Four Levels of Truth

When reading Buddhist scriptures, especially those sutras that directly cite the historical Gautama Buddha, it can be confusing that there are often obvious contradictions and statements that downright oppose each other. Besides a few obvious mistakes that were made by ancient translators and later scholars, the majority of those result from Buddha’s conviction that it is necessary to adapt the teaching to the recipients’ capability of understanding. In this sense, a doctrine is true as long as it is appropriate to serve as a suitable means to the noble end of guiding people towards the right or the good (understanding, action, behaviour, insight, etc.). This argument was promoted in the most sophisticated manner in the later Chinese Buddhist school known as Tiantai (天台). The founder of this school, Zhi-Yi (智顗), divides all Buddhist treatises and sutras into four kinds (his famous “Fourfold Teachings”, 四教):

  • The Tripitaka Teachings (藏教): The Theravada teaching that renounces the experiential world, meant for people who have little intelligence and low ambition. Its truth is that the world is empty in the sense of being illusions. The path to Nirvana is the renunciation of the world of suffering.
  • The Common Teaching (通教): Shared by both Theravada and Mahayana schools, this teaching for people who can understand the truth of emptiness and recognise that dharmas have no real self-subsisting nature is still about emptiness, but with the notion that it means nothing other than dependent co-arising. It doesn’t necessarily advocate exiting the mundane world to reach Nirvana.
  • The Special Teaching (別教): A Mahayana teaching for people with compassion for other sentient beings. It preaches the Bodhisattva goal of attainment, based on the understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Middle Way (often referred to as the ultimate truth).
  • The Perfect Teaching (圓教): The teaching of the ultimate reality which is the Middle Way itself. It identifies Nirvana with the phenomenal world: One does not need to leave the phenomenal world to enter Nirvana. Under this teaching – in contrast to the Special Teaching – afflictions and attachments are not necessarily bad. One can gain enlightenment even in the midst of afflictions. One only needs to attain perfect wisdom with all that it entails (inner harmony, loving-kindness, pure awareness of dharmas, etc.).

I guess we can summarise it like this: The first approach is based on experiences and teaches rules on how to deal with those experiences. The second grounds on factual knowledge and teaches strategies on what to do with that knowledge. The third focuses on values and teaches virtues that preserve and cultivate those values. The fourth refers to wisdom and teaches how to attain a mindset in which perfect wisdom can flourish.

Obviously, there is a form of hierarchy in this list concerning the mental capacity of sentient beings. I don’t want to limit it to humans, since we can include animals in our reflections, as we will see. First, I think it is possible to link the teaching approaches to the different phases of development within the lifespan of one person. Second, we may group different members of society according to which kind of teaching they are best confronted with. In the first sense, I think of my ways of dealing with you (Tsolmo) as a father through the years:

Now, while you are little and without much knowledge, I will tell you rules and orders, like “Don’t touch the fire!” or “Don’t stick nails into the power sockets!”. It would be useless to explain to you that fire is the exothermic reaction of oxygen with anything organic (including your skin and the tissue underneath) and that the feeling of pain is a signal transduction of your nerve cells that triggers certain brain activities, manifesting in your consciousness as an unpleasant feeling, or that electricity is the result of a charge gradient along a conducive material like metal wires or your body (in which it causes pain, see above)… Your world at this stage is that of experience, so I guide you in your way of making experiences, keeping more serious dangers away from you.

Then you will acquire more and more knowledge about the mechanisms of this world, and simple rules and orders will not satisfy your insatiable curiosity about the Hows and Whys. You will learn a lot at school, but also at home. THIS is what happens when you expose your body to heat. THIS is what happens in a flow of charges. And THAT’s WHY you shouldn’t touch it. In this phase, however, you will sometimes learn “wrong” things in the sense of oversimplifications and half-truths. In primary school you might learn that electricity is a “flow of electrons”, but when you study physics or chemistry at university you will find out that it is not entirely “correct” to put it that way. The knowledge in this stage will help you to acquire technical skills: You will know how to switch on the gas stove and how to plug devices into the power sockets. However, you might need supervision, because you might underestimate the risks and expose yourself (and others, eventually) to dangers.

The next stage is the alignment of your choices and decisions with values and preferences: You need orientational knowledge to answer questions like “Why would I want this or that?” and “Why ought I to do this or that or maybe better not?” and “What kind of knowledge shall I look for in order to aid my decision-making?“. With this capacity you will also be able to relate your own interests to those of others and to mediate empathically in case of conflicts and dilemmas. Factual knowledge of the world won’t help in these cases, but only normative-ethical knowledge and prescriptive and evaluative modes of thinking (with subsequent action). Here you become a responsible person, so that I can stop being concerned about the risk of fire and electricity, because you will know how to deal with it properly. There is no more need to keep you away from the gas stove, because you will be skilled AND mindful enough to use it for your benefit without being in danger of its potential harms. You will be able to evaluate the outcome of your decisions, balance risks and benefits and even include the people around you in your reflections. I can trust you!

Finally, you might reach a level of wisdom. Here, it is not anymore about fire and electricity and their risks, but about the question “Why would I use gas stoves or electronic devices at all? Isn’t there an alternative?”. You let fire be fire, electricity be electricity and yourself be… well… what?… YOU. The point is not a nihilistic “Nothing really matters.”, but a visionary and clear-minded “This is how things are, and I see it!”. You see the larger picture of mundane and phenomenal conditionality and karmic interrelations. You will have inner peace and strength, resulting in a balanced mind. Yes, you will still burn yourself accidentally or make the fuse blow by improper handling of an electric device. But flawless perfection of worldly matters is not a goal anymore! The goal is: Seeing things as they are and approaching them with an unshakable clarity and momentariness. I have nothing to tell you in that stage.

