Patterns and attachments

I am sorry. There is something very important that I didn’t mention in the last letter. I talked about “mind” as if it is clear or trivial what is meant by it and as if there is no trouble about it. In fact, as you will experience in the next few years, most challenges and conflicts you’ll face originate from mind-related phenomena and complications. Let me try to explain what I mean with that:

First we have to make some definitions:

Mind” is very close to “consciousness”, but it needs an element of “awareness” or “mindfulness”. It is a kind of generic term for the complete chain of perception (of some kind of stimulus), mental processing (interpreting the stimulus, aligning to memories and experiences, understanding, etc.) and reacting to the stimulus (inducing a process of (re-)action or emotion). “Mind” must not be mixed up with “thought” or the process of thinking.

We perceive the world that we live in through six cognitive senses: seeing (light of specific wavelengths (~380-700nm) through the eyes), hearing (sound waves of certain frequencies through the ears), feeling (with sensors and nerves all over the skin), smelling (with receptors in the nose), tasting (with receptors on the tongue) and thinking (with the neural network of brain cells). A cognitive process is the reception of the stimulus, its transportation to the brain and its interpretation. Some don’t agree that “thinking” is a sense like seeing or hearing. However, same as the other five perceptions, a thought can be understood as a “stimulus” for further action: same as a visual perception can induce a mental process (for example, seeing a cake, recalling the memory “cake = delicious”, inducing “appetite” or “the desire to eat it”, followed by saliva production in the mouth), also a thought alone, without outer influence, (for example a logical deduction of a new insight) can bring something to our awareness that can then serve as a trigger for an action or emotion.

Emotion” is a huge topic by itself, but it is fundamentally connected to the “mind”. I understand an emotion as a two step process: First, a stimulus causes a body reaction, then a mental process determines the reaction onto the changed body state. An example: A big aggressive dog comes running towards us. As soon as we notice that through our senses (we see or hear it), and our memory or experience classifies this perception as “harm”, signals are sent to our body that bring it into an appropriate response state: fear. The body heat rises, the heartbeat gets faster because the heart pumps more blood to supply muscles with more oxygen, the neurotransmitter adrenaline is released to increase the efficiency of metabolic processes of cells – all this as a preparation for a possible escape. But this is just the first step. The changed body state is, of course, also recognised by the mind. It will then, again, analyse this stimulus according to memories, experiences and programmed behaviour patterns in order to find an appropriate reaction on it. In our example, the state of “fear” (expressed by heat, heartbeat, adrenaline, etc.) might trigger a channel “escape” and makes us turn around and run. Or, if we made other experiences, it might trigger a channel “attack” and makes us face and threaten the dog. With this understanding it also becomes obvious that only the first step of the emotion, the body reaction, is – for a “normal” healthy human being – somehow “natural”, since we all have the physiognomic preconditions for all kinds of emotions (like fear, anger, sadness, happiness, etc.), but that the reaction on it – the way we express an emotion and what we do or say in response to an emotion – is highly dependent on the condition of our mind which is shaped individually in complex processes by our interaction with the environment and our experiences.

Let’s see how all this goes together and what it means for our lives:

Mankind developed into a species with the ability of introspection, self-recognition and self-awareness. Different from other animate earthly beings we consciously desire to “understand” the world in order to exploit it for our benefits. Driver and motivation for all activity and eagerness is fear: the fear of death that results from our knowledge about the inevitable transience of life. Equipped by evolutionary processes with the abovementioned properties (mind, senses, thoughts, emotions) the modern man has no other choice but perceiving the world, reflecting on it and interpreting it. Last but not least, this leads to fundamental metaphysical questions about the meaning and purpose of life, what is “reality”, and our origins and destinies. However, we have to admit that our biological tools are by far insufficient to get a complete grasp of what the world is. Moreover, as we will see, the mechanisms of recognition and mental processing of information and knowledge are highly corrupt and flawed.

