Can a Mystical Experience Tell Us Anything About God?

(About an 18 minute read)

One of the greater joys of older gentlemen of an intellectual bent such as myself is cackling at younger people in the park is discovering obscure philosophical problems that most likely won’t be solved within our own lifetimes.  As it happens, that’s not so easy to do these days, since all the really good problems have already been discovered.  Problems like, “If deity exists, then how do we know it exists?”,  “What does it mean to live a good life?”,  and of course, “What is the maximum number of chickens that can cross the same road in the same joke?”

But why indulge oneself in attempting to solve unsolvable problems in the first place?

As it happens, the world population can be divided into two kinds of people:  Those who love their journey more than their destination, and those who love their destination more than their journey.  If you are someone who most loves his or her destination, then you probably are not attracted to unsolvable problems, for such problems are pretty much all journey and no arrival.

Yet, if you most love — and perhaps even crave — the thrill of traveling in and of itself, then perhaps you are one of those relatively rare individuals who cherishes the way pondering an unsolvable problem can get you thinking creatively beyond the common assumptions we all have about things.  And at least sometimes, you will be rewarded — not with a solution to the problem — but with a greater understanding of the issues involved.

As for myself, I fall into the latter category of humans.  I savor the journey quite often more than the destination.  At least when it comes to philosophical problems.  In fact, I have taken to heart Kenko’s maxim, “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty”, and all but find offensive most efforts to bring philosophical journeys to safe and secure destinations.  Give me the climb, but not necessarily the mountain’s summit.  I like the changing views on the way up best of all.

Now, despite how hard it is these days to discover new philosophical problems that are virtually insolvable, I myself am proud to say that I believe I may have found one.  I’ve actually been mulling it over for a few years, and I believe that anyone who properly understands the issue will agree with me that it has no easy solution, if it has any solution at all.

Yet here’s the rub: The problem takes some explaining.  The explanations are simple enough, once you grasp them, but they run to a little length.   Let’s begin, however, by stating the problem: “Assuming that god exists, is there any guarantee that a mystical experience of god imparts knowledge of god?”

Put differently: “If you somehow first knew that god existed, and you had a mystical experience that at least appeared to you to be of god, could you say with absolute certainty that anything you learned about god during that experience was true?”

Once again, “Even if we were certain that god existed, are self-proclaimed prophets like Pat Robinson justified to believe that the messages they receive from god provide genuine knowledge of god’s will, character, etc.?”

To be sure, there is an easy answer to the question.  Unfortunately, the easy answer seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the question.   The easy way out is to say “no” on the grounds that we cannot know for certain that our experience of god is not a delusion, hallucination, brain fart, etc.  But that answer ignores that the question asks us to assume we know god exists.  Although most people will not make such a silly mistake, my experience of people says some are bound to.

Having said that, let’s now get on with my awesome explanation of the problem.  We should first define “mystical experience”.

People commonly mean upwards of a dozen things by “mystical experience”.  Things like clairvoyance, mind-reading, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so forth.  In this beautiful essay, however, we will mean one, and only one, thing by “mystical experiences”.  Namely, one’s first cup of hot, fresh coffee on a chilly morning the experience of “oneness with everything”.

The experience of oneness is famously difficult to describe to anyone who has not themselves had it.  Yet, the experience seems to lie at the root of the notion there is some such thing as “spiritual enlightenment”.  That is, moksha, samadhi, nirvana, satori, kensho, etc.  It also seems quite likely to in many cases inform or influence notions of god — especially those notions commonly found in Hinduism (e.g. Brahman), but also in other religious traditions, such as mystical Judaism (e.g. Ein Sof), and even the Christian God.  While many people who have had a mystical experience do not claim it was an experience of god, very many others do.

Now, I’m just enough a god-snob to believe that — if there is a god — the mystical experience is in all likelihood the purest, most authentic experience of that god that our noble and esteemed species of spear-chucking super-chimpanzees can have.  I cheerfully peer down and sniff my perfectly handsome nose™ at auditory or visual “experiences” of god.  How can any sensible person compare merely hearing the voice of god, or simply seeing an image of deity, to the overwhelming,  earth-shattering,  life-transforming, supreme experience of oneness?  The very thought of it!  Tsk. Tsk.

Like most snobs — whether god-snobs, social-snobs, or some other kind of snob — I myself have no extensive personal experience of the superiority I claim to be the highest available standard that can be aspired to.   What modest experience I do have, I recognize as being anything but definitive of the whole range of mystical experiences that humans seem capable of having unless you count that purely blissful moment when  I first saw Terri’s breasts by the moonlight.  So I am quite cautious about defining the mystical experience.

However, after 35 or so years of interest in the topic, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that all mystical experiences I’ve heard of have at least one thing in common.  That is, they involve a specific, defining change in our perception of reality.

Now, grab hold of your seat, strap yourself in, for here comes the core description of what makes an experience “mystical”.  A mystical experience can be distinguished from a non-mystical experience by the simple fact that it (1) involves an abrupt cessation of our normal, everyday, “subject/object perception”, and (2) its replacement by an awareness or experiencing of the oneness of all things.