The second way to interpret the Fourfold Teachings, as I mentioned, is a societal classification of mental capability. First, there are those who are ignorant. I say that without any judgment or offense. However, we need to separate two kinds of ignorant minds: Those who can’t be claimed to know it better, and those who can. Among the first are animals, small children, mentally disabled, comatose or in any other way unconscious or mindless patients, and those who have no access to proper education or even a “normal” way of life (for example, children that grow up in war zones). We simply wouldn’t expect children, dogs, people with down syndrome or Alzheimer patients to always know what is the right thing to do, so we decide for them in a paternalistic way (restrict them from access to certain things and areas, put them on a chain (I mean, the dogs!), or give them clear rules that are for the best of them). Among the second are people with a lack of intellect and with a high degree of narrow-mindedness. Now, the opinions might deviate strongly on who that typically is. My image of “common people” is rather bad, so I would put many (MANY) people into this group. Most of all, there are all the scumbags like racists, fascists, supremacists, haters, priggish and egocentric fools, but also many religious people (used to follow doctrines and dogmatic orders rather than questioning anything), mindless consumers (of all kinds of things), people with high susceptibility to addictions, emotionally incompetent people (bad-tempered, labile, or inappropriately overconfident). They all have one thing in common: They don’t know (or: are not aware of) something important (either worldly facts, or emotional self-management, or how to control themselves). It would take great effort to teach them knowledge (especially when they are adults), not to mention values or wisdom. Their picture (as in “the larger picture”) is so small that the only things that can keep them on track towards a more or less meaningful and fulfilled life are clear rules and guidelines. These are provided in the form of laws by the legal system these people live in, in the form of cultural, traditional and religious value- and belief-systems and their established ways of social sanctioning, or in the form of institutions and clubs with shallow messages and philosophies (like churches, gyms, meditation circles, WeightWatchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.). Again: There is nothing to blame, here! The only question is: What kind of approach is of any help or benefit for the people?

Then there are people who choose the way of (factual) knowledge as the best path towards a good life (whatever that means). Today, the access to such knowledge is better than ever! You don’t need to go to the library and spend hours there, anymore, but can look for and get all the knowledge you want almost everywhere with your mobile communication device. Most people know that it is not a punishment by a god when the room is suddenly in darkness, but a broken light bulb or a blown fuse – and they know how to fix it by themselves! They also know that racism has no scientific foundation, that addiction arises from certain psychological mechanism, that emotions can be managed, and that consumption of mass-produced goods (including cosmetics, smartphones, meat, and TV program) most likely has unethical implications like environmental destruction or mental decay. This knowledge increases the quality of your decision-making (but not necessarily that of each and every of your decisions!). So, what helps you to increase your quality of life? More knowledge!

Also this approach has its limits. As pointed out in other letters, factual and procedural knowledge about the world is not able to tell us what to do. This requires orientational knowledge: values, norms, goods. When realising that, your life is good when you are convinced that you made the right choice, in contrast to a correct choice as in the former strategy. Your decisions should, in this sense, be informed by possible consequences of them for you and for others. You see how orientational knowledge adds up to factual knowledge: In order to foresee consequences and implications of certain decisions and actions you will need particular factual knowledge (for example, of physics, of social mechanisms, of psychological interrelations, of values in a descriptive sense), so that you know what you need to apply your normative evaluations to. People that belong to this group – those who reflect on the question “How do I know what something is good for?” before making a decision – tend to be more altruistic, but also more hesitant and sometimes insecure, because it is always possible to make the wrong choice (which is a bad choice).

This problem is none among the very few people (if any at all) in the fourth group: Those with the farsighted wisdom similar to that of Gautama Buddha (possibly). I certainly don’t claim to be one of them! Therefore, I am actually not able to write anything here, because I (probably) didn’t really get what it means. However, let me try to explain my understanding of it: A wise person understands that it is pointless (because impossible) and unnecessary (because overambitious) to try to live a perfect and flawless life. We will never be capable of foreseeing all karmic effects of our actions, neither the physical ones (as if we were able to predict the exact position of every billiard ball on a table after knowing all the data of how the queue hits the white one) nor the personal ones (one’s position in the society, friend networks, impact of one’s actions and words on others and their subsequent actions and words, etc.). Trying to optimise our decision-making in terms of these factors has an obvious cognitive limit. Wisdom doesn’t mean to always do the right thing, but to figure out what is the best choice among given options in this moment (the moment of choosing). An important precondition for this state of mind is a complete freedom from attachments (including self-attachment) and mindless craving. A selfish choice, then, is per se not a wise choice. Pure wisdom concerning the ultimate reality leaves the self-perspective entirely and sees the world as a conditional network of karma that seeks harmonious equilibrium. Good, then, is what supports this larger scale harmony, which might often not be the direct personal benefit. There is no wrong or bad decision in this stage, because you will understand that the world is a dynamic momentary manifestation of karmic conditions and that your only choice is to take this moment to make a decision. If that is good or bad, right or wrong – who will ever know? However, a high degree of mindfulness and awareness of this moment will increase the chance that your decision will have more sustainable long-term effects on the quality of your life. All the rest (desires, interests, concerns, worries, fears, confidence, (in)security, etc.): Let it go!

This table summarises the reflections on the four levels of teaching (entirely debatable!):

Teaching Knowledge type Lifespan stage Societal group
Rules Experience Child Ignorant
Strategies/Skills Factual Teen/Adolescent Educated
Virtues Orientational/
Adult Mindful
Clear Mind Vision/Wisdom Senior Wise/Enlightened

Once more, it (hopefully) became obvious why I don’t like the term truth. Certainly, there is no absolute truth. Statements can only be true in a defined set of conditions under which communicators can agree that its content resembles a certain form of truth, for example a semantic truth, a linguistic truth, a logic truth, a historical truth, etc. Here, in this letter, I wanted to show that the notion of truth necessarily needs a pragmatic component: Truth as expedient means to an end needs to be viable in a given context, enabling people with different capacities and intelligences to gain true enlightenment (at least an insight on how to live their lives well). It is not what a statement says, but what it does (that is, what it accomplishes), that makes the statement true.


Nutshell Buddhism

There is a difference between “the actual world” and our idea of the world in our minds. Despite the scientific realists’ claim that scientific knowledge resembles real (natural) entities, many philosophers of different epochs and cultural realms concluded that we can’t be that certain of what we believe is the “reality”. This ranges from Daoists (the Dao stands for the ultimate reality that is in contrast to the human world that is perceived, explained and communicated by names (language)), to Indian (Hindu) worldview with two truths (ultimate reality and phenomenal (common sense) reality), to Kantian metaphysics (things-as-they-are (Dinge-an-sich) and forms-of-view (Anschauungsformen)), to constructive realism a la Friedrich Wallner (actuality vs. lifeworlds and microworlds). Nobody, however, expressed this difference more aptly than Gautama-Buddha, mounting in the First Noble Truth (“Life is suffering“). I understand suffering (dukha) in the Buddhist sense as the deviation between our idea of the world as the result of our deluded minds and the world as it really is. This is what he means with ignorance. Let me elaborate a little further on that.