We can be convinced of the fact that our six senses can give us only a very limited and confined fraction of the actual world by understanding how the senses work, that their range of physical or biological abilities is limited, and that other life forms have cognitive abilities that we simply don’t have (for example ultrasonic senses of bats and dolphins, the perception of Earth’s magnetic field by migration birds, or “molecular” communication via pheromones by ants and other insects). However, we have to rely on our six senses since every other source of information is inaccessible for us. Today, thanks to science, we know how cognitive processes work and have to conclude that the “reality” is nothing but a construction in our mind based on the input delivered by the perception senses and our rational reason.  The problem is not the lack of “complete” equipment of sensory organs, but the human ignorance of human insufficiency and a blatant overconfidence in our perception. We often believe we “know” how things really are, and we trust in our perceptions. When you go out into the garden in the twilight and see a snake in the grass you might get scared and run back into the house, shouting “There is a snake in the garden!”. In your mind, the snake is “real” because you have seen it, and your reaction is “the right one” given your “reality”. However, when I go into the garden to check, all I find is a water hose in the grass that I forgot to remove after using it earlier that day. Your perception fooled you. The structure that your eyes perceived and delivered to your brain was interpreted by your mind as a snake because that was the most reasonable conclusion. The interesting part is: This misinterpretation tells us something about your “mindset”: Maybe you are easily scared, or have a general fear of snakes, so that this is the first thing that came to your mind. Maybe you watched a scary movie with a snake before. The point is: we usually “see” what we want to see, or we “see” what we “know” or what we focus on. In this respect, our perception is highly dependent on our mind, and not vice versa (as many people believe). Later I will talk about “confirmation biases”, then we come back to this aspect.

The limited set of perception tools and the confined range of possibilities of the ones we have might be a pity, but we don’t need to waste time and efforts whining about it because we can’t change it anyway (until we talk about trans- and post humanism, but that is another topic). Therefore, we better focus on the mind’s role in processing the information that streams into us. I mentioned one aspect above: When we are not aware of the flaws and limits of our mental processes we are victims of ignorance. This becomes especially unwholesome and unhealthful when it makes us overconfident and “blind”. Again, note that the ignorance has two dimensions: “not knowing” and “not knowing that we don’t know”. But there is more than that: Not only our perception tools are limited, also the strategies and methods that our mind exploits to deal with that input are often inefficient, flawed, corrupt or simply inappropriate. From a certain perspective it is actually good like that: There is so much information streaming into our mind that we have to select what reaches our consciousness. We can’t process every light ray that enters our eyes, or all sound waves that reach the ear. Therefore, we use a filter: we align the incoming information with our experiences and memories to “make sense” of it. When we see three dots within a circle, we immediately associate that with a “face”. These associations are the result of pattern and habit formations that start as soon as our senses start working (when an embryo turns into a fetus, definitely before birth) and solidify and grow in the childhood and teen ages. The first experiences are very rudimentary and related to the “body” sphere (see the body-mind-spirit model of the previous letter): a baby feels hungry, perceives that as “unpleasant” and expresses this uneasiness by crying. Someone comes and brings food. The association “crying à someone brings food” solidifies the more this pattern is repeated, so that the baby will always signal “hunger” by crying. These patterns become especially significant in aspects of emotion. As we have seen before, the physical part of an emotion is the same for all human beings, but the way it is expressed and given power over reactions and behaviour is different from person to person according to pattern formations and manifestations of habits. Imagine 3-year-old children that experience something unfair – let’s say, another child takes away the toy that our child just plays with. Perceiving this as “unfairness” increases the child’s pulse, triggers the release of adrenaline and produces body heat – the child feels uneasy. What happens next strongly depends on what the children have “learned”: One child might get aggressive: yelling at the “thief” and hitting him. It is very likely that this child made a previous experience that this behaviour leads to “success” in terms of “fulfilling the child’s desires” (here: it might get back the toy). Maybe the child’s parents are aggressive, or impatient or insecure, and – by this – support the manifestation of aggression in the child. Another child “recalls” another behaviour in the same situation, for example “diplomacy”, talking to the child, trying to convince it to return the toy. A third child might not even express any form of “uneasiness” (aggression, anger, envy, etc.) but just “let go” of the toy and look for another one. We can regard emotions and their associations with behaviour patterns as “seeds” that grow when they are constantly “watered”. When a child’s desire is fulfilled and satisfied by a certain strategy, when it feels it can help reaching its goal, then the child will repeat it whenever possible. This also corresponds to what I tried to explain in the previous letters: no child is born like anything (for example “a calm child” or “impatient child” or “aggressive child” or “anxious child”, or whatever), but all these properties are solidified patterns and habits formed by experiences and “reward or punishment situations”. I call these patterns “attachment”. The good thing is: same as a plant dies when it is not watered anymore, a “pattern” (as the manifestation of an often watered “seed”) can be changed by cutting of “the water supply” and watering other seeds instead. However, once a pattern is formed, it is very hard to change it!