I can only imagine, dear reader, that you are now in awe of the sheer elegance of my description.  The experience of god, summed up in 41 words!  Only my scurrilous two ex-wives would seek to distract you from the glory of my accomplishment by daring to suggest that I stole the description from someone!

Which, of course, I did.

I confess the basic idea is derived from the writings of Sam Harris, who — whatever else he is — is an author of beautiful, clear, and concise prose, genuine wit, and sharp insights.  In fact, I am so struck by Harris the author, that I believe his only major flaw as an author is that he’s not me, poor man.  But putting all that aside, what do we mean by “subject/object perception”?

The concept is simple enough once you get it.  Merely look at whatever device you’re reading this on, and then observe that you have a sense or feeling of that device being distinct from your self.  Or take note of anything else in your perceptual field, whether that something else is a sight, a sound, a taste, a touch, or an odor.  Without usually thinking about it, you divide the world into self and non-self.  “I see a tree, but do not see the tree as me.”  “I hear a plane, but I do not hear the noise as part of myself.”  That’s subject/object perception, which is our normal, everyday way of perceiving the world.

Now, it’s relatively rare — but it is still possible — for subject/object perception to come to an abrupt end while yet some form of awareness or experiencing continues.  When that happens, the division of the world into me and not-me breaks down, and you are left with a perception that all things within your perceptual field are really, in some profound or fundamental sense, just one thing.  Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all”.

It is quite easy to interpret such an experience as an experience of god.  For instance, what could be greater than that oneness?  Absolutely nothing you perceive lies outside it, apart from it.  Everything is included in it.  Everything is embraced by it.

Second, that experience of oneness almost invariably comes with an overwhelming sense or feeling that it is real.  Indeed, our normal, everyday sense or feeling that something is real pales in comparison.   Were you to lower your head, snort like a raging bull, and then charge at full tilt and head first into a brick wall you would — if you survived the experience — have a nearly unshakable conviction that the wall was real.  Perhaps you could later on intellectually convince yourself that it wasn’t real, that you were really a brain in a vat, and that the wall was a delusion, but I think it’s highly unlikely that you could convince yourself of that much beyond an intellectual level.

The experience of oneness is that feeling of realness on steroids.   Which, I think, largely explains why so many people who’ve reported having it come away convinced that our normal, everyday reality is an illusion, and that the reality of oneness is the True or Ultimate Reality.

There are a few other generally present attributes to the experience, such as a feeling or sense of infinity, an experience of bliss or ecstasy, an experience of unconditional love, and so forth.  Some people come away from such experiences convinced they have assured knowledge of god, such as that “God is infinite”.

But how can they be certain that god is infinite?  Please recall that we are assuming god exists: Our question is only whether on not we can trust an experience of god to tell us something about the properties of god.

Now some — but not all — mystics are inclined to say the mystical experience is so convincingly real that it cannot possibly be the case that it is misleading.  “My experience of X as real convinces me that X must be real.”  But we know we can be convinced something is real without its actually being real.  Many people are convinced the sky is blue, but we know the blueness of the sky is not an actual property of the atoms and molecules that comprise the atmosphere, but rather an effect of the diffusion of light through it.  No matter how great the sense or feeling is that something is real, we cannot be certain on those grounds alone something is actually real.

Something else that might incline us to believe our experience of god has given us assured knowledge of god’s properties is the simple faith that “seeing is believing”, or put more precisely, “Experience or observation is conclusive evidence of fact”.  But this too is quite obviously not the case.  The floor lamp beside my desk looks solid, but we know from physics that it is comprised of atoms held in a matrix with more space between the atoms than there is space occupied by the atoms themselves.  In other words, far from being that solid matter that I observe, my floor lamp is largely empty space — much like the mostly empty inside of a politician’s cranium.

So neither the conviction that something is real, nor the observation that something is real, can assure us that something is real.  Hence, the experience of god as infinite cannot be certain evidence that god is infinite on either one of those grounds.  Does that leave any other grounds for such a claim?

As it happens, some mystics make the curious claim that their experience of god is immediate.  By “immediate”, they seem to at the very least mean that their experience of god is not mediated by the senses.  Instead, they have a direct awareness of god, perhaps in somewhat the same sense of our having a direct awareness of the thoughts in our head.

Now, if it is true that mystics can have an immediate experience of god, then that would provide a different sort of grounds for the claim that an experience of god as infinite is conclusive evidence that god is infinite, for how can an unmediated experience be anything but a true experience?

To say that it could be a false experience would be like saying my experience of thinking could be a false experience, and that I might not be experiencing any thoughts at all even when I think I am thinking — a logical contradiction that, so far as anyone knows, has only been accomplished by the membership of the Ku Klux Klan.

Hence,  we cannot say that an immediate experience of god as infinite could be false on anything like the same grounds that we can say the conviction that an experience is real could be false, or the observation that something is the case could be false.  But does that still leave us with good grounds to doubt our experience?

When I think I’m thinking, are there ever any grounds to doubt that I’m thinking?

