The selfie trap

Selfie culture and mindfulness

Fresno Bee, January 8, 2016

  • Examining the tyranny of the selfie
  • Selfies are signs of narcissism, exhibitionism
  • Mindful absorption is a key to happiness

Living in Accord with Nature

Technology is amazing, but happiness comes from accepting life as it is

Fresno Bee, May 15, 2015

  • Technology promises infinite possibilities for improvement, while creating a challenge for happiness
  • Stoic wisdom encourages us to take the time to love and accept the world
  • Philosophical reflection on infertility, gender transition, and other technological innovations points toward deep questions about human life

Can mindfulness influence our moral character?

Can mindfulness influence our moral character?

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Originally published 2013-01-12

Take a breath and slowly exhale. Unclench your jaw. Clear your mind. Be present now. Feel better?

A growing body of evidence suggests that there are mental, physical and emotional benefits to yoga and meditation. Some recent studies suggest that mindfulness can lead us to be more ethical.

A recent paper by Marc Lampe, a professor at the University of San Diego, argues thatmindfulness helps improve cognitive awareness and emotional regulation. This can contribute to ethical decision making. A study by Nicole Ruedy and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Pennsylvania, links mindfulness to “moral attentiveness.” They claim that mindfulnesshelps us avoid making excuses for immoral behavior.

This is not too surprising. Common sense tells us that we think more clearly when we calm our emotions by taking a few deep breaths. But perhaps there is more to mindfulness than deep breathing and attentive awareness.

The practice of mindfulness comes from non-Western religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. When Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that mindfulness helps us touch the peace that is here now in the present moment, it is easy to forget that there is a complicated metaphysical and psychological theory underlying this idea.

Despite these exotic roots, Americans have embraced mindfulness. A congressman from Ohio, Tim Ryan, published a book last year, “A Mindful Nation,” which suggests thatmindfulness can help us work better, reduce health-care costs and improve the performance of the military. Ryan even secured a million-dollar federal earmark for mindfulness training in schools in Youngstown, Ohio, with the goal of using mindfulness to improve student performance.

I wonder, however, whether mindfulness should be employed as a tool for achieving the American Dream. There is something odd about using yoga to enhance military performance or meditating in order to improve profit margins. The core of mindful meditation seems to point in another more peaceful and less materialistic direction.

Critics of mindfulness worry that Eastern meditation practices cannot be easily grafted onto Western roots. Consider the controversy that erupted recently in Encinitas, a yoga-friendly beach town north of San Diego. When the Encinitas schools introduced yoga as part of the school day, Christian parents threatened to sue the school district. They view yoga as a pagan practice and demanded that their children be exempted from the program.

Some Christians have embraced alternative contemplative practices without seeing a contradiction with their own spiritual commitments. But other Christians remain opposed. In 2011, an Italian priest, Gabriele Amorth, denounced yoga as Satanic. The president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, Albert Mohler, described Eastern meditation as an “empty promise,” since it focuses on emptying the mind instead of connecting with God. Christian pastor Mark Driscoll argues that Eastern spirituality blurs the distinction between good and evil, “promoting cultural pluralism and the denial of truth.”

The claim that meditation results in relativism and the denial of truth is a significant accusation. Traditional Western approaches to ethics and religion focus on rule-following behavior and orthodoxy of belief. This requires clear judgment and an effort to distinguish between right and wrong. But mindfulness in Eastern traditions appears to have a different focus, as nonjudgmental awareness.

Jon Kabbat-Zinn — an influential proponent of meditation — connects mindfulness with nonjudging acceptance and letting go. The idea is to let experience occur without attempting to categorize, manage and direct it. A kind of serenity and peacefulness develops when letting things be, without judgment or control.

Proponents of mindfulness connect this with values such as nonviolence and compassion. But the serene equanimity of mindfulness can seem to its critics like relativism and indifference to God and the good.

There are obvious benefits to taking a mindful breath. We do make better judgments when we are able to step aside from emotional tumult and the reactive pressures of the world. But critics will argue that this is not enough — that the empty mind must be filled with principles, truths and moral judgments. There is a fundamental difference of opinion here about what counts in terms of ethical discipline and spiritual practice.

There may be no way to resolve this dispute. But it might help us to think better about these deep questions, if we took a few mindful breaths.

Reflecting on Sept 11

Silence will offer space to reflect on 9/11

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2011-09-10

Memorial activities dedicated to 9/11 have continued to create controversy. Critics on the right complained that when President Obama called for national service in honor of 9/11, he was slipping “socialism” into Patriot Day. And on the left, critics worry that the name “Patriot Day” is itself too nationalistic and militaristic.

This year the dispute is over the place of prayer in the dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The plans for the event do not include public prayer. In response, the Family Research Council has circulated a petition that concludes: “This nation needs prayer more than politics.” But public prayer is political. Public prayers would inevitably include some and exclude others.

All public speech is political. Perhaps what we need is more silence and less squabbling. The 9/11 ceremony in New York will, in fact, include several moments of silence. This is the best way to proceed in a diverse society in which religion is politicized. Indeed, silent reflection is welcome, in a culture that is filled with speech. In silence, we can sort out our own thoughts — apart from the incessant bickering and chattering of public life.

Our desire to give speeches and offer public words of prayer is connected with our need to make sense of things. We want a story in which events have some meaning. But our stories are tendentious. We always reconstruct the past based upon our present concerns. Over time, as our memories fade, we establish memorial rituals, as an attempt to preserve the past against the corrosive power of time. But these ritual memorials are partial and biased. They skate on the surface, while lacking the complexity of serious history.

For several years, the images and emotion of 9/11 were seared into our memories. Those who were directly involved in the horrors of that day may never be able to forget. But for many, the memories fade. And events that were once so vivid, now become episodes in a story that is being told to the next generation, which has no living memory of the event.

Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the problem of memory in his essay, “Experience.” Emerson was troubled by the fact that he could no longer feel the same grief for his dead son as he did in the days and months immediately after his son had died. Emerson worried that forgetting was disloyal to the past. He concluded: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

But forgetting is natural and normal. It is healthy to turn the page and allow the past to become a story. And we should admit that these stories cannot touch the reality of what is past. Even atrocities are forgotten and we are left with stone memorials and ritualized ceremonies. Emerson said that things “slip through our fingers when we clutch hardest.” The more we try to hold on to the fading past, the less we grasp it.

As we pause to remember 9/11, it is important to recognize the complexity of the process of remembrance. It is easy to be swept away by maudlin spectacles and sentimental speeches. There is pleasure in the emotional excess of public ceremony. It is comforting to belong to a community that remembers and grieves together. We need these ceremonies to reassure us and to express solidarity with those who are still suffering from trauma.

We want to belong, to share a common story, to celebrate a common past, and mourn a common loss. But somehow public speeches don’t go deep enough. The staged emotion of public ceremony is too shallow to reach the reality of a past that is slowly fading away. And oratory offered in commemoration is always colored by present purposes. The controversy about prayer at the 9/11 event is, after all, as much about the politics of the present as it is about the past.

There is a time for speeches and for prayer. But silence is also useful. And we don’t have nearly enough of it. As Thoreau — Emerson’s disciple — put it, “silence is the universal refuge.” Silence allows us to think on our own terms, outside of the din of public life. And silence offers a common refuge for each of us, whatever our religious or political inclination.