I used another small but important word: desire. In general, we can state that our desires determine our will and what we actually decide to do and say. Again, you may relate this to the body-mind-spirit model of the previous letter: at early age, our desires are dominated by the body sphere, then mental and finally spiritual desires take control. The mental desires, however, are highly corrupt when we are not aware of the origins of desires and the mechanisms that let some desires grow and others decay. Most of our desires are the result of attachments. There are the “behaviour pattern attachments” I just mentioned (for example the way we react on emotions), but also attachments to things that mean something to us (material things, but also abstract entities like love, fame, health or “our life”) which is expressed in fears (of losing these things), or attachment to the “self” or “ego”, the  illusion that there is a “self” that is separate from the rest of the world. Most of these influences occur subconsciously, and all these attachments are fed and nourished by our environment and our activities in it – the “Matrix”. Let me give you an example: You feel the desire to go to McDonald’s and eat a chicken burger. You can, of course, just go and get one, following your desire or understanding it as “your free will” to have one. But you can also ask yourself what makes you decide to voluntarily choose this kind of crappy low-quality unhealthy food! Maybe you saw the McDonald’s advertisement somewhere, with a colourful delicious juicy burger on it, that gives you the (wrong and misleading) impression that eating a McDonald’s Burger is a good idea. Or your friends give you the impression that you appear more “cool” when you go to McDonald’s with them. Maybe you like the colours red and yellow (another attachment formed by impressions in the childhood) and, therefore, feel attracted to the McDonald’s logo design, so that it comes to your mind first when you wonder what and where to eat. “Living mindfully” means to pull all these factors into our awareness, to understand what “controls” our desire and will, and to start turning it around: to control these factors. The experience shows that we do many “unhealthy”, “unwholesome” and “unsustainable” things when we just live mindlessly and let the “Matrix” control our decisions and choices. Instead, when we open our mind and realise as many attachments and control mechanisms as possible, we gain power over them and can “dissolve” them, making our will and our decisions truly “free” – or with other words: exit the Matrix. The McDonald’s example is a simple and obvious one (pseudo-desires formed by manipulation, group dynamics, etc.), but there is many more that have a big impact on our life, for example how to choose the right boyfriend or the major to study, how to identify the difference between dogmatic religion and wholesome spirituality as source for inner peace, or the emotional stability to deal with all the difficulties and obstacles of daily life. An important remark has to be made concerning the “freedom” that I mentioned. It is not about being free “from” emotions, desires, preferences or patterns and habits. It is almost impossible to be free from these, and it would even be terrible to have no emotions or preferences! Instead, the worthwhile approach is to be free “in” the emotion, “in” the choices and desires, and “in” our patterns and habits! That means, we are able to disconnect the link between the trigger (for example the physical occurrence of an emotion in the body, or the stimulus of an advertisement) and the associated reaction pattern (for example “yelling” as response to the feeling “anger”, or “buying something we don’t need” as response to manipulating advertising). At least, we can try to increase the time between trigger and response so that with a mindful awareness we are able to intervene and reflect what would be the best reaction, conclusion, decision, etc.

Now we can understand better what I mean when I write in the previous letter about the “mind sphere” and “physical and psychological needs”. What these needs are and how they determine our well-being or non-well-being is highly dependent on what I call “mindset”. When we are “slaves” of our desires and needs and don’t spend considerable mental capacities on reflecting our life, it is more likely that our attachments drive us into a direction that we won’t find fulfilling or satisfying later. A more “sustainable” lifestyle would be to practice our mindfulness and awareness so that we are able to identify our attachments and the elements of the “Matrix” that is constructed around us, and ultimately set ourselves free in it.

Do you think all this makes sense? Is it convincing? I tell you something: This is the heart of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha from India 2600 years ago. His insights into human psychology and the mechanisms of our minds are astonishingly precise. He used different terminology and often communicated his ideas by stories and narratives rather than by analytical or scientific language, but today, with modern psychological research and a Philosophy of mind, his teachings are confirmed and supported surprisingly well! In the “12 links of interdependent co-arising” the theory of mind that I described here is well reflected:

12-links-of-interdependent-co-arising

The 12 links of interdependent co-arising constituting the wheel of life (samsara), with the three mind poisons (ignorance, attachment/greed, resistance/hatred) depicted in the center.