The answer is quite obviously, “no”.  And yet, there remain good grounds to doubt that my experience of thinking accurately reflects or represents thinking itself.  To illustrate, suppose I think about the most ecstatic experience of my first wedding night: The three fulfilling, blissful hours I spent in bed intimately lecturing my new wife on the epistemology of carnal knowledge.  My thoughts of that taste of heaven on earth appear to me as their content.  But I know from the sciences that in actuality those thoughts might somehow be the product of biological events in my brain, the mass firings of neurons.  In which case, there is a crucial gulf between my experience of thinking, and my thinking itself.

Of course, that gulf is normally hidden from me.  I have much less awareness of neurons firing in my brain than normal, healthy teenagers have of their mothers asking them to do their chores.  Yet — assuming it is the case that all thought is ultimately the product of those neurons, and there is no such thing as a consciousness that exists independent of them — I have here sufficient grounds to doubt that even a direct, unmediated experience of god as infinite necessarily proves that god is indeed infinite.

After all, if there be a gulf between my experience of thinking and thinking itself,  there could be a quite similar gulf between my experience of god as infinite and god’s “infinity”.  For all I can know, my experience bears no or almost no resemblance to god’s infinity.

A somewhat imperfect analogy here might be colors.  Most of us commonly see the various objects in our perceptual fields as having colors.  Green leaves, pink sunsets, purple flowers, and so forth.  But colors are not properties of those objects.  Instead, they are manufactured in our heads.  The objects themselves have no colors at all.  Because they are manufactured in our heads by tiny tiny little elves trust me! we can say we have an immediate experience of colors.  But even the immediacy of that experience does not entail that they really exist apart from us.  In somewhat the same fashion, it seems possible that god’s infinity might be manufactured in our heads.

So, even if we grant that god exists, and that our mystical experiences are somehow of god, we cannot be certain that any knowledge those experiences impart to us is true knowledge.  But if that is indeed the case for what we have been calling here “mystical experiences”, it is also the case for merely auditory or visual experiences of god.  To say — as a Pat Robertson might say — “God spoke to me last night and said, ‘I will send an earthquake to devastate Utah for I am angry with the Mormons who live there’.” is subject to the same uncertainties as mystical experiences.  We have no way of knowing whether that message is assured knowledge of god’s will, character, or intentions.

But why stop there?  If we cannot say with absolute assurance that god is infinite or that god is angry with virtually anyone who fails to contribute lavishly to our TV ministry, can we say that an experience of god imparts any certain knowledge of god at all?  I think not.  Even if we assumed something exists apart from our own brains that is the ultimate cause of our experiences of god, we could not say with complete assurance that we knew much of anything about that something.  For all we could really know, god might be some as yet undiscovered combination of natural causes.

To be sure, quite the opposite of what we’ve been saying could also be true.  Maybe an experience of god as infinite quite accurately reflects or resembles god’s infinity.  The point here is not that such a thing is impossible, but that it is uncertain.

I do not wish anything I’ve said here to be misunderstood as poo-pooing the notion of god, nor as hostile to the notion that mystical experiences can be immensely life-affirming, to say the least.  I have plenty of doubts about the notion of god, and plenty more doubts about certain specific notions of god, but I have far fewer fixed and firm convictions about god than perhaps most of us.  And I have personal experience of how life-affirming seeing Terri’s breasts in the moonlight mystical experiences can be.

Yet, like Jiddu Krishnamurti and some others, when it comes to these things, I believe certainty is largely or even entirely counter-productive.   You might find the god you set out to find, but that god will be a projection of your own convictions about what a god should be.  Or so it seems to me.

So what do you make of all this?  What am I missing here?  Your comments, questions, rants, and mouth-watering insights are welcomed!


For a larger and more general discussion of mysticism, see “Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You“.

Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

Late Night Thoughts: Nipples, Yin and Yang, Self-Knowledge, Yakuza, and More

(An 11 minute read)

Yesterday afternoon was bright and crisp.  The snow from a couple days before had melted, leaving the grasses verdant, albeit destroying the pink crab apple blossoms.  I wondered if their seeds had made it through the cold.

Late in the afternoon, one of my next door neighbors walked past my window, carrying his tiniest child in a car seat.  The little one was kicking joyfully — apparently at the sunlight on his legs, perhaps attempting to dislodge it.

A few moments later, the woman appeared, and then the toddler.  The man and the woman walked purposely towards their car.  The toddler had other ideas, though.  Every three to five feet he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of something interesting!  Green shoots!  Dog poop!  More shoots!

Suddenly, his parents were calling to him, demanding he hurry up.  Green shoots forgotten, he ran towards them, his legs almost a blur trying to keep up with his head, which — in the manner of a toddler — was improbably far in front of his body.

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Some years ago, I was introduced to internet chat rooms by a computer savvy friend.   “Here, I have something to show you, Paul.”  Mike said, turning towards his desktop computer.   A click or two, and suddenly the room was engulfed by the shrieking death throes of the Loch Ness monster.

“Paul?  Paul, you can come out of the closet.”

“Is it gone?”

“It’s only my modem, Paul.  I’m dialing up the internet.”

“You’re dialing up who?”

“Paul, get the hell out of my closet right now!”

Later that same evening…  “Look, Paul!  She’s come online!  It’s Jolene!”

“Jolene?  Do you mean, ‘PussyVentura’?”

“Yes, that’s her username.”

“Username?”