In my tree of knowledge, I depicted our mental and cognitive features (and all they entail) including the experiences we make through them as the roots, the process of sense-making and meaning-construction as the channels in the trunk of the tree, and the manifestations of our worldviews, beliefs and values as the branches. This can be a powerful illustration to explain the essence of Buddhist worldview. The core of Buddhist philosophy is the scheme of the “12 links of interdependent co-arising“. Basically, it teaches that due to our ignorance we believe in the permanence of isolated separated entities, including ourselves (or: our self). We believe that “what we see is really there” (which, from an evolutionary perspective, is probably helpful for survival), which arouses our desires in a way that we judge what is “good” or “bad” for us so that we seek for some things (attachment) and avoid others (resistance). The desirability and non-desirability of things, however, is an illusion. It is formed by the framework of our past experiences and our vision of the future (driven by the fear of death). Buddha, here, elaborates on the roots (in my picture): He claims that the roots are grown in a rigid and inflexible way. We rely on perception tools that are limited (six senses, each limited to certain ranges of physical properties such as wavelengths (seeing), frequencies (hearing), molecular concentration (tasting and smelling), etc.). We are aware only of what fits our experiential margin. Emotions and desires are shaped by forces that are beyond our control. Therefore, relying on our roots is the first factor of suffering.

Then, he explains what the flaws are with our choices of channels for meaning-construction. We are driven by concepts and intellectual reasoning, external forces like dogmas and paradigms, or psychological punishment- and reward-systems. Same as the roots, they are all deluded by the illusory conviction that our mental reality is identical with the actual reality. Society with all its institutions (science, politics, economy, organised religion, etc.), culture (with its modes of identification in separation from other cultures), and also individual personality (as the branches of the tree) are all built on this level of reality. Things are, however, different. There is nothing permanent and separated. Everything is connected in a complex net of conditionality, non-deterministic, non-teleological, non-reductive, non-dualistic, and therefore: empty. Shunyata (“emptiness“), as understood by Nagarjuna and later the Chinese Mahayana schools Huayan, Tiantai and Chan, is the fundamental metaphysics of the world. This is the ultimate reality. The worldly features that we create on the basis of our deluded “roots” deviate from this underlying ultimate reality to certain extents. The bigger that deviation the stronger our suffering.

Now, there are two ways to overcome this suffering. One works on the roots. We may plant seeds for the roots to grow in different ways. To use the metaphor of a famous movie: This means to “exit the matrix” of the mindlessly grown roots and actively form new sources for experiences and cognitive access to reality. The other way – but most often both ways have to be applied together – is a change of meaning-construction, or in terms of the picture: choose a different channel through the trunk. This is meditative contemplation and mindful awareness. In order to get closer to the ultimate reality, we need to let go of concepts, deluded rationality, mindless following of doctrines and rules (acquired through education and socialisation), and especially the illusion of an independent self that dominates our psyche. Only then will we be able to see through the complex network of cause-effect-relations (karma) and set ourselves free in (not from) its matrix. The Diamond sutra may help to understand the important point here: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.“. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is a rhetoric tool to describe the indescribable. Form (the things we perceive as independent objects or substance on the level of (deluded) common-sense reality) is actually empty (not outside the karmic cause-effect-conditionality), while it is exactly this metaphysical conditionality that brings about all which we interpret as form. This ontological understanding, with ourselves interwoven into the ever-changing web of the world fabric, will change our approach to life fundamentally! While the more traditional Indian Buddhists (Theravada schools) would probably state that there will be no more branches since enlightenment (that ontological break-through) leads to the other-worldly nirvana, I share the Mahayana view (esp. Tiantai) that enlightenment and nirvana are this-worldly phenomena from which we benefit within our lifetime. With an enlightened mind, our roots, the trunk and the branches all transform. We see our personality traits, emotions, fears, desires, and worldviews in the context of our past, our local surrounding (society, culture) and our cognitive capacities. We see how our past experiences form layers around our very core personality, the Buddha-Nature. In the next step, we disconnect the causal chains that control our decisions and choices. We see how sense and meaning are constructed in our mental processes and gain the ability to step back from it, question the strategies, apply different ones and get less dependent on the pre-shaped ones. Many branches, then, lose their significance and shrink. We see how others construct meaning and why they act like this or that within the thematic margins of certain branches, and we gain the empathic skills of compassion and loving-kindness.


by Alex Grey


Many of the decisions we make in our daily lives are – in one way or another – affecting other people, sometimes those around us, sometimes the whole society or mankind, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. In this respect, many of our decisions have an ethical dimension, because what we judge to be good or right might be evaluated and viewed differently by others. The decision to skip brushing teeth before going to bed, or our choice of TV channel, appear to be non-ethical issues, but even for these cases we can construct examples in which they are, actually, morally relevant – for example, when I as your parent am responsible for your hygiene habits and should act as a positive idol not going to bed without brushing teeth, or when I stupify myself with dumb TV shows and become a burden for society. One very obviously ethical element of our daily lives is the consumption of industrial goods, because it clearly affects the environment, workers, the economy, the society at large, and also ourselves. However, it happens often that we are not aware of the ethical pitfalls connected to consuming a certain product or product category because the processes related to it are hidden. Not only since Kant do we know that ought implies can. We can claim morally sound choices only from those who know what implications consumption has. Therefore, I tell you here and now what’s wrong with cosmetics so that you can never claim you “didn’t know“!

You are a girl. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, you will be exposed to stereotyping and gender roles, even if we leave Taiwan and move to Germany. Your Mom doesn’t use make-up or perfumes and only a very small set of cosmetics, but when you go to Kindergarten, to school or simply watch (and smell) people in public, you will find that many women paint their faces and smell like botanical gardens. That is their choice, even though many of them will refer to social pressure, like in Japan, where women can lose their jobs if they appear at their workplace without make-up. Some believe that women with make-up look “prettier”, which is clearly a brainwashing indoctrination from mass media and glossy magazines. But is it really just a personal choice and as such non-ethical?


Testing cosmetics on rabbit skin.