There is birth (jati), but it inevitably leads to death (jara-marana). We are born “blank” with a high degree of ignorance (“not-knowing”, avijja). Out of this ignorance we become victim of the formation of patterns, habits, of “will” and the drivers of all we do, say and think (sanskara). This is the basic idea of “Karma”: We are “forced” to act in this world and, by this, are exposed to the cause-effect-laws that form the world fabric. In this process we realise and recognise ourselves (or “our selfs”) with our consciousness (vinnana) and start sticking to our “identity”. The self is manifested in body and mind (the spiritual self comes later) (namarupa). We feed our consciousness through the six sense organs (salayatana), that Buddha understood as mediator between sense object (that what is to see, to hear, etc.) and our awareness. The mental process is, therefore, a “contact” between object and our consciousness (phassa). These contacts go along with “feelings” (vedana) that can be either “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant” (some kind of neutral). This differentiation of emotional states causes our desires (tanha) – longing for “pleasant” states or for “being” and “becoming” (attachments) and avoiding unpleasant ones or “ceasing” (the counterpart of attachment – resistance, an aspect that I left out in this letter). Attachments and resistances (upadana) are the basis of our thoughts, ideas, concepts and imaginations. These need to be expressed and realised and, therefore, lead to constant “becoming” (or manifestation) of our self (bhava). Here the cycle is closed, arriving at “birth” again. This is the Buddhist idea of “reincarnation”: Our desires cause attachments which drive us to manifest our self constantly. As long as we have ignorance we are not able to escape this cycle, because we will always stick to the idea of a self with our cognitive tools feeding our unfree consciousness. The cycle can be broken at any of the twelve elements, but with different degree of difficulty: we can overcome ignorance by acquiring wisdom. We can identify the flaws of our sense organs. We can reflect and “dissolve” our desires. All are attempts to get out of the “samsara“, the eternal circle of life, and enter “nirvana“.

Ignorance, attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hatred) are often called the “three mind poisons” by Buddha (depicted as snake, pig and rooster in the center of the wheel). They blur our mind and lead to what is unluckily translated as “suffering”. This is the first “Noble Truth”: Life is suffering. This is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic, but just the objective observation of the mind phenomena that I described above. When our mind is not free but victim of pattern and habit formations, our choices and decisions (our will) are not trustworthy and most likely leading to unhealthy and unwholesome states. Going to McDonald’s to eat a chicken burger is “suffering” when this choice is motivated by “Matrix” elements and not by the output of your free mind. The second Noble Truth simply tells that “There is a reason for suffering.”. In Buddhist Philosophy (or Psychology) this is described in the abovementioned “12 links of interdependent co-arising”. The essence of this important insight is: The suffering is not a divine law, a heavenly punishment or a reason for hopelessness and depression. When there is a reason, it means we are able to discover and understand that “reason” (for example through insights from that cycle of dependent becoming, or with any other “modern” psychological method). The third Noble Truth is the claim that “The reason for suffering can be overcome.” or, with other words, “The cycle of Samsara can be broken.”. The realisation of ignorance or the understanding of our attachments are the first step to weaken them and decrease their power and impact. This “Truth” sounds as trivial as the second one, but for many people it is, actually, not self-understanding that it is in our own hands to “lead a good life”. Some believe in “destiny” or “fortune”, but from Buddha we can learn that the state of our well-being and satisfaction is determined by our own choices and actions – he called it “Karma”. The fourth Nobel Truth, then, says that there is “a particular way” to overcome suffering, and that is “the eight-fold path”, a model of Buddhist Ethics that suggests concrete guidelines for life conduct. I think, we can insert here any “good”, “helpful” and “healthy” approach that we find and approve. The most important Buddhist practices are meditation and active mindfulness training in order to gain knowledge, wisdom and inner peacefulness. Very helpful advices are the “Middle Way” (avoiding extremes) and the “here-and-now” philosophy (that I will certainly write more about in a later letter). Ultimate goal is to realise that there is no “self”, no element in us that is specifically and only “ours”. This is called “emptiness” in Buddhism, one of its most sophisticated and difficult aspects. You see, the whole Dharma is reflected in this model of the human mind. That’s why I find it so much more helpful for my daily life than other (especially Western) worldviews. I will probably always come back to this when we talk about aspects of your life: when you break up with your first boyfriend, when you are nervous before a stage performance or sports competition, when you are desperate about a bad teacher at school, when you don’t know what to do with your life after school – I will try to help you freeing your mind and seeing clearly, here and now, in this moment, peaceful and balanced, fearless and full of love. And you help me…

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Body, Mind, Spirit

Your appearance in my life triggers my interest in Psychology and human development a lot! From a layman perspective I reflected on how we work, how we interact with the world we live in, and what are the mechanisms of self-awareness and self-cultivation. Again, I believe these insights are important for my performance as a father from the day you are born! Maybe it helps me to “do the right things”…

The ability of self-recognition and self-consciousness that occurred in the evolutionary processes of mankind is certainly one of the most sophisticated phenomena in the world of living organisms! It enabled an unprecedented level of “cultural” development. Not many other higher animals (some mammals, a few birds) are able to recognise themselves. Self-awareness is a crucial precondition for thinking in time scales (remembering past events that occurred to “oneself”, anticipating future events and making plans). The human Ego is sometimes so big that it causes us great trouble, but that is another topic and will be discussed later. Here, I’d like to illustrate how we can distinguish three levels of objective self that are encountered upon the introspective examination of one’s own existence – and what we can learn from this knowledge.