“I’ll explain later. ”

Several minutes later…  “What I need from you right now is a poem.  Write a poem to her, so I can impress her with it, Paul.”

“I don’t know, Mike, the last time you got romantic about some…”.

“A poem, Paul, that’s all I’m asking for.  I’m certainly not asking for a recap of my romantic history!”

“But, Mike, a Russian bride?”

“Poem! Now!”

Five minutes later…  “Where’s my poem, Paul?”

“I’m still working on it, Mike”

“I need it now!  She said she was logging off, so I told her to wait.  Give me what you’ve got!”

“Um…try typing this:  Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow, my Jolene.”

“Your beauty cleanses me of sorrow,  my Jolene.”

“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.”

“It gives me courage to live for tomorrow, my Jolene.  Oh, Paul, this is going to be good, I can tell.  See?  You can do it!  What’s next?”

“You even make me want to face”

“You even make me want to face”

“With grace”

“With grace…That’s pretty good, Paul, I like that.  What’s next?  Quick!  What’s next?”

“The challenge”

“The challenge”

“Of your morning breath, my Jolene.”

“Of your mornin…  Are you kidding me, Paul?  Are you kidding me!”

“It’s all I got, Mike.”

“Oh, Jesus!”

“Too passionate?”

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I’ve heard that in placental mammals, the number of nipples divided by two strongly correlates with average litter size.  A species, like ours, with two nipples typically has one offspring per litter.   But a species that has six nipples will on average have three offspring per litter.

Of course, it all gets complicated when you realize that some species have no fixed number of nipples.  Pigs, for instance, range from 6 to 32 nipples, depending on the breed.

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My second wife, Tomoko, was educated in an elite Japanese school that required her to learn how to read and write classical Chinese, much as some elite Western schools require Latin of their students.  She also had a large set of books — each one beautifully bound, printed, and separately encased — that contained the works in Chinese of nearly a hundred ancient authors.  Most of them never published in English.

At times, she and I were in the habit of dining out, and I coaxed her into regularly bringing along a volume or two of her set so that she could translate them for me after we’d finished our meals.  One of my favorite authors was Kan Chu (circa 600 – 550 B.C.), who — in Tomoko’s translation — once said this, “Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.  When people have those things, it will be easier to govern them.”

To put that in context, almost all ancient Chinese wisdom literature is nominally addressed to the rulers, and couched in terms of how to govern the people, regardless of whether it has much to do with governing or not.  When you think about it, that made a lot of sense since it was the ruling class for the most part that could read and write.  So Kan Chu was probably not being cynical in urging his audience to make sure the people had “clothes, food, and shelter” in order to more easily govern them.

More likely, I think, he was genuinely concerned with the people’s welfare.  But whatever the case, his advice to take care of necessities before teaching people the finer things in life impresses me as good advice even to this day.  Especially today, when “clothes, food, and shelter” are once again at risk for larger and larger numbers of people.

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 I don’t know about modern Chinese, but classical Chinese had about twenty words for “no”, not one of which meant “absolutely no”.  The closest you could get to an absolute no  — that is, the closest you could get to the Western sense of “no” — was a word that meant, “almost always no”.

This was completely in keeping with the ancient Chinese understanding of yin and yang, the two principles which are the immediate manifestations of the Tao in the world.

Yin and yang are not opposites in the Western sense of “yes and no”, “feminine and masculine”, or “good and evil”.   Yin, sometimes called “the feminine principle”, is an aspect of yang, sometimes called “the masculine principle”.   Yang, in turn, is an aspect of yin.

So far as I’ve been able to find out, there is no truly dichotomous thinking in ancient Chinese wisdom literature.  Instead, even the Chinese equivalent of polar opposites reveal an underlying unity.   The most common Western expression that I know of to the Chinese way of thinking is to speak of apparent opposites as “really being two sides of the same coin”.

   ◊◊◊

One day in the 1960s, when Tomoko was about seven years old, her school was called to an unscheduled assembly.  There, the principal announced that the students were being dismissed for the day, and that they were to immediately go home.  No one should stop to play, loiter, or visit with friends.  Straight home and no detours!  Your parents have been called.  They are expecting you!

Strange as it might sound today, even very young schoolchildren in the 60s typically walked to and from school — if the distance wasn’t far — and even in big cities like Tokyo.  But that’s a digression for the benefit of my younger readers, who might never have heard of such a thing!

When Tomoko reached her home, her grandmother was already watching the television to see what had happened.   Soon, the news reports started coming in.  The police around the country were raiding the Yakuza dens!  They were, the reporters said, “attempting to peacefully arrest the bosses, but unfortunately, often finding themselves engaged in gun battles.  Several bosses are reported killed with no injuries so far on the police side.”

I don’t know when Tomoko learned the full story of that day’s events but here is what she told me many years later.  The Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, had grown out of control.  The bosses no longer knew their proper place.  Consequently, something had to be done.  The schools in major cities across the country were closed in case the situation got out of hand.  Then the police, armed with grenades and assault rifles, raided numerous “dens” and slaughtered without warning at least 100 ranking Yakuza and many times that of lower ranking members.

“Did they get them all”, I asked.