I see two problems with cosmetics. The first is the common practice to test each and every new ingredient and composition of a new cosmetic product on the skin of a test animal. The large variety of crèmes, powders, lotions, etc. that you find in the shops is grounded on millions of laboratory animals that are sacrificed for the flawlessness of your skin and the promise of eternal beauty. The second, from my point of view much more dramatic problem is this: One of the main ingredients in almost all cosmetics is palm oil. This is harvested from palm plantations in tropical countries, making it one of their major export products. I have visited the jungle in Malaysia and was shocked to see that huge areas are gone and substituted by oil palms as far as the eye can see. The native eco-system is gone forever. In Indonesia, jungle is burned down illegally to make space for more oil palm plantations, causing horrible air pollution in a huge area and destroying the habitat of apes and other threatened animals that will go extinct. Millions of women in mostly rich countries far away from the palm oil producing countries have a demand that creates a market which influences the strategies and decisions of profit-oriented companies and their business practices. In this environment of greed and (among the local farmers) existential fears, the eco-system and its vulnerable elements (jungle, apes, atmosphere) have no lobby.


Homeless Orang Utan

A common strategy in ethical reasoning for justification is the comparison of means and ends. Here, sacrificing laboratory animals and destroying the eco-system are means that serve the end of hygiene, skin care and appearing prettier. I will not go deeper into describing what is the problem with these means. The question is: are they justified by the ends? Hygiene is very closely linked to health. Modern hygiene standards are certainly the major reason for our high quality of life and long life expectancy. However, it is clear that the vast majority of cosmetics is not necessary for the establishment of good health (as, for example, the choice of a certain lifestyle with healthy food, sufficient movement, abstinence from drugs, etc. is). The main reasons for the decision to apply cosmetic products are convenience, ignorance and fear. Putting a crème on in order to deal with itchy skin is much easier than moving into a healthier environment (e.g. out of the polluted city into a cleaner green area) or changing the diet (eliminating all the unhealthy food). Ignorance is a broader case. It refers to a high susceptibility for cosmetics consumption due to the low level of knowledge about its implications, but also the unawareness for the social mechanisms that trigger the choice to buy and apply those products. This brings me to the aspect of fear: I believe, the main reason for women to use cosmetics (esp. make-up) is their attachment to superficial prettiness (not even beauty!), to the promise of eternal youth and their search for admiration and appreciation through outer appearance – formed, supported and sustained by role identifications, assumed expectations (by superficial men), mass media, and social environment (I read in a German article that “women want women to look pretty by wearing make-up. Most men don’t care or don’t like too much make-up.”). This makes it a perfect example for Buddha’s teaching of the “three mind poisons” (ignorance, attachment, resistance) as the source of suffering. Attachment to superficial characteristics (prettiness), resistance against the unavoidable (aging), ignorance of these decision factors and their implications. Moreover, it is even highly debatable whether this proclaimed beauty ideal (“bigger eyes” through eye make-up, whiter skin through powder, red lips with lipsticks, etc.) is justified by anything! The ethical problem with this form of suffering is that the price for this distorted mindset is the massive destruction of natural habitats, the extinction of species and a fatal disruption of the eco-system. it might sound harsh, but I want you to remember that whenever you smear anything with palm oil into your face just to wash it off again a few hours later, soothing your irritated skin with another crème containing… yeah… palm oil!

World Construction

The core question of philosophical reflection is “What is this world?”, or “What is being?”. Different epochs, eras and at different geographical places, people and their cultural realms found different answers on these questions. In case the historical answers are known, in retrospective, we can analyse them and – in view of later, more modern insights – find a certain course of development or sophistication in world explanations. We might also recognise that the “evolution” of insights is in good analogy to the process of knowledge acquisition for an individual from childhood to adult age.

By using our cognitive tools we perceive the world we are living in. The most naïve view is that of a real world that presents itself to us. Our task, then, is to “discover” as many facets of it as possible in order to increase the chances of a “successful” and fulfilled life in this world.


This was the idea of the Ancient Greek philosophers, starting from Heraklit and Parmenides up to Sokrates, Platon and Aristoteles. It was all about “the world”. Its features and properties (its “truth”) can be recognised by us so that we – by careful watching and philosophical reflection – get the most realistic image of it. Only then we can fulfil our most “human” task of overcoming our natural boundaries and get closer to the divine, closer to perfection. This is the basic idea: The specifically “human” element in us is the ability to go beyond ourselves, to exit the inevitable and be free. With an accurate picture of the real world that surrounds us in mind, this movement towards the divine is facilitated significantly!

There are two dangers in this idea, and both are deeply entrenched in the further course of European-Western philosophy. The first is the dualistic division into “outside” and “inside”, into “outer world” and “inner me”, finding its climax in the reflections of René Descartes (17th century). The consequences are tremendous! It took ages and the influence of East-Asian philosophy to correct this flawed idea. The second is the realist scientific worldview with its idea of “discovering” knowledge about real features of the world. Even though this realism has been replaced by constructivism in recent decades, many scientists, engineers, researchers, but also most scientific laymen are still convinced that the knowledge we can acquire by scientific investigation describes a somehow manifested actuality.

Immanuel Kant is the most prominent philosopher who modified this image of world perception. His basic idea was that we can only get aware of those features of the world that we have a pre-formed image of, that means that somehow match with our previously made experiences. He distinguished “things-as-such” (the features of the real world) from the things as they appear in our mind.


As a consequence, we can never know for sure what the actual world is. It remains obscured. The world that is represented in our mind is fed by an image of the world, and at the same time it feeds this image (for example by making new experiences that requires a modification of the image). In this view, “world” is all about the subject (or: the observer). Some even went so far to say that “world” only exists in the mind.

With this understanding of human possibilities to know anything about the world, dualism and realism are not overcome, yet. The apparent monism that “world is only idea (in the mind)” (we call that idealism) is a hidden dualism because it only emerges in view of its counterpart “materialism” that states that “world is only matter”. Moreover, it is still the somehow given (real) world with its “things-as-such” that impacts the human perception. This direction was reversed by phenomenology, most prominently pushed forward by Edmund Husserl and later Martin Heidegger. The subject can’t be taken as a passive observer and constructor of the world. The cognitive process of observation itself gets into the focus.