First of all, we have a physical self. Our body constantly sends signals of physical needs that feed our self-consciousness. We eat when we are hungry, we sleep when we are tired, we seek for a warm place when we feel cold, and we avoid pain and harm. By this we become aware of our existence (or “our self”) as physical beings with the functioning of living organisms.

Then, we have a psychological self. It originates from the process that occurs when we attempt to acquire social or material resources from the outer world for the sake of satisfying various physical or psychological needs. We have to learn various types of knowledge in order to control the outer world effectively, and thereby acquire a sense of self-efficacy.

Finally, we have a spiritual self. For human beings who are able to think, feel, act, and experience various domains of life, the spiritual aspect of self facilitates a comprehensive understanding of our entire life, including our personality, values, beliefs, and motives.

This corresponds to a model of body, mind and spirit suggested by Chen and Hui-Min Bhikkhu:

bodymindspirit

The five phases illustrate the development of a human being from birth on to old age, in case everything goes well (no major diseases, no massive psychological impacts like war, etc.). A newborn baby responds only to body signals and forms its will based on physical needs. When these needs are fulfilled the baby is content and satisfied, also mentally and – as far as applicable – spiritually. Therefore, the realm of mind and spirit are depicted inside the body-area (I.). When the child starts to explore the environment and learns how it can manipulate it, it also develops a mental self-awareness. It learns more and more about the cause-effect-relations of this world and how they can be exploited and used for the own benefit. Finding and defending its own place and space in the environmental and interpersonal network becomes another influential factor for the formation of a personal will and motivation. Next to the physical needs, the psychological needs dominate the well-being or dissatisfaction of the child (II.). Questions of worldviews and values are not reflected, yet. “I want that piece of candy!” is a will for its own end, the child will not ask why it wants the candy or whether or not it is “right” to want that candy. The spiritual self is still fully covered by the psychological self. It steps out of its shadow usually sometime in the teen ages or at young adult age, after the mental functions are fully matured. Beliefs, values and worldviews can now guide and control the physical and psychological activities and their motives and intentions in a state of equilibrium (III.). With further progress of life, biological desires originating from the physical self slowly weaken. The need for spiritual cultivation may gradually increase while the bodily needs are satisfied as a subcategory of the mental needs (IV.). Older people tend to spend more and more time with spiritual reflection of issues related to life and death. In the last stage, the physical self may fade gradually, while the spiritual self becomes more and more apparent and dominates the outermost circle of life (V.). Before death (as long as it happens “naturally” at old age and not by accident or disease at early age) we are satisfied and content when we are in balance with our values and worldviews. We don’t need to stand our ground anymore, and we let go of our old and worn out body.

Something very important has to be realized: None of the phases can be jumped, and a next phase can only be reached when the previous is fully evolved and manifested. With other words: If, at the end of our life, we want to die peacefully and content in spiritual harmony with ourselves, we need the self-cultivation and self-fulfillment in each of these five phases! When a baby’s physical needs are not satisfied properly, it will get stuck in the body-related self-manifestation. It won’t elaborate a capacity for mental self-cultivation when it is kept busy with desiring the satisfaction of its most basic needs (enough to eat, time to rest, freedom from pain and harm, enough love and care). Only a healthy body can host a healthy mind! The longer phase of maturing the psychological self still needs to be accompanied appropriately by parents or other caretakers. As pointed out before, we need to acquire a lot of knowledge to exploit the world for our own satisfaction. When a child lives in a poor and lonely environment it can’t develop social, motor or creative skills. It needs space, attention, toys, playmates, chances to make experiences with as many aspects of life as possible in order to understand the mechanisms of its lifeworld and to find strategies to make itself a fully embedded part of it. Only then, when the mental functions of a person are fully matured, the process of aligning motives, intentions and decisions to the own personal beliefs and worldviews can start. When this process is blocked or suppressed, the spiritual self can never reach a state in which it is powerful enough to serve as our major (or the only) source of satisfaction and self-fulfillment. When we still rely on our body as source of contentment at the age of 50, watching it slowly decaying or getting more ugly, we will fall into a crisis (like many women actually do). When our main life goal is the accumulation of as much money and material possession as possible without ever asking what it is good for, the greed that dominates our desires as we realise on the death bed might let us die dissatisfied and in grief. We can only know what makes us truly and sustainably feel at peace and harmony when we let go of our physical needs at a certain point of our life and when we give the spiritual self the power to determine the satisfaction level of our mental self.

