When Events Conspire to Make One Very Stressed

So last night I had everything laid out in preparation to leave today, when kitty jumps up on the desk and inadvertently knocks over a glass of water.  This caused my passport to become a sopping wet mess.  Ink ran through and everything.  So now I’m sitting at the passport office hoping beyond hope that they can print me a new one in time. Someday, I’ll look back on this day and laugh. In the meantime, I’m contemplating skinning my cat.

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A Notice of Absence: 05/31 – 06/15

So, I will be leaving for Europe come Thursday (May 31st) and will not be back until the 15th of June.  Wifey and I are going to Paris and to Stockholm to visit friends (free accommodation)!  So the chances are that I will not be posting anything at all during that time – I expect that my traffic will plummet, but so be it.  I’m going to be sipping cheap wine and looking at art by the masters.  And observing Europe’s on-going collapse in person.  Should be fun!  Hopefully it will also give me some grist for the mill, so that I have some drafts written by the time I return.

This post will remain sticky until my return.

Questions for Other WordPress Users

I have two:

  1. I had a number of people visit my blog yesterday and ‘like’ and ‘follow’ it, but they did not show up on my stats.  How is this possible?
  2. Sometimes the little notification thinger in the bar at the top of the web-browser (the one sitting between “New Post” and the user’s drop-down menu and which turns orange when someone has commented) instead of reading “0” like usual, shows a little speech box like in comic books.  Other times, it just reads “0”.  What is up with this?

Of What Is, and What Is Not, Criticism of Capitalism

There are numerous popular criticisms that get lobbed at the actually existing economic system that we call ‘capitalism’.  Some are wildly off-base, while others have a certain definite bite to them, but I am not interested (for present purposes) in whether or not capitalism is a good economic system (whether considered morally or pragmatically).  What I find interesting is how many critiques of capitalism are, in fact, not critiques of capitalism at all.  Take these two examples:

  1. Capitalism is bad because it does not appropriately allocate the benefits arising from productive activities – that is, profits accrue only to those who already are possessed of an excess of wealth (else they would not be the owners or shareholders of a business), rather than to those who are actually involved in the provision of the profitable product or service.
  2. Capitalism is bad because it encourages competitive consumption and ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’, a game which only the relatively wealthy can play and which, consequently, causes the further social ostracization of the less well-to-do.

The difference can, admittedly, be hard to spot if one hasn’t spent much time or effort thinking about the matter – it is masked by the usage of ‘capitalism’ in both cases.  The first is obviously a critique of capitalism, since it addresses aspects of capitalist economics directly: e.g. the ownership of productive capital and the existence of the profit motive, labour relations, dividends.  The second, however, only appears to be a critique of capitalism – why do I say this?

Note that the actual problem in the second example is the social ostracization arising from the inability of the less well off to effectively engage in a form of status competition.  Granted, competitive consumption may be encouraged (or even necessitated) by a society’s utilization of a capitalist economic system.  And, of course, the critic of capitalism could argue that it is about capitalism, because the poor (who are poor as a result of capitalist economics) cannot compete against the rich (who are rich as a result of capitalist economics) in a contest to buy the biggest, newest, and best.  But the problem here isn’t actually the competing for status by way of material accumulation, it’s the fact of competition in itself – any sort of status competition will result in winners and losers, necessarily.  The poor feel the pain arising from low status, as denoted by their failure to accumulate material goods, just as keenly as do failed or unpopular musicians, actors, or intellectuals when these latter consider their more successful peers.  Capitalism does not create status competition – it merely channels it in a particular way.

So, only the first of this pair of common critiques is actually a critique of capitalism (should someone, after reading the preceding, still believe the second to be such a critique, then I now have learned a lot about that person and his motivations).

The “Variety” of Buddhist Meditation Techniques

Perfect posture

Just as happens in any large group of people who have been classed together for whatever reason, there is actually a rather widespread tendency among Buddhist sects to denigrate each of the others.  Mahayana Buddhists fairly reliably look down their noses at the practices of the Theravada, an attitude put on display by their choosing to stick to the term that their scriptural commentaries have for Theravada: ‘Hinayana’ (a derogatory term that is usually translated as ‘The Narrow Path’ but which apparently has linguistic connotations in Sanskrit that would be as negative as our calling it the ‘Nigger’s Path’).  Theravada practitioners (or the most traditionalist among them) reject any and all innovations or additions to Buddhist practice made since the historical moment at which they were the predominant school.  And Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists tend to look down upon everyone else and their practices, claiming that their Buddhism is the best.  As can be expected, then, there is much heated debate over whose meditation techniques are best.  This group says that its techniques are best and that the intelligent student of meditation will not waste any time working with those other guys’ methods.  That group says the first is wildly off-base – don’t practice samatha, that’s just the slow and selfish way to enlightenment, do shi-ne instead.  And then there’s Zen, which informs us that if you’re ‘meditating’ at all, then you’re doing it wrong – just sit there.  (Sometimes, I think the Zennies do this just to be confusing.)

What strikes me as absurd and funny (or very sad, depending on my mood) is that at the preliminary levels of practice, at least, there really isn’t all that much difference between the meditation techniques and aims advocated by the different schools.  Granted, preliminary instructions differ – some are to focus on a physical sensation (like the breath), some to ‘note’ or label thoughts and sensations, others are to recite a mantra, while yet others are not to ‘do’ anything in particular and just sit there – but these really do strike me as being rather unimportant differences since they all wind up doing much the same thing, in the end.  It’s like different techniques for opening a jar – some people will insist that one ought to run water on the lid to loosen it up, others will say that we should just use our bare hands, and others will say “find a man to do it for you” – but in the final analysis each one of these methods results in unscrewing the lid.  Just so for meditation.  Whether using a mantra or the breath as an anchor, or doing without an anchor at all, we are teaching ourselves the same skills – patience, perseverance, and sensitivity to the particularities of and non-involvement with the ever-shifting contents of conscious awareness.

