Gender Construction

A while ago, we all (you, your Mom, me) went to the market together, passing by a baby and children clothes vendor. Since you needed new pants, we made use of a good offer: buying three pants for a discount. When choosing the three pants, it turned out that your Mom and me had quite different ideas of what would be good colours and designs for you. She chose mostly girlish items, pink, cute and with decorative applications. I preferred neutral colours with subtle patterns and designs that support outdoor activities and climbing play structures (you may say: somehow boyish pants). That made me think about gender roles and their formation. As a constructivist, it is out of question for me that gender roles and expectations are the result of socialisation and culture. Nowhere in our biology it is determined that female humans have to be or do like this and that male humans have to be or do like that. Gender shouldn’t even be a big deal! In reality, in many social spheres (education, job life, sexuality and partnership, etc.) it definitely is, but I don’t want to support that by indoctrinating you with such ideology. It starts with simple things like choosing clothes for you, is supported by our choice of toys, by the tasks we give to you and the expectations we have on your behaviour, performance and character, and might even amount to our idea of your partnerships and sexual orientation. I want you to grow into a free, open-minded, self-confident, self-fulfilled and happy person! I wish you will be able to choose freely from all the possible options that come along your way. There must not be any gender restrictions. It doesn’t matter if you dress yourself like a girl or like a boy, as long as you are happy with your choice! It doesn’t matter if your favourite hobbies and activities are typically boy’s domains or rather girlish, as long as you feel satisfied with how you express yourself and your skills. Be creative! Be weird! Be yourself! And don’t let any narrow-minded traditionalist tell you anything different! Gender (which must not be mixed up with biological sexes) is an element of the mind-deluding matrix that limits your freedom and diminishes your life quality. In the Buddhist sense, it is part of the suffering. Better rid yourself of that concept. As parents, we should give you all the support to do so!

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Two important topics are connected to this: Gender disorders and sexuality. Biologically, you are a girl. Maybe someday you will feel something is wrong with it and it turns out you are actually a boy in a girl’s body. This is not a seldom phenomenon. But from my point of view, this “problem” is only amplified by the stress that is put on you in form of gender role expectations. Your identity and personal integrity shouldn’t depend on whether your appearance and biological gender is matching with your actual emotional and cognitive perception. With this mindset, there can’t be any “disorder”, because the “order” is a flawed constructed idea. A friend asked me if I would mind if you were homosexual. Of course not! Who am I to decide who you love or who you feel sexually attracted to?! Again: Make free choices that suit you! Observe yourself and increase the chance that your choices are sustainable and viable! Be happy! What your actual choices are, then, is rather secondary.

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Gather Ye AVSIHAC

In the epilogue of his great book “The Love Bug and other Tales of Psychotherapy“, psychiatrist Dr. Dan Briddell explains his simple formula of a “good life”: ROSEBUD. It is the easy to remember acronym of seven “stepping stones” as elements of a guideline for how to live a good life:

R – Reality: Come to terms with, understand, and respect what is. Embrace reality from a position of emotional and intellectual strength.

O – Optimism: Develop and maintain a healthy optimism and humour in all aspects of life. There is an enormous power in the zone of positive thinking.

S – Service: Serve a greater good. Develop activities that extend your time, commitment, and service beyond self-interest.

E – Ethics: Develop an ethical approach to life. Endeavour to make the right choice – each and every time. Be receptive to corrective feedback.

B – Balance: Maintain balance in all things. Diversify your life’s portfolio and seek the appropriate balance with thoughtful attention to work, play, relationships, and emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.

U – Unconscious: Learn to appreciate, befriend, and grow more comfortable with the silent, inner aspects of your self. Dreams, memories, reflections, intuitions, imagination, and meditation are all keys to unlocking the dazzling power of the unconscious mental process.

D – Develop your gifts: Develop and maintain a high degree of self-respect through the assessment and refinement of your unique abilities, skills and gifts – especially the gift of love. Even modest acts of kindness and encouragement, each and every day, will strengthen your own feelings of love and contentment.

This acronym is aptly chosen, not only because it is easy to remember, but also because it evokes the association with Robert Herrick’s famous poem “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May“, which the teacher John Keating in the “Dead Poets Society” uses to explain to the students what it means to “seize the day” (Carpe Diem), to live in each moment to the fullest, making the future rather than hoping for it.