What does that have to do with you or with me, your father? That your Mom and me will satisfy your physical needs as best as we can is self-understanding! And I am pretty sure we won’t fail in that! We are prepared and keep putting efforts into ensuring your safety, health and well-being! You will have a warm bed, healthy food with all necessary nutrition, you will be treated tenderly and with care, you will be given love and attention! I promise! As soon as you are old enough to express your needs and desires that are beyond the mere physical ones, we will try to find the fine line between parental guidance and your autonomy and self-determination. Your Mom and me agreed that the most important skill we want to support in you is curiosity. We can always let you know when you have no idea of something, and we can always show you how when you can’t do something, but when you don’t want to know, there is nothing we can do. Therefore, we hope we can trigger your interest in as many things as possible! Then we will be delighted to provide you with the “infrastructure” that is required, ranging from love and attention to toys and material to taking you out to all the places in the world that you want or need to see! We aim to facilitate your creativity, persistence, confidence, and open-mindedness – all the things that are important for identifying and following or making happen what you need for your own happiness. In other words: We hope we can support the development and maturation of your six senses so that you can use them to interact with your environment and cope with the difficulties that it confronts you with in the best possible way. We won’t choose your hobby, your job or your boyfriend! You don’t need to be super smart, highly skilled or extraordinarily pretty and popular! We just hope that you will be able to make choices that you are satisfied with and that “suit you”! At this point, you are about to enter the third phase: Aligning your choices and decisions for your physical and psychological needs to your values and beliefs. How do we as parents influence you on that? It will not be like supporting mathematical skills by doing puzzles with you, supporting creativity by doing role-playing games or handcrafting, supporting good health by sports and proper diet. We can only try hard to be good idols and mentors on that. We can be friendly and nice to everyone, propagate compassion, patience, good will and moral life conduct, then maybe you might follow our example. But the better option would be: You reflect on your life and draw your own conclusions on what is “good” and “right”! I am sure, if we provide you with life circumstances that support the full development of your physical and psychological self, then your spiritual self will develop “automatically”! The only “value” that I hope we can “give” you is “peacefulness” (which is something like “love” in my understanding). Whenever I see families falling apart in disharmony and fighting, the reason is usually a disagreement on worldviews and both sides stubbornly insisting on their own position. Children usually don’t accuse their parents of “not fulfilling their physical needs”, and also seldom complain like “Why didn’t you support my three-dimensional thinking ability when I was little?!”. They usually riot against their parents as adolescents because they feel misunderstood, not respected, not supported or – as the worst case – not loved. We certainly have our ideals and there are a few things (like committing crimes, letting your health decay or being driven away from your inner balance by the influence of outer powers (something you will regret later)) that we would have severe difficulties with, but as long as we can see that your choices and decisions make you sustainably happy and as long as you can convince yourself and us that your choices are made on the basis of your ideas and beliefs, we will support you to go ahead! You can make mistakes and change your way any time you think it is necessary, and we will still support you! The best we can do is: offer you our ears and advises whenever you need them! Talk about and clarify whatever you are not sure of! From my own experience I can tell you: a worldview or personal belief and value system is nothing constant or fixed. It is constantly challenged and undergoing refinements and changes. The more you experience the more you will reflect on the sense and nonsense of your worldviews. The more you talk about your opinions, thoughts, ideas and feelings the better you understand them and the more alternative viewpoints you will get as response so that you can get inspirations from a bigger pool of ideas. This is what we can do for you: Take our family as a never-fading “nest of peace” and source of inspiration and ideas. We invite you to share your inside with us, same as we share ours with you. What you take from it is secondary. I am far from expecting you to be like me or your Mom! You will be “better”! Then I have no doubt that you will find a spirit that can enable a life full of harmony, love and self-fulfillment!

