miserable subsistence. Nor should we prioritize fish over farmers or vice versa. The goal is to find a way to prosper while listening and blending. To live well is to live in balance. We forget that because we’ve been taught to insist and resist, to fight and accuse. That discordant approach is typical of our disharmonious political culture. It is the same sort of culture that led Lao-Tzu to despair.

Many prefer strife and struggle. We hammer each other, proudly displaying our resoluteness. But unyielding hardness only produces short-term gains. It does not delve into the difficult process of learning to blend with each other and conform to the land.

In the long run, the weather will change us, despite our resistance — just as water wears away the hardest stone. Human civilization is a tiny pebble in the river of time. Wisdom is learning to listen and harmonize with the changing chords of the natural world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/07/3756489/we-must-learn-to-live-in-harmony.html#storylink=cpy