An act of perception, in this view, is not a mere “streaming-in” of stimuli, but an active “looking-out” (figuratively! it covers all senses, not just the visual!) into the world. By nature, this is a highly selective process. Insights from biology, physics, psychology, anatomy, and other scientific disciplines that tell us about the human condition deliver a better understanding of how we construct “world” by making experiences. The crucial point is the human cognition, the “lens” that we are unable to take off. It confines the cut of the world that we are able to pay attention to, and it also colours and shapes the incoming signals. One of the most impressive experiments that was conducted to show our selective perception was this: People were asked to watch the video of a volleyball match and count how often the ball was passed between players all dressed in white. A man in a black gorilla costume appeared in the center of the scene during the match, beating his chest and making silly movements. The big majority of watchers didn’t see him, even though he was clearly visible among the white dressed players. Now, we can say that it was “unfair”, because the people were asked to concentrate on the ball, they can’t be blamed. But isn’t “life” exactly like that? We are always so busy focusing on certain clear cut aspects of life, occupying our full attention, that occurrences beyond this don’t find a way through to our awareness. Nobody can be “blamed” for that, however, since this is simply a neutral observation.

Phenomenology stresses the importance of “experience”. Every experience (drawn from every act of cognition) involves the entire set of experiences made in the past. An experience is the manifestation of all experiences. A simple example: When seeing only the front of a house, we “know” that this is a three-dimensional building because we know the concept “house” from former experiences. In every perception of a part of the world, we are aware of the entire world, because only in this relation the experience makes sense. This sense-making is the basis of all experience. Not only do we align all experiences with our worldview (constructed from previous experiences), we also can only experience what fits into our margin of “sensefulness”. That’s why we don’t see the gorilla during the volleyball match, because a gorilla has no place in the world “volleyball”. The house front is automatically “completed” in our mind to an entire house. When walking around it we might find that it deviates from our imagination, for example the exact size, shape, etc., but these are just details. In the same way, we almost always succeed in identifying an item as a “table”, even when it is a very unusual modern art design, because its entire embedment into our world (including its functionality) is constantly present. Sometimes our imagination is fooled, misled, surprised or puzzled. When we walk around the house front and find that it is only the decoration of a movie set, for example. Then we either have to re-align the constructed reality (here: from the world “house as living space” to the world “movie making”), or we have to construct new meaning from the new experience.

How can we be sure that the way we construct meaning from experience is in any way supported by real features of the surrounding world, and by that somehow “justified”? How do I know that what I “see” is the same thing as that what you “see”? There could be a simple answer: by talking about it!


Both our world constructions don’t represent the actual world sufficiently, but if we integrate our two – almost necessarily deviating – images into one, we might get closer to what may count as “real”. This “discourse approach” to world conceptualisation was promoted in the later 20th century by Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, Niklas Luhmann and others. Mankind is a species that constitutes its environment through communication and collaboration. World construction is, therefore, always a process from the “inter”-space: inter-personal, inter-relational, inter-cultural. My world becomes my world by setting it into relation to yours. My experience is only valid (or not) in view of your experiences (and all others). In case there are insurmountable differences, we need to engage in a conversation (or a discourse) in order to create new clarity.

However, communication is not a trivial thing. Its most important tool is language. This includes our spoken language using words, but also numerical systems (mathematics) and symbolism, non-verbal interaction, body language, etc. Language itself is conditioned and constituted by experience, which means that we only have linguistic expressions for what is already part of our experience (made by any of our ancestors). Translatability of “thoughts” and other cognitive impressions is a difficult endeavour, not only between the different languages of different countries or cultures, but even on the very basic level of interpersonal conversation. Therefore, philosophy spends a great big deal on clarifying and defining words and terms. When all that is done it is still not guaranteed that one really understands the other, because experience is not fully transferable. With sufficient exchange of information I might be able to anticipate your experience, but since my framework of experiences and their connection is different from yours, I will never be able to see the same thing in the same light. Actually, “world” can be defined as exactly this “framework of connected experiences”. Then, it makes sense to talk about “worlds” rather than “the world”, because what is “world” for you is more or less different from what is “world” for me. Identifying and getting aware of the overlapping parts of our world is as interesting and inspiring as the deviations.

These reflections, obviously, are inspired by European-Western philosophy. Much of this can be found in East-Asian philosophy as well. Especially Buddha’s teachings and their early philosophical analysis, for example by Nagarjuna, give insights into their idea of “world”. To my understanding, they have never been as naïve as the Ancient Greek. They didn’t split the world into outside and inside, they didn’t conclude this childish realism, and they were well aware of the human condition (i.e. human cognitive mechanisms) that underlie the world construction processes in our minds. This knowledge, ever since, could be exploited for actual down-to-earth mental liberation and enlightenment attempts. “Freeing the mind” from the “default setting” became the main endeavour of Buddhist practice. In contrast to the Greek idea, THIS is the main human challenge. In my illustrations that would be like removing or “clearing” the lens through which we see and interpret everything.


That would mean that we try to be less dependent on the patterns that we formed through our experiences but see things “as they are”. I’d like to add that it would also mean that for the large part of our surrounding (I avoid the term “world”, here) that is beyond our conscious capacity, we simply accept that we “know nothing”. This awareness makes a crucial difference! We will not be tempted to rely on our illusion of “knowing” but see through the flaws of our deluded minds and question everything. We could express it as “having no world in mind” or “having a no-world in mind”. Inter-personal or even inter-cultural communication about “worlds” is brought onto a completely new level by this understanding. Not only are we more open-minded towards others’ ideas and experiences, we are also less likely to fight for our own views and against the others’ views, because we understand that after all everything is “empty” of actual “substance” or “independent reality”. Then it also becomes entirely irrelevant to talk about “truth”. Much more important than truth is the viability of an experience and its subsequent subjection into meaning construction. The things “as they are” (which is not the same as Kant’s “things-as-such”), experienced directly and purely, span up the framework in which we live our lives and make our choices and decisions. Making this margin as wide and flexible as possible and ourselves as less conditioned and controlled as possible is the core practice of Buddhism. If we succeed in that, we see through the cycle of the 12 links of interdependent co-arising, we become aware of the three mind poisons, of our attachments and desires, of the dominance of our self concept, and of the Matrix that we live in. Then we can exit it.