Dear Little Tsolmo

Dear little Tsolmo,

I can feel you in your Mom’s belly. Soon you’ll be out to explore this world and find your place in it. What a pure and clean mind you will start with! And then come all these patterns, habits, formations, constructions and rules that shape and confine your mind. “To make you fit into this world!”, they will say. “To make you a full member of our society!”, they will say. But after years of education, indoctrination, socialisation and adaptation, you will find the first cracks in the picture. You will ask the questions that everyone who is not completely dull or dumb asks: Who am I? What is this world? What is this all about? If everything goes well, someday you will be able to come back to this clear mind. I am sorry to tell you this, but there is no other way! You can’t just keep that peaceful clear baby mind. As a new knot in a huge web of interconnected entities you will first be tightened and fixed to ensure the stability of the web. Later you will need to find your fine-tuned balanced position, then it is time for relaxation and harmonizing. Until then, others will tell you where your place is in this environment. To provide you with the abilities, methodologies and tools to find the best position by yourself, or as some might say, to go your own way, this is the most important task I see for myself as your father.

Someday, when you know me better, you will find out that I am a theoretical thinker in the first place, and you might understand what that implies. First, I go through possible options in my mind. Like in a chess game, I think through possible ways and what they mean for different futures. Then I choose the future that I believe suits me (and those I care about) best and try to do what is necessary to get to that future. Some practical people (like your Mom, for example) don’t understand that. They think it is a burden for me that I “think” all the time. But it is not! I feel peaceful and secure with that strategy since my experiences showed me that it often (not always) keeps me from making wrong choices and saves me from a lot of regrets and tears. Your Mom and me are such a good match because we add up our different life approaches to something greater: a visionary “here-and-now” lifestyle that identifies “the way to go” by our ideals, virtues and values, and then figures out how to do it.

You impact our life massively! And it will be awesome! To see you grow and develop, to learn from you and your ideas, and to enjoy how you enrich our life! You know, there is an important saying: “All the things you teach a child it can never learn!”. Or as the psychologists say: Whenever possible, enable a process of “explorative learning”, but don’t educate your child too much. I know myself well enough to identify a danger of “teaching” you too much. And, as a hopeless theorist, I am worried I will overwhelm you with principles, theories, philosophies, science and other “reasons” for “good life conduct”. In the first months of your life, it won’t even matter, because you won’t understand what I am saying. When you are 1, 2, 3 years old you might just be frightened, because in a world full of miracles and wonder all these “words” are just empty shells of some nonsense. Then comes a long time in which you will have other priorities: playing, elaborating skills (personally, I hope, I can motivate you to play music…), making friends, exploring your creativity, and of course standing your ground as a fully respected and appreciated person. But – if everything goes well – sooner or later you might ask those metaphysical questions that I mentioned above. Will you need and want advise? Will I be someone you would consider helpful for finding answers? Your old Daddy? I hope so, but I can’t be sure. However, just in case you like to hear what’s in my mind, I want to be prepared for telling you what I know.

What is knowledge? It is certainly not a block of data with visible confinements of which we could say “This is what we know!”. Knowledge is dynamic, a constant flow of information into and out of our awareness, a tiny part of it stored in our neuronal networks, most of it coming from our environment. Somehow “language” has to do with it, but I am still trying to figure out how. I will let you know my progress on that later. The point is: If in 15-20 years we come to talk to each other about some “life issues” I might only recall what goes around my mind at that time, or a few years before that. What I think now might be long forgotten or disproved or discarded. Now, before you are born, I have many plans, visions, ideas, expectations (on myself) and hopes. But maybe I forget all those over the years and turn out to be just like my own father. I believe it is important to let you know that nothing is static, nothing is fixed, but everything is dynamic and constantly changing. Ideas evolve and develop, improve, sophisticate. The answers I can give you in the year 2030 or beyond might sound “ultimate”, “strict”, “unshakable”. But I want to give you a chance to participate in my “stream of thoughts”, in my evolution of mind from now, shortly before your birth, until the time you are interested in it. And if you don’t want to read it, well, then I just read it again and will be astonished by how my thoughts, interests, insights and viewpoints change or remain constant. I write it for you, but also for myself. If everything goes well, I write it for us. Then it doesn’t make a difference anymore…

