The Future of Human Dignity

I love this quote from Krista Tippett, host of the On Being podcast, in her book Becoming Wise:

[Einstein] began his life with a profound faith in the social good of the scientific enterprise—a community of cosmic endeavor that should transcend tribal rivalries and national boundaries. Then he watched German science hand itself over to fascism. He watched chemists and physicists become creators of weapons of mass destruction. He said that science in his generation had become like a razor blade in the hands of a three-year-old. He began to see figures such as Gandhi and Moses, Jesus and Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi, as “geniuses in the art of living.” He proposed that their qualities of “spiritual genius” were more necessary to the future of human dignity, security, and joy than objective knowledge.

Just as there’s a place for science and rationality, there’s a place for emotion, intuition, and spirituality. What a good reminder.


The Seventh Sense

The core idea behind The Seventh Sense is good. “The Seventh Sense, in short, is the ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection.” Networks are changing the world and the implications of hyper-connectedness are changing the economy, politics, social relationships and just about everything else. As far as I can tell though, Ramo doesn’t bring much new to the table.

He’s done his homework for sure. There are dozens of great references to all kinds of work that is happening around connectivity and networks across all fields. In fact, this is the most impressive part of the book, the sheer breadth of stories, quotes and books he references. I learned a lot from these and it’s why I’d recommend the book to others.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have evolved and refined his own theory of networks deeply enough to tie all the disparate information together into a cohesive, actionable argument. Instead, the seventh sense seems to encompass nearly every idea Ramos finds cool. He resorts to breathless arguments and empty statements like “Many of our current leaders like things as they are. The words ‘potential’ and ‘threat’ rhyme in their consideration.” He often alludes to vague promises and threats that will come from our increasingly networked world without being able to clearly attribute them to any concrete idea that can be pinned down to a seventh sense.

Ironically, Ramo seems to have self-diagnosed the flaw with his book in the very first chapter. He tells a story of his zen master giving him some tough, but wise council.

“You know you can’t just understand this easily,” Master Nan said sharply. He was a little angry with me, I could see, for asking such a direct question—and he was also using the Chinese teaching technique of driving students through a range of emotions. Chinese philosophers believe we learn differently depending on how we feel. Terrifying, intimidating, or praising a student is often more effective than explaining an idea to them. Nan was working on my humiliation bone now: “This isn’t like some idea I can sell you and then you can just go and use,” he continued, his voice rising. I saw the focused intensity of the twenty-one-year-old who had recruited his own mountain army. “This is going to be hard.”

There’s potential here but, my opinion, it’s not fully realized.

Myth and Matter Links

What Motivates Super-Achievers?

Is intense passion the best motivator for getting stuff done? It seems to be a reasonable enough proposition. When you look at the world’s top [insert-anything-here], they often seem to be driven by their demons. Maybe something happened to them when they were young that propelled them into a frenzy of productivity to prove that they could build something of value. Many times they are proving the world wrong, proving to themselves that they are strong enough or proving that they’re not the failures that their parents or society or their teachers thought they would be.

With this narrative being so common as to have almost become a cliche taken alongside the objective knowledge of the effects that stress and anger can have on physical and mental health, it’s worth re-examining these assumptions. Specifically:

  • Is there value in becoming a super-achiever. If so, what is it? Does it lead us toward the common, ultimate goal of flourishing? Is it better for society? Do some people have a duty to humanity to sacrifice their personal health for the greater good?
  • What is the best motivator to become a super-achiever? Is it actually anger or some other strong emotion that comes from a place of deep discontentment? Can the same level of achievement arise from a healthier emotional basis? An example a friend at work gave was: If there are two marathon runners and one is motivated by his or her ultimate fear and the other is motivated by pure devotion to action, is it a given that the first will win with all else being equal?

Seneca believed that there is never a place for anger or other negative emotions in the pursuit of virtuous goals:

An assertion: “Anger is useful because it puts more fight in people.” Drunkenness can be regarded in the same way: it makes people aggressive and reckless, and many have been better at handling a blade when they’re tipsy. Claim, too, that delirium and insanity are necessary for strength, because madness often makes people more powerful! Or consider this: hasn’t fear sometimes had the contrary effect of making someone reckless? Hasn’t fear of death roused even the most sluggish to battle? But anger, drunkenness, fear, and other things of this sort are foul and futile stimulants: they give no tools to virtue, which needs nothing that vices can give, they just give a little lift to a mind otherwise supine and abject. No one becomes braver by becoming angry except the sort of person who wouldn’t have been brave without being angry: anger thus doesn’t assist virtue; it substitutes for virtue. What of the fact that anger, were it a good, would attend all the most highly developed people—-whereas those who are most inclined to anger are babies and the aged and the sick? Everything weak is by nature given to complaint.

I’m not sure that Seneca was right, but I hope so. The famous Yoda quote was never more appropriate: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” My gut feeling is that super-archivers who are motivated by discontentment are much more likely to suffer and cause suffering than those who, as the Bhagavad Gita says, “perform action without attachment.”

Myth and Matter Links

Meditation in the Age of Apps

As meditation becomes more popular and accepted in the mainstream, many are exposed to it through by apps or drop-in classes. Just as yoga is much more than the physical actions of the Hatha yoga that most studios in the US practice, meditation is more than sitting silently focused on the breath or on a mantra. There are benefits to both Hatha yoga and to concentration meditation, but both are only the beginning.

My exposure to the deeper aspects of meditation is limited, but I had the good fortune to stumble on Allan Wallace’s eight-week retreat podcasts. Wallace has studied Buddhism for many years in both an academic and personal settings. and has generously put a lot of time and effort into making the audio from his retreats freely available by podcast.

Relative to other guided meditations, the depth is incredible. The first few sessions are spent training you to settle your mind and body into its “natural state.” This is Samatha meditation. The focus is on a having relaxed body and a mind free from wandering thoughts and desires. He then moves on to other types of meditation such as Vipassana, or insight meditation, which is an exploration of what reality is by close examination of the mind. This is where things get more interesting. While Samatha meditation is excellent for lowering stress and increasing concentration and mindfulness, Vipassana is not always so easy. The level of attention required to address the tough questions it poses is something that takes time and energy to build. From Vipassana he goes on to Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation and with 94 sessions, there is enough time to dive in deep to some of the relevant Buddhist (and other) texts.

The point of this is not to argue for which form of meditation is best or which you should start with, it’s to say that there’s a much deeper world of meditation out there than what you find in the guided meditations that most apps come with or what you might find at a center where anyone can drop in at any time. It’s the difference between Cliff’s notes and the full book. Find a teacher, a good book or, at a minimum, check out Allan Wallace’s podcast. There’s a lot out there.