Thoughts on Love

Love is one of the most ubiquitous and steadily present aspects of life. Since mankind is able to think, talk and write, people reflect on this topic. Art (poetry, music, painting, etc.), philosophy, psychology and many more “institutions” try to capture and describe what kind of phenomenon love is – an approach that is condemned to fail, from my point of view. Love is a too great “thing” to be fully and sufficiently analysed using words. Probably the attempt that gets the closest to reality is poetry with its sophisticated methods to trigger emotions and create atmospheres, because love is most of all exactly that: an emotion, a “mood”, an atmosphere that cannot be grabbed or held. However, certainly love has a down-to-earth daily life dimension when it comes to human relationships (no matter if coupleships, family love, friendships to a certain extent, etc.). Conducting a partnership succeeds or fails with the viewpoints of the loving person about what love is, no matter if consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, I would like to try to describe my ideas on love from a philosophical point of view with little impacts of psychology and a huge impact of my own real-life-experiences. As sources of inspiration I can name Erich Fromm’s famous books “The Art of loving” and “To have and to be”, Stendhal’s “On love” (“De l’amour”) with its model of crystallisation in a 6-stage process, and the whole Buddhist philosophy with its consequences and ideas on daily life conduct.

Recall: All is one. Everything is connected. Nothing is permanent. And: the basic law of all existence is that of cause and effect: every incident causes a reaction that keeps reality in its equilibrium, which also implies that nothing is eternally constant but everything is undergoing change. As stated elsewhere I believe that this equilibrium itself, the constant heading for harmony on all levels of existence (material, spiritual, etc.) can be called “love”. This meets the Buddhist idea of “love as the basic principle of all being in the world”. This includes love relationships between people, of course. But how does this monistic, holistic, naturalistic worldview reveal any useful idea of what love is (or might be)? It needs a few more “general” elements of life conduct to bridge the abstract philosophy and the daily life behaviour (for example as a partner in a coupleship). First of all, the most obvious (and my favourite) conclusion from this understanding of the world is the “here-and-now” approach. Life always takes place here and now. We only have this moment. Time is just a concept, place is always relative. We (an assembly of sophisticated molecules that are arranged in a way that we have abilities to act and to think, opening the “mental sphere” that constructs meaning from experience) are a tiny element in the world fabric, having our place in it. Too often we take ourselves too important in it, separate ourselves from the rest and fall victim of illusions by the three “poisons of the mind”, ignorance, attachment and resistance. If, idealistically, we succeed in living constantly in the here-and-now, it had a deep impact on our understanding of love and our relationships, as I will explain in detail soon.

It seems to me at this place it requires a very non-romantic but scientific section: Why do we feel love from a biological point of view? The answer is no surprise: it is the outcome of evolutionary pressure. Everything that supports the survival of a species has an advantage compared to those individuals within that species that don’t have that feature. Simply said: when a female and a male individual of a species have a baby (a “next generation”) and they take care of it together in cooperation, the baby has a higher chance to survive, learn, make its living and later have its own baby (a “next next generation”) compared to a baby that is born by a couple that does not take sufficient care. Therefore, any kind of phenomenon that makes the parents stick together after generating a new generation is supported (given to the following generation, spreading, displacing those who do not have this property). For some species such an aspect might be the visual attraction, or a smell, or any other trigger of a cognitive sense (for example the elephant bull sticking to his cow because of her wonderfully curved body…). Since even the early mankind had a wide set of emotions, establishing a mechanism on this level was obviously very powerful: man and woman sticking together because they feel that they want to. Very smart of Nature! (I hope you know that I say this for fun and with my worldview can NEVER say something like this seriously! An entity like Nature can never have a property like “smartness”! However, in human language we might be allowed to call evolutionary processes “smart”…) What do we learn from it? Most people have the “instinct” that it is “good” to be faithful, to make a relationship last long (or even forever), or to have only one partner, and that it is “bad” to leave a mother with her child alone, to cheat or to “play” with a partner. We feel excited when we are “falling in love”, and comfortable and secure in a stable and long-lasting relationship, taking it as an ideal. I don’t know anybody who doubts these ideals. Everybody needs and wants love. Yet, the reality looks different: couples break up often, even married couples get divorced, partners fight and hurt each other, have “love affairs”, betray, or suffer from boredom after a while. Therefore, the main question is not “Is there endless or perfect love?” but “How do we succeed in establishing endless perfect love?”. We can take for granted that there is love since it is something we want. The much more important reflection is on what we have to do (or what kind of idea we should have) to have a “successful” (= long-lasting, harmonic, joyful) relationship.


Let me make a bold statement: Most people love conditionally. Especially in modern times (since about 50-60 years) we treat love as something we “have” or not, as something that gives me some kind of profit or not (benefits, joy, sex,…), as a “thing”. We weigh benefits and disadvantages, we evaluate potential partners and change the partner when we believe we found a better one. The viewpoint that love is “giving and taking” is put into an economic framework that is drawing up the balance sheet and taking this as the measure for the quality of the relationship and not the act of giving and taking itself. In a society that is more and more used to fill up every day with pleasure and fun, that shows severe hedonistic symptoms, love must serve a purpose: the quick and easy fulfilment of the endless seek for pleasure. In a money-oriented world it even seems to be possible to “buy” love or (even though not necessarily with money) can be induced by certain ways (for example online dating or match-making institutes). I believe that the reason for a dramatically increasing divorce rate, for so many frustrated people who lost the belief in “true love”, for so much sadness about failed relationships, can be found in exactly these approaches of love. To me it is obvious that people “suffer” from their attachments, sticking to pleasure, excitement and a too huge self. And exactly here I see the chance to intervene: When we know about our suffering and accept it, we can apply methods to overcome it. No matter how it is achieved, the ultimate goal should be to sharpen the awareness for those situations and moments in which we fall victim of illusions, to identify and resolve “dualisms” that separate the whole world into single independent entities (like “here is me, there is you, there is love, there is the problem”), and to practice a lifestyle that is “in this moment”, here and now, at all moments. How can it help to reach the goal of a “successful partnership”? It might be helpful to do a very simple little experiment: sit back and reflect on what must be given right in this moment to ensure that you are still alive in the next moment? Besides some basic safety issues (there is no natural catastrophe, no nuclear war, and the house you sit in doesn’t collapse) and given the case you are more or less healthy (and not dependent on machines that keep you alive) I guess you find only one thing: you have to keep breathing. From time to time you might have to eat something, and even fewer times you need to rest (sleep); both are required to balance your energy consumption that keeps your organism running. But first of all, in almost every moment of your life, you need to keep breathing. And that’s it. You don’t need money, you don’t need a TV, you don’t need fancy clothes or cosmetics, you don’t need fame or attention or honour. All these things might comfort your life, or might make it more convenient, but after all they are not necessary. How about thoughts and emotions? They truly dominate our life since we can never stop thinking (at least not without a lot of practice) and we (hopefully) never stop having feelings. However, it is mainly these thoughts and feelings that usually distract us from the here-and-now. Regrets, grief, sadness and frustration draw us into the past whereas fears, sorrows and doubts keep us busy with the future. Education, experiences, behaviour and thought patterns link us strongly to the past while expectations, hopes, desires and visions make us believe in the future. This goes for both negative and positive thoughts and emotions. Even happiness is often a past- or future-related attachment (we miss happy moments from the past, or we get stuck in the belief that we need something particular as the only way to be happy in the future). I believe that living in past and future rather than in this moment leads to most of the problems that occur in a relationship. The mentioned “economic” approach of love has its origin in always thinking of “tomorrow” (“Will I still be happy with this partner tomorrow?”, “Will I always get what I need and want?”). The loss of belief in true love is heavily caused by aspects of the past (bad experiences with former partners, divorced parents, a lack of “love ability” caused by an environment with insufficient love abilities, etc.). Partners betray and have love affairs because they seek for short term pleasure satisfaction and believe to find it somewhere outside their partnership – another idea “in the future”. Also the expectation that the partner is always beautiful, always smart, always lovely and attractive is an unrealistic future-directed idea. This kind of love is condemned to be “conditional” and people who love like this will of course never experience “true and endless love”. The “problem” is the fact of constant change (as mentioned above): as soon as we have a condition for love (like “I love you when you love me in return!”, or “I love you because you look pretty, because you are smart, because you have a PhD degree, because because because…”) the love is threatened to disappear because the condition might change. Every partner WILL change, this is guaranteed! When we try to fix something flexible, or when we try to push something constantly changing into a shape, it will break sooner or later or try to escape. The attachment to past and future denies that love is flexible and can only be caught in its momentary state right in this moment. In the next moment it must be caught again, maybe with a different method, because it will be different again. As soon as we try to grab it and keep it, it looses its value, like a beautiful flower we unplug from the soil will die uprooted.