Naturally, Tomoko explained, they didn’t even try to kill all of them.  That would have left a void in society that some other group would then have to fill, upsetting the nation’s harmony.  Instead, the goal was to knock them down to where they were no longer a threat to the social order, and could instead provide their services to the community in peace.

I think it is sometimes hard for Westerners to understand the Eastern concept of opposites.  “Good and Evil” belong to the West, “Yin and Yang” (or “In and Yo”, in Japanese) belong to the East.  Our good and evil is dichotomous, where the one is, the other is not.  But yin and yang are not dichotomous.  Where the one is, the other is also.

Because yin and yang are the way of opposites in the East, so often the goal is not to eliminate or annihilate one (or the other), but rather to insure that they remain in harmony or balance with each other.   When the Yakuza got out of balance, when it was no longer in harmonious relationship with the rest of society, it became necessary — in the Japanese way of seeing things — to put it back in its proper place.  No more, no less.

In the West, no politician could ever get elected promising to conscientiously stop short of annihilating the mafia, the gangs, the cartels.  That would be the equivalent of professing to be soft on evil.

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Every real thought on every real subject knocks the wind out of somebody or other.   — Oliver Wendell Holmes.

◊◊◊

It seems most of us at one time or another confuse the map with the terrain when we believe our thoughts about ourselves are ourselves.

That’s to say, the map is our thoughts about ourselves. The terrain is who we are. Yet, so often we think what we think about ourselves is who we are.

I can think of myself any number of ways that are not likely to be borne out by my experience of myself. I can believe all sorts of things about myself that simple observation will disprove.

It seems to me that if one wishes to know who they are, the best place to start is with the non-judgmental observation of oneself in relationship to other things, very much including people.  It is key that the observation be as dispassionate, as non-judgmental as possible.    This can be exceedingly difficult to do because all your life you have been taught to praise or condemn yourself according to whether or not you measured up to some ideal, some person, some standard.

Yet, without non-judgmental observation, you will not come to know yourself as deeply as possible.  Judgments, although useful in many circumstances, are worse than useless here.  They are worse than neutral.  They actually distort who you really are.  To look at yourself through judgmental eyes is like looking at your image in a fun house mirror.

Moreover, you should look at yourself in relationship to things.  You should not simply introspect because doing so is quite likely to lead you into mistaking the map for the terrain, into mistaking your idea of yourself for yourself.  To really understand yourself you need a reality-check, and observing yourself in relationship can provide that reality-check.

Last, it can help immensely to create a journal in which you write down your observations on a daily basis, then review your journal regularly.  After a few weeks or months, if you do not discover many new and significant things about yourself, you can sue my lawyer.  By the way, I hereby grant all my powers of attorney to Donald Trump.

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“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  — Kong Qui (Confucius).  I wonder now what my neighbor, the toddler, thinks of dog poop.  Probably thinks it’s beautiful.  At his age, I believe, most of us do.   Sometimes the only thing that separates a child from a sage is age.

The Observation of New Things

(About a 1 minute read)

It’s about 30 minutes before dawn.  I hear a wild goose off in the distance, and then my neighbor cough. Now and then a car passing on the distant street. My thoughts come and go.  I feel I should grab one of those thoughts, wrestle it into submission, and present it as a blog post.

But that can wait.  For now, I’d rather just watch the night turn into day.  The refrigerator comes on.  The furnace creaks.  I hear wind chimes from across the yard.  A morning dove.

The sky is light enough the trees are silhouetted against it now.  The early dawn.

I think an odd thing about observation is that we so often want to give it a purpose and then guide it. By guide it, I mean we want to weed out some of what’s happening because it doesn’t fit in with our purpose — with what we’re looking for.  Then, too, we want to hold onto other parts of what’s happening because those parts actually fit our purpose.

Yet — when we observe with a purpose in mind — we more or less observe what we expect to observe.

It seems to me that it can be extraordinarily difficult to observe without any purpose.  For the most part, we’re looking for something.  Often, that “something” is beauty, pleasure, or whatever we expect to find because we’ve seen it before.  But whatever it is, we are actively looking for it, whether we are fully conscious of actively looking for it, or not.

Still, it’s in those rarer moments when we are not looking for anything — when we do not seek beauty, pleasure, or this or that thing — that we are most likely to discover the new.

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

(About a 9 minute read)

Charlie’s father, Benjamin, wanted Charlie to grow up fully capable of thinking calmly and rationally while under stress.  To make sure that Charlie actually did mature into a man able to think with great clarity while under stress,  Benjamin decided to play cards with his young son at least once a week.

Benjamin reasoned that Charlie would learn logical reasoning from “counting his opponent’s hand”; that is, from employing logic to discern which cards his opponent held.  It is said that, when Benjamin told Charlie of his plans, eight year old Charlie was overjoyed that his father wanted to devote time just to him, and to him alone.

Little was Charlie prepared for the reality of those card games.

Benjamin, you see, had not told Charlie of his fiendish plans to turn their card games into hell on earth for his young son in order to teach him, not just logical reasoning, but logical reasoning while under stress.  When Charlie showed up to play, he soon discovered that his farther had purchased an all-too-generous supply of the strongest, most vile, most stinking cigars he could find on the market.