So if you are interested in Buddhist meditation, my suggestion is not to worry about the supposed vast and grave ‘differences’ between the preliminary techniques offered by the various schools.  Instead, you should try out different techniques and see which of them is a ‘best-fit’ for your personal temperament and then devote yourself to that practice wholeheartedly.  Which bit of advice is, I believe, one teaching that is held in common among all the Buddhist schools.

Some Things About Christianity That Turn Me Off (Part 1 of…?)

I have never been a Christian, myself, but I have certainly known many who are and who have tried to inform me of the “Good News”.  Disappointingly (for them), the “Good News” never did manage to take root in my heart (as my readers might have surmised) but that’s not necessarily because there’s no appeal to it.  Surely I’m not the only atheist out there who at least finds the idea – that, despite our faults, the biggest superstar in the whole world still thinks I’m awesome enough to be worth giving a pass to the VIP room – to be a little appealing?  Still, beyond the matter of my suspecting the factual falsity of Christian doctrine, there have been other aspects of Christian belief and practise (across the various strains of it) that turn me right off of that religion.  Here are two:

Holiness

Holiness: I really do not like the emphasis that Christianity places on holiness (in this way it is not alone among religions).  The way holiness is pursued and thought of generally tends to be a dull, dry affair that denies the value of our human life and emotions and tends to asceticism.  Holiness divides the world up into ‘holy’ (good) and ‘profane’ or ‘unholy’ (the category of all that is not holy, whether neutral or evil) in a way that just does not make sense to me.  For example, take the human body.  It is considered a profane thing and, indeed, as something that is shameful and needing to be covered.  As I always say, “if God had wanted us to be naked, we would have been born that way!”  The body simply is what it is, and doesn’t need to prove a source of disgust or rejection.  And if Christians take Genesis seriously, how they may then conclude that nudity is a bad thing escapes my understanding (remember, Adam and Eve were nude until after they had defied God’s will and eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). Sex is also often used as an example, for good reason (it is one of the things most humans want a lot and enjoy a lot), but is viewed as less than perfectly ‘holy’ by many Christians.  Now, while I will agree with Christians that a totally unfettered approach to sex probably (but only probably) is a vice – as exciting as they are, I’m not completely sure that ‘free love’ and pornography are or have been untainted net ethical gains for society or for those individuals who participate in them – Christians generally, I think, go too far the other way.  Marriage is widely considered the only context in which sexual expression is appropriate (which I just think false) and the sexual lives of Christ and the saints (which is to say, the absence of same) are held up as ideal exemplars – so even if sex within marriage is OK, complete celibacy is best.  I think that this approach denies something important about human nature and also doesn’t make sense.  Eating too much candy is a vice, surely, so the appropriate thing to do with candy is to eat it in sensible portions at a sensible frequency, not to avoid the stuff altogether or to revile ourselves for merely wanting it.

Why not?

Love: Christians often go on about Love, but I don’t like that sort of talk at all.  For many, but especially liberal Christians, Love is a sticky-gooey sentimentality towards others that, frankly, icks me right out.  Partly, this is temperamental, in that I dislike all this ‘peace and love and harmony’ claptrap, but it is also the case that there are people and things in the world that genuinely are problems and reprehensible and deserving of our allergic reactions to them.  Conservative Christians, on the other hand, hardly seem to concern themselves with Love at all (Justice and wrath are more their bag), but when they do they seem weirdly aggressive about it.

An Apology and A Thought

I have been a bad blogger this week, but I have an excuse, I swear!  I was actually out-of-town working – don’t worry, I don’t secretly have an extraordinarily interesting job, the details of which you surely should like to know but which I am withholding – so I consider that a sufficient excuse.  I barely even had time to get some reading done.  In any case, I’m sorry.

So, there I am at work and several of my colleagues are the sort of people who must have a radio on, screeching the latest Top-40.  In many circumstances, this is fine, of course, I am not a snob about what music people enjoy listening to – how could I be since, according to my wife, I have the worst taste in music ever (and I’m inclined to agree) – but there are times and places for Nicky Minaj and the office is not one of them.  People are trying to think, don’t’cha know?

“Starships… are meant to fly… y… y… y… y…”

It’s interesting how modern pop music really does seem perfectly formulated to take over one’s mental processes.  Nicky Minaj is something completely different from, say, Frank Sinatra.  But of course this mental over-powering is precisely the point of having such music playing constantly – they’re trying to ward away the boredom (and Lord, is this job boring) and all its attendant thoughts (without, you know, finding some more work to do).  I find this troublesome, not only because my job does occasionally require me to think, but also because I do try to do the Buddhist mindfulness thing and I find it really hard to keep that sort of awareness going with that sort of music going on in the background – it sucks one in.

And this made me think a little about dukkha (‘suffering’ or ‘dissatisfactoriness’) and that old saw that ignorance is bliss.  The Buddhist suggestion is, of course, that emotions like boredom are suffering as much as is anything else, but the proposed solution is to pay even more attention to that aspect of the experience instead of finding some respite.  This makes me curious – if, let’s grant, Buddhist practices work as advertised and make us suffer less, might we nevertheless be more experientially aware of this lesser degree of suffering?  Might we suffer less but notice it more?  Is this something we want?