What does “love in the here-and-now” practically mean? Let’s assume the “normal” way of forming and actively conducting a partnership and its stages. Some people are lucky and find their partner by one or the other way in their daily life, maybe at the workplace, while doing the hobby, or introduced (intentionally or not) by a friend or family member. Others “search” for a partner, usually with a desperation level growing linear (or even exponentially) with increasing age. How do we choose our partner? Sometimes people (probably the majority is men) just use the eye for that and choose a pretty, handsome, sexy, attractive person. From my point of view this is the worst possible criteria, since outer appearance is the most obviously changing property. Is the love gone when the partner turns less good-looking? Can the partner be easily exchanged as soon as a better looking person is spotted in the crowd? The same goes for choosing partners by financial aspects or social status (rich or famous partners). But how about those who claim they choose their partner by “inner values” such as good character, smartness, or same hobbies and life philosophy? Even these things can change! When I love my wife for endless philosophical debates, and then she gets Alzheimer and doesn’t even know me anymore, will I have to stop loving her? It seems like any kind of “reason” for loving someone makes the love conditional and instable. What is left? I believe (I must say, according to my own experience) the only way to find the “right” partner is to (a) make sure a kind of minimal basis of a “good match” (the partners have at least a few things in common so that they can enjoy sharing their lives), then (b) listen to and follow the feelings, which is the most important thing since this gives the will to love this partner forever and the vision to share the life until the end of days, and finally (c) constantly reflect the “inner self” at all time. Simply said: when you feel attracted to someone (but maybe even can’t explain it properly), when you feel totally comfortable and peaceful in a person’s presence, and when at the same time you can make sure your feeling is not an illusion created by superficial criteria (for example big boobs) or blinded by psychological phenomena such as desperation (“last-minute panic”) or loneliness, then it might be that this person is the right one. The question is not what you love that person for. The main question should be if your feelings are the beginning of a flame that will grow into a “fire” of a stable love relationship. When this is established, love can flourish and grow as long as it is not pressed into too strict boundaries. This is the next stage: the early phase of a partnership, often going along with excitement. “Falling in love”. I define this phase as that time between starting a partnership (with both partners agreeing ideally voluntarily upon being a couple) and facing the critical phase after the excitement is gone. According to Stendhal’s love theory it is the time between phase 4 and 6. His six phases are:

  1. Admiration (“I really admire you as a person.”),

  2. Beginning of desire (“I think I’d like to get to know you better.”),

  3. Hope (“I hope you feel the same way about me.”),

  4. Inception of love (“I think I’m falling in love with you.”),

  5. Crystallisation (“I see the beauty and perfection within you.”),

  6. Doubt, fear and/or jealousy, anger and resentment (“You’re going to hurt me or betray me like others have.”).

The fifth phase is the most critical one in this theory. The way it is perceived and managed determines if a couple will “survive” the sixth phase or not. When the “beauty and perfection” seen in the partner is regarded as the “state-of-art” that needs to be preserved until the end of days, it is a case of conditional love. When in this phase the expectations on the partner are too strongly “directed”, the relationship will break. When in this stage we are attached to the relationship and the idea of it, we will lose it. Love can only grow and follow on the “being-in-love” phase when the lovers let go of the “relationship” aspects and focus on the value of their love and the essence of why they are a couple. When the relationship is evaluated by its “output” (How much fun and pleasure is generated? Is my partner still the best/most beautiful/richest? How many hobbies do we have in common and how many times per week do we have sex?) 1000 things will be found that support doubts and fears to grow. Another aspect that should never be underestimated is that we often fail to keep up a relationship because of our own inner restraints and fears caused by childhood traumas, lack of love ability, and other past incidents that pushed us into repressing and denying our deepest feelings. The here-and-now approach might be helpful to shape the consciousness for love which I regard as the most crucial point. Love can only be unconditional when it is conscious, non-possessive and non-dependent. A first step would be to practice the awareness for our suffering (ignorance, attachment, resistance), to understand the difference between “being free from emotions” (terrible!) and “being free IN emotions” (desirable!), to deliberate ourselves from the slavery of thoughts and emotions and take control over them instead, and finally to make peace with ourselves. Only when we love ourselves we will be able to truly love someone else and appreciate receiving that person’s love. But careful! “Loving oneself” must not be mixed up with “I am the greatest!”. Also the love for oneself must be unconditional and conscious, with harmony and (inner) peace as the goal. Remember the worldview that stands behind: all is one, everything is connected (and in that undergoes constant change), there is only this moment. Loving oneself means in the first instance to be in the “here-and-now”, taking the reality as it is, neither fighting or hiding the past or future nor sticking to them, making peace with our inner self and embracing the love that is shining through after resolving all fears and resentments. Loving the partner is the same: No matter how the love “started” (how the partner is chosen), as soon as this flame is there it needs to be nourished with actively establishing peace and balance, appreciating the partner’s existence and the happiness of being together in this moment and all other moments. If two lovers succeed in reaching this point they don’t need to “trigger” their attraction by sexy underwear, a trip together or “new things” to pep up their boring daily life. They won’t argue on who has to bring the garbage outside or clean the toilet. They will never feel bored with each other because their conscious mental and emotional connection is a source for endless inspiration, like on the first day of their relationship. There is no thing such as “time”. There is only this moment. And love is experienced in its most pure form when it is given and taken in that moment. Every moment. It helps me here to regard it from a mathematical point of view. Let’s assume a “moment” is defined as one second. A day has  86400 seconds. So I can say I love my partner in 86400 moments per day, maybe in one moment it is expressed in a smile, in the next it shows itself as a gesture or a gift, another few moments is doing something together. In each second the love is expressed in a different way, so from moment to moment I can adapt my loving to the current form of love. Or with other words: I can fall in love with my partner over and over again 86400 times per day. Now we define a moment as 0.5 seconds, so there are 172800 moments of love (and of life!) per day. When we make a “moment” infinitesimally small, the number of moments per day reaches infinity, therefore the “chain of moments” becomes a “dynamic process of moments” and, therefore, one. Then we don’t even need to define what is a moment on a time scale, but the answer is: now!