“Concentrate, Boy! Concentrate!  You must concentrate!”  Benjamin would say while every few minutes blowing smoke directly into Charlies’ face.  And it didn’t end there, either, for Benjamin made a point of keeping Charlie up way past his bedtime, until Charlie would simply collapse, and could no longer be shaken awake.*

Naturally, Charles Sanders Peirce grew up to become a traveling “No Smoking on Our Premises” sign painter perhaps America’s greatest philosopher and logician, an innovator in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, research methodology, and various sciences.

Doubt and Belief

In 1877, the magazine, Popular Science Monthly, published a short article by Peirce entitled, “The Fixation of Belief”.  Two months later, the same magazine published, “Snoring, and How to Stop it”.  That article was by Wyeth, though, and had nothing to do with Peirce or his ideas.   However, in 1878, the magazine got around to publishing, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, which was by Peirce.   Together, the two articles by him laid the initial foundation for what became the philosophical school of American Pragmatism.

In the first article, Peirce took a close look at the psychology of belief.  Now, the opposite of belief is doubt, and Peirce was just as aware as any of us that doubt is typically an emotionally uncomfortable state to be in.  He argued that, because doubt was uncomfortable, we humans naturally try to escape from it into belief — a much more emotionally comfortable state for us.   And we seek not only a belief, but a firm belief.

Peirce next argued that it was misleading to say our species seeks truth, when in reality we are content with any belief that we are able to firmly hold, whether it’s true or not.

That, of course, was too large of a lump for many people to swallow.  The common wisdom of the day was that humans — at least some of us — nobly pursued not merely a firm belief, but a true belief.  Yet, there stood the appalling Peirce, stubbornly insisting that we seek to escape doubt, instead of seek to find truth.

Two Reasons to Value Uncertainty

Whether or not we humans ever seek truth might be an open question for many of us, but I think it’s pretty evident that (1) doubt is usually an emotionally uncomfortable state, and that (2) we usually try to escape from it into a belief, the firmer the better.   Most of us seem to enjoy doubt or uncertainty about as much as we would enjoy a vigorous sandpaper massage.  Few of us see it as the 14th century monk, Kenko, did, who wrote, “Uncertainty is the most precious thing in life”.

Moreover, I think Peirce was also right that, when we have a firm belief about something, we tend to stop challenging it.  For instance, I was once of the firm  belief that solipsism was logically unassailable.  I arrived at that view decades ago, and for decades I looked no further into it.

To be sure, I did derive some ideas from it during those decades.  And while some people might consider those ideas to be “further explorations of solipsism”, I myself don’t because none of those alleged “further explorations” challenged the basic notion of solipsism.

Only recently did I delve into it again.  And that was mainly by stumbling my way into taking a fresh look at it.  It wasn’t something I would have done had it not been for a series of special circumstances.  Having taken a second look, however, I have come to doubt that solipsism is logically unassailable.

I have yet to fully evaluate solipsism so it is possible that I might yet return to a belief that it is logically unassailable.  However, if I do, it will be a much more fully informed belief than the one I had before.  The thing is, when we think we know something, we usually stop looking into it — really looking into it — and that sometimes means we stop short of any great insight.

Thus, it seems to me that one of the ways in which uncertainty can be “precious” is by motivating us look deeper, which is not always a bad thing.  Everyone of us, I’ll wager, harbors a whole lot of beliefs — and not always intellectual beliefs — that ought for our own sake to be given a good shaking now and then.  Even if we end up retaining the belief, we are likely to come back with a richer, more accurate understanding of it.

A second way uncertainty might be valuable to us is in “keeping us young and flexible”, so to speak.

Back in early March, I wrote a post explaining how our firmly held beliefs about who and what we are can lead us into limiting and restricting ourselves such that “we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way”.   This can have a devastating effect on the quality of our lives.   As the saying goes, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”.

How Best to Become Uncertain

Yet, how can one overcome such ossification?

As you might by now suspect, I believe it is best to overcome it by uncertainty.  Yet, that is not often an easy thing to do.   An attempt to create doubt about our beliefs through some sort of contrived and artificial speculation that they might be false seems to me as likely to produce real results as burning a match three feet from an ice cube is likely to thaw it.   What is needed more than mere speculation is a genuine reality check.

There seem to me at least two ways of checking a belief against reality.  Basically, to either do it yourself, or to get help.  Doing it yourself is the least effective of the two ways, in large part because each of us is prone to error — and even delusion.  If one must rely on this route, it’s probably a good idea to do things like keep a daily journal in which you note any events or other things that challenge the beliefs you wish to genuinely question.

But perhaps the best reality checkers for us are our friends or trusted other people.  Among “trusted other people”, I am including books, articles, podcasts, and so forth by authors you trust, in addition to people you might actually have some form of contact with.   [Note to frequent Café Philos  commentator Teresums: The category of “friends”, however, does not include your imaginary friend, Wildfire, the Rainbow Colored Unicorn.]  Other people, though just as prone to error and delusion as ourselves, often are not prone to precisely the same errors and delusions.  Hence, they might see things we don’t (and vice versa).