The place where you will be born is an Island known as Taiwan. You will be surrounded mainly by Chinese language and Taiwanese, a dialect of Chinese that can almost be regarded as another language. However, you will hear me talking German to you and English to everybody else, including your Mom. I hope that doesn’t puzzle you, but seeing other children growing up in multilingual environments gives me a high confidence that you will also take it as a chance to call more than one language your “mother tongue”. Language differences is just one aspect of the “clash of cultures” that you will experience as a member of a Taiwanese-German family. Sometimes, maybe, you will even feel it as a tension. Taiwanese and German societies are, in several ways, very different. Let me give you an example that plays a role right now: Taiwanese believe in ghosts and spirits and, connected to that, fortune. They pray and perform many rituals like burning paper (they call it “ghost money”) and incenses or placing food in front of shrines with wooden or stone statues. They follow strict rules and guidelines extracted from the moon calendar that is based on ancient Chinese philosophy (especially Daoism and its 33 universes worldview, I-Ging, Yin and Yang). There are good and bad days for a haircut, for planting cabbage, for getting married and – don’t be surprised! – for giving birth to a baby. There are twelve animals taking turn in representing a year. You are born in a “monkey year”, but very close to the New Year festival. If you were born last week you would be a “goat” or a “sheep” (apparently the same for Chinese people). It happened that your traditional Taiwanese grandparents seriously discussed the option of a C-section a few days earlier than the estimated birthday in order to make you a “goat” because your family name Chen matches better with a goat than with a monkey. Isn’t that stupid? People really believe in a connection between birthday and time and the personality, character and future of a newborn baby! Let me tell you in which way I think this idea is not only nonsense, but even highly dangerous!

Don’t get me wrong! Traditions and cultural customs have their important place in the daily life of people! They remind you of your roots and serve as the fabric for a social and cultural identity that gives people inner stability and confidence. However, there is a fine line between reasonable and “healthy” conduct of rituals (honouring ancestors, celebrating annual festivals, etc.) and superstitions that are based on tales, simplified explanations of natural phenomena or simply the result of misuse of power like in patriarchal or clerical societies. I don’t want to talk too much about religion now, that topic will come often enough, I am sure. For now, I’d just like to make the point that superstitions often go along with a kind of fatalism: “There is nothing I can do about it! The greater powers decided about it already!”. In case you get sick in the future, the Taiwanese will just say: “See! Misfortune! Pray more! Maybe she got a wrong mismatched name! Burn more incenses for her! Expel the ghosts from her room!”. When you are often misbehaving or don’t get good grades at school, they will blame your “personality” (that you are born with) and ultimately your genes. To me it sounds like an excuse. It shifts the responsibility for your well-being away from your family and towards some hypothetical supernatural ideas or towards a dogmatic “Nature” and its invisible intentions. Let me propose a more “sustainable” viewpoint that will support you and your needs much better: You are (most likely) born with a healthy and fully functioning body system. You will have all six senses and the physiognomic preconditions for all forms of emotions, motor function, cognition and interaction with the environment. Not more and not less. You “are” nothing (nothing that could be “labeled”) and at the same time everything (potentially). There is no such thing as “talent”. There is no such thing as destiny. You are born a blank page, ready to be filled and coloured. Your interaction with the environment, all the experiences that stream into you and create synaptic connections in the neuronal network of your brain, solidify what you will see as “the world”. Skills and abilities are formed and improved by “doing it” or “feeling it”, they are not “already there” from a time before your physical development from an embryo to a fetus or even before. You have all the potential, and it is our task as your parents to support them as best as possible, or – as a friend said – increase the number of options, or – as another friend, a teacher, the Buddha said – plant as many seeds as possible in you and water and nourish them so that the “right” ones grow into healthy manifestations. When we expose you to colourful geometrical figures in your surrounding you will develop better mathematical and imaginary skills. When we listen to music at home, you will get a feeling for it and learn to love it. When we read stories to you, you will get a creative mind full of fantasies and ideas. When we treat you with love and respect you as a full member of our family, you will also be able to love, trust and respect others and – more important – yourself. On the contrary, when we just hope you’ll be good in math (as in “born as someone good in math”), you will most likely fail. When we don’t play music or don’t read, you also won’t be interested in it. When I often lose temper with you and shout at you, you will also be a bad-tempered, angry, dissatisfied child that treats others with aggression. You see, the two opposing worldviews (destiny and pre-natal personality dispositions vs. life quality as the result of socialisation and response to environmental stimulation) have a direct impact on your life! I believe, we (your parents) have to give our best every day to give you all the chances to develop into a happy, peaceful, content human being! To give you roots and wings (to leave the nest someday without ever forgetting how to find it when you need it)! If you don’t acquire the tools to make yourself happy and content and to go “your way”, we can’t blame any gods, ghosts or “destiny”, but only ourselves and other disadvantageous factors in your environment (maybe school teachers, friends, etc.). Your way, like everybody else’s way, will be stony and not always smooth. But the more we understand that it is in our hands to deal with obstacles and difficulties, the more sustainable will be our approaches to reach our goals. A smart man once wrote: “I am the captain of my fate!”. In the vast ocean of life that is awaiting you, your Mom and me will build, repair, improve and maintain your ship that you are Captain of as best as we can! And it will be such a pleasure to see what way you choose and who you turn yourself into. Nothing is determined! Don’t be scared! You are not alone!