These ideas inspired me to make “Mantras” on love that I want to practice in my life. A Mantra is a kind of catchy phrase, a simple and short Motto that can be recited and by this internalised until it is mirrored in a person’s behaviour and actions in daily life. This ensures that the intellectual thinking is put into practice rather than remaining mere theory. Since I was a teenager I often wondered if there is something “greater” than “I love you” to tell my girlfriend, because everybody says “I love you” and it is kind of “worn out”. From the idea that all we have is this moment, here and now, I take that this is the greatest (if not only) thing I can really give to my partner. Therefore, the biggest statement I can make to my partner is: “I am here for you!” (the first Mantra). When I give “my moment” to someone, my here-and-now, it means that person has my full attention, all my consciousness and awareness. I can’t give more than that, nothing that is “greater”. When I spend time with my partner I shouldn’t watch TV, chat, talk on the phone or think about my job issues besides, but be with her with all senses. Also, I shouldn’t make reproaches to her because of past incidents, or worry about future occurrences. We are here, united in love. Everything else is not important. This leads to the second Mantra: “I know that you are here for me, too! (And that makes me happy!)”. My girlfriend (or wife) is by my side voluntarily since I would never force her to be. I can assume that she loves me, that she would never intend to make me angry, and that she would always be on my side same as I am always on her side! I believe that many couples fight because they forget exactly this! This creates the potential for reproaches, accusations, misunderstandings, etc. But above all should always be the fact that two partners love each other, seeking harmony and peace, and therefore are always “here” for each other. Again: I believe this is often forgotten because we suffer from the mind poisons (ignorance, attachment, resistance). Keeping this in mind when I feel hurt, misunderstood or mistreated by my partner, it is easy for me to know why (this is the third Mantra): “I know that you suffer!“. “I know” in this case means something like “I am aware of the unavoidable fact that…”. With this Mantra it is very easy for me to react on my partner with understanding, benevolence, patience and affection, at any time and at any place. Everything she does and sais, she does and sais because she believes it is right, because her thought and behaviour patterns tell her so, or because one of the layers around her Buddha Nature (oh… another “big” term I can’t explain to the fullest here…) make her do. Directly from this I derive the fourth Mantra, probably the most important of all: “I know that I am suffering (and I need your help)!“. Especially men tend to be totally unable to take criticism. A healthy self-reflection and the insight that oneself is suffering from the mind poisons the most of all can help to be a much more convenient partner. Many conflicts can be solved by admitting and accepting the own flaws and mistakes. Instead of preaching my own flawlessness I should rather ask my partner for forgiving my bad sides and helping me to work on them. Her feedback, constructive criticism and probably a huge amount of patience is what I need the most. Above all stands the idea that a partnership is conducted (without any outer force) in order to be or become happy together. The basic (never forgotten) principle of a partnership should be that both partners always have in mind to live in harmony and peace (both inside and with the partner).

I believe with this approach most things that should be self-understanding in a partnership can be achieved: sharing everything, being trustworthy and truthful (not hiding anything important from the partner), having good (= honest, sincere, open, truthful, peaceful) communication, being faithful, being interested in each other, paying attention to each other, making each other’s life more beautiful. Some people say having a partner requires compromises and therefore limits a persons freedom. I don’t agree. Everything is better with a partner! My partner is a source of energy, motivation and happiness! My partner gives my life a purpose! Therefore, my freedom is even higher with a partner! Many couples I know make a big mistake: They think “loving each other” means “binding to each other”, like a chain or a prison, they are like one person. Later they complain that each of them has no “own space”, no freedom. Most of them broke up. They had the feeling that they are “limited” and told me, their partner makes them feel restricted by the love. In my opinion “love” should never produce limits for the two loving people. It should make them grow and get happier! So love should not be a prison or chains, it should be like earth and moon: circling around each other, with strong attractive forces but both with an own atmosphere to breath. No one could exist without the other, but still both are individuals. There is always a kind of distance between both, but they are close enough to feel the other (like the moon influences the earth). I like the picture of circling around each other, like dancing. It is a kind of admiring and watching the other with deep respect and conscious love! And still both can move on their own and never have the feeling of choking.

All in all I can state that I believe in “perfect” love. It just must not be mixed up with having a partner who is perfect. Nobody is perfect. But the way of conducting a partnership, based on a “healthy” understanding of what love is, will decide on the success of a partnership. The necessary requisites for endless love are:

  • the belief in love

  • the readiness to invest energy into it (knowing that the harvest will be much more than the investion)

  • the willingness to face the own flaws and failures and work on them

Of course it is helpful to have a certain wisdom, the ability to form, understand and follow ethical values and virtues, self-awareness and self-control, and last but not least an open mind to understand and see through the daily-life aspects of love. For sure, not only philosophers or psychologists are able to “know” about love. Everybody can, with the “right” idea and vision…

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:


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…