Truth is Often Hesitant, Uncertain

Peirce was extraordinarily prolific, but published only a fraction of his ideas and insights during his lifetime.  For instance,  on at least one occasion, he created a whole multi-variable logic, then tossed his papers on it into a desk drawer, and apparently forgot about them — leaving his work to be re-invented decades after his death by other logicians.

To put it a little simplistically, a multi-variable logic is a logic that goes beyond just the binary values of “true” and “false” to include a potentially infinite number of other values.  Think of those others as varying states of uncertainty, as “maybes”.   For there are times when, instead of seeing things as either true or false, it is best to see them as, say: true, maybe true, maybe false, and false.  In fact, I think that’s the case with most things in life.

So often, the deeper you get into something, the more obvious it becomes to you that the truth of it is uncertain.  There are almost always far more ways in which any notion we might have about reality — including the reality of ourselves — can be wrong than there are ways in which it can be right.  Add to that other facts, such as we don’t know everything (hence, most anything is possible), we are born with innate cognitive biases that tend to skew our thinking, and sometimes we just goof up even under the best of conditions.  The list could go on and on.  In the end, one is so often wisest when one treats the truth as uncertain.

Glorious Summary and Rousing Call to Action!

Two of possibly many ways in which uncertainty can benefit us are by motivating us to probe for ever deeper insights into things, and by helping to prevent or overcome the natural human tendency to become emotionally and mentally inflexible, closed off to new ideas, ways of doing things, and life adventures.  Of course, there are also  downsides to uncertainty.

Besides the fact that uncertainty can be emotionally uncomfortable, it can also cause us to hesitate to act when we very much need to act.  That can be a huge issue at times, but rather than address it here, I am going to save any discussion of it for another post.

At the moment, however, you yourself should not be hesitant to donate vitally needed dollars to Uncle Sunstone’s Emergency Shelter for Wayward Dancing Girls.   Uncle Sunstone’s Shelter is a non-registered charitable organization focused like a laser on gorgeous women who tragically cannot afford clothing beyond a g-string or two.  Your generous donation will go towards buying those unfortunate women the clothes they need to hang out at Uncle Sunstone’s cottage.  Clothes like French maid’s outfits, sheer nightgowns, skimpy bathing suites, chicken outfits, and other dignified evening wear.  Simply call 1-888-CELEBRATE and please have your credit card handy!  Act now!


  • Most of the story of Peirce’s father, but not all of it, was told to me by my professor, William Davenport, who as a graduate student, was one of just three such students allowed to study Peirce’s collected, but unpublished papers.  Davenport said his version of the story came from Peirce’s writings, but I don’t recall now whether from his published or unpublished writings.

Late Night Thoughts: Scam-Sharks, Poetry, Blogging, Rebirth, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Grey skies, greyer rain.
We shelter our hearts
Together you and I
Beneath our bright
Yellow umbrella.

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Where are the best blogs?  I’ve come across several in the past few weeks, but not nearly enough to slake my depraved thirst for other folk’s  pleasantly twisted, often unique, vibrantly creative, or revealingly truthful perspectives on all things life.

If you know of any great blogs that fit any of those descriptions — or for that matter, are great and snerklesome in any other way — please link me to them!  I’d love to check them out!

 ◊◊◊

A young man, about 20 I would guess, recently told me that we know we are right when “the voice within” confirms we are right.  He was responding to another person’s question, “How do we know when something is true?”

I think, from what I’ve heard and read, that the notion we can discern the truth or falsity of an idea merely according to whether or not some “inward voice” tells us that it sits well with us, or feels right or true to us, is a popular one these days.

Frankly, I also suspect it is evidence of a disturbing lack of a competent education.  If that young man honestly didn’t graduate from high school knowing how — at least in principle — to sort what is true or from what isn’t true, he should consider suing his school board for negligent injury and malpractice, and name his teachers as co-defendants.

He should go for blood, too!  Settle for nothing less than hundreds of thousands.  It’s arguable that part of the foundation of any decent education is to learn what makes something true or not.

Whether the law will actually allow him to file such a suit is almost irrelevant to the fact that he does honestly deserve compensation — if he was not himself somehow to blame for being left ignorant of how to judge whether or not something is true.

He deserves it because he’s almost certainly going to pay for it again and again in the currency of messed up life decisions until he does learn.

Every politician and scam-shark out there can already smell his blood.

◊◊◊

I confess.  As you probably suspected, I just now cheerfully made up the newborn word, “snerklesome”.  I have no idea what it should mean.  Do you?  Suggestions, please!

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Without You

If I had this day to own
I think I could sit here for an hour
With nothing more important
Than coffee and this pen
And how much better living’s been
Without you.

I don’t do a lot these days —
It’s so crazy, but it’s fun
Just recalling what I’m missing
Without you.

It ain’t about good or bad
Or anything so grim —
I remember well your beauty —
But the mornings still have been
Lighter now without you.

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Is the desire for rebirth, renewal a human universal?  It seems ubiquitous enough: It’s found in every culture and society that I myself know of.  Perhaps it really is a universal, or nearly universal, trait of humans.

◊◊◊

I really do need more blogs to read.   “Please, sir, I want some more.”

(Silence)

“What? More?  The boy wants more?” Said the master bloggers in unison and disbelief.

“That boy will be hung”, said the author of a science blog. “I know that boy will be hung.”

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The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  — Kenko, Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa).

Sometime around the age of 50, I began to notice how predictable, repetitious, and boring life was becoming for me.  The weariness took hold gradually, but steadily grew over the next several years until it reached something of a crisis in that I was becoming lethargic and dissatisfied under the weight of it.

Ironically, those years were still the happiest of my life up until that time.  Yet the boredom rose and began to threaten that happiness.  What to do?

I would prefer to tell you now that I found the perfect solution, but I didn’t, and I still haven’t.  I have, however, managed to greatly reduce the problem through more than one means, most of them commonsense (“Try new things”, “Break at least some of your routines”,  “Turn to the arts and sciences for fresh ideas and ways of seeing”,  “Start a guerilla war with the kids on your lawn”, etc.).  Some of them, however, are perhaps a little bit more than commonsense.

When I came across Kenko several years ago, I was struck by two things.  First, the novelty of his view of uncertainty.  Most of us, I think, are annoyed by uncertainty.  We even seem to run from it.  For instance, how often do we embrace all too tightly beliefs about the world that we cannot possibly — if we were honest with ourselves — be that certain of?  And how often do we cling to old, outdated, now worthless habits and routines for no better reason than they make our days more predictable?  We are usually inclined, I believe, to view uncertainty as anything but “precious”.

So Kenko’s view of uncertainty first struck me for a view I’d never come across before.  And in the second place, it struck me for a view I didn’t understand.  Why did he think uncertainty was so precious?  Was he really seeing something?  Something I myself had never seen before?   If so, then what could it be?

Something I’ve become acutely aware of is how we tend to turn to stone over the years: To ossify in our beliefs, daily activities, relationships, and self-identities and images.  Indeed, I’ve written about how and why our self-image can become our greatest tyrant and oppressor here.  The problem is that it does very little good to merely say to ourselves, “Don’t do it!”  That’s about as effective in practice as “Just abstain until marriage” sex-ed.

What has worked best for me to solve the ossification problem is to look for uncertainties in my self-images or self-identities.  Seeing how uncertain my notions of myself are has significantly helped me to hold at least many of those notions tentatively, lightly.  It even seems to me now that a lightness of heart or spirit begins with a lightness of self-image.

Thank you, Kenko.  You got me to barking up the right trees, sniffing the right crotches, for an at least partial solution to my problem.

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Is there an absolute reality?

That’s a bit different from asking if there’s an absolute truth.   Ideas are like maps, reality is like the terrains the maps refer to, and truth is a quality of the relationships between the maps and their terrain.  So when we ask, “Is there an absolute reality”, we are not really asking if there is an absolute truth.

Without an absolute reality, the notion of ever knowing all there is to know about the universe becomes impossible, even in theory.
Yet, would that be a good or a bad thing?
◊◊◊

Artists of all kinds so often think they must seek out new truths.  Perhaps their most vital service to us, however, is to make old, solid, and well-known truths once again visible to us.

For such old truths have become clichés, and few of us see much beyond the surface of a cliché, see it fresh, and as if for the first time.  Consequently, old truths so frequently have less impact than they should (for our own sake) have on our views, actions, and attitudes.

◊◊◊

Recently, I saw a man in anger destroy nearly at once several friendships that only moments before were important to him.  He did it because he felt slighted by two or three individuals, and to retaliate, he entirely broke off relations with a whole small group of people, and not just the two or three members of the group who he felt had slighted him.

“A man can only take so much”, he said.

But it was not the man who suffered the slights, it was the ego in the man who suffered the slights.  A more rational thing to have done might have been to look more deeply into the matter, for when someone slights you, they either do so accidentally, or with just cause, or with injustice.

If accidentally, forgive them.  If just, apologize and forgive them.  If with injustice, dump them and forgive them (Forgiveness is not for their sake, but for yours.  It’s unhealthy to carry around a grudge).  But whatever you do, don’t lose friendships valuable to you over such slights.  The poor fool was a puppet of his pride.

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We make too much of beliefs.

We are taught to make too much of them by our cultures, and then we never seem to get around to de-programming ourselves of such an insidious notion.  We are even taught that we are our beliefs.  That they are the very substance of our selves.  But a self made out of beliefs — no matter how profound those beliefs are — is a shallow, superficial self.

For beliefs — even when true — are no more than the maps we use to negotiate reality, and just like paper maps, they are not at all the reality they refer to.  A person who thinks his or her beliefs are their selves is like a hiker who thinks the trail map they hold in their hands is the trail itself.  You can’t lose your virginity by reading a textbook in biology, and you can’t really know yourself if all you know are your beliefs about yourself.

Beliefs should be worn lightly, tentatively, hesitantly.  They should never become balls and chains on our ankles.  How, then, can we dance light-heartedly through life?

◊◊◊

I Remember

I remember
Laughing under summer skies —
Would have thought we could fly —
And the winds pass on by.

I remember
Holding hands while the river flowed —
Came a time to let you go —
And the waters pass on by.

Now for all that I know
You have a good life
Filled with the stars,
The sun, and the trees.

But all that I do know —
It’s the life you should have,
So beautiful
You were to me.