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However, as always, I am slightly critical with Briddell’s quite superficial explanations (though in the book in more detail than cited here by me). Maybe he didn’t want to overwhelm his readership with too much psychology and scholarly parlance. He wrote for the US-American market, and the anti-intellectual US-American society has to be addressed with easy-to-grasp, idiot-proof advices that are vague enough to press them into their dogmatic religiosity and shallow esoteric life-help-palaver. With the danger of producing a lot of palaver myself, I’d like to elaborate further what my thoughts are after reading Dr. Briddell’s stepping stones.

As obvious from previous blog entries, I am very careful with claims about reality. First of all, no ontological certainties about reality are possible without proper epistemological reflections. What we hold for real often turns out to be the product of our deluded mind. The problem is the certainty that we suppose when making reality claims. Much more important than a close look at what is, from my point of view, is a position of systematised doubt and unbiased skepticism. Seeing the reality is a good goal, but impossible for most of us. Instead, I’d like to name awareness as the important stepping stone. Awareness as in mindfulness. It also substitutes the “unconscious” part of Briddell’s “rosebud”. Draw as much unconscious insight into your awareness as possible. Buddhist practices like meditation and the constant endeavour to exit the matrix are helpful ways to explore the real reality and get rid of delusions.

Optimism concerning the future can easily drift towards irrational hope and unrealistic dream-chasing. I favour the term vision (as in being visionary) when it comes to future plans. Have visions of possible futures as outcomes of your current decisions. If possible, choose those options that enable more options or that are reversible. Remember that the seed for your future is planted now, in this moment. With healthy visions in your mind, you keep an overview of your options and can apply your wisdom to proceed on your way. But never get attached to your futures. Optimism is contained in this as the firm conviction that – as long as you always have a choice – your way (not necessarily the goal!) will be satisfying and joyful! No need to speak of humour! Think positively, but not for the sake of mind-deluding positivity!

Service as understood here is very close to selflessness, a term that I would prefer since it is broader. Meaning in life is often created or made apparent through selfless acts. It is connected to forming virtues by internalising and cultivating virtuous behaviour towards others (kindness, helpfulness, care, generosity, empathy). Make others happy and they will be the greatest source of happiness for you. But don’t put the burden of the entire world onto your shoulders. From my perspective, it is totally OK to set priorities and care more about those people who are closer to you in the social network of inter-relations (family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, sports club mates, etc.). It requires skills of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy, feeling and thinking from another person’s perspective, temporarily giving up the own stance. That might be hard for someone who is not used to do that.

Ethics is my professional field, but here I would like to replace it by integrity. Ethics, on the one hand, is too intellectual and academic for daily life. And we don’t need to study Kant or Aristotle to act with moral coherence. Morality, on the other hand, is running the risk of being applied by principle, not by rational reason. Think of religious morality following the church’s rule, for example. Be a good person! Eliminate hypocrisy, double standards, inconsistencies and logical fallacies from your values and worldview. Integrity in the sense that an outsider could predict your decision from the fact that you promote and follow clear values and virtues is much more important. Unshakable ethical integrity can be applied to all situations that will ever occur in your life. Knowing what is best to do is a precious benefit for your life and an important skill. The more reasoned your values the better. But nothing is wrong with learning, making experiences and adapting your value set when you have good reasons to do so.

I have no objections about the call for balance, but would name it harmony for a better understanding. It is in accordance with the Middle Way thinking of Eastern philosophies. It is not about slowing down your life or limiting your activities to some necessities. It is about the awareness of the consequences of a high amplitude of the oscillation of Yin and Yang around the Dao. There will be times in your life when the amplitude is high, usually around the early Twenties, as a student, and times where you wish to calm down the pace with which your pendulum is swinging. Harmonising your life means to go with the flow of these oscillations and let them arise and cease naturally. Extremes, however, are indeed better avoided. Better make sure you know when enough is enough, in all possible respects.

The last point, development, appears a bit shallow to me. Not that it is not important for progress in life, but from my perspective, Dr. Briddell didn’t come to the crucial point here. We all “develop” all the time according to the experiences we accumulate, that is unavoidable. The problem is that most people perceive their development as a process that proceeds without their influence. Most people believe either in destiny (“There is nothing I could do about my life, anyway! It is all decided for me!”) or fate (“I will get what I deserve, anyway!”). While the former is utterly dangerous and often connected to a strong faith in a divine entity (God), the latter leaves slightly more space for self-responsible action, at least when understood in the right way (for example as in “I am the Captain of my fate!”). Best would be, however, when we understand that we are entirely self-responsible for the outcome of our lives and approach it with creativity. Furthermore, development has a notion of growth and progress. I am convinced, however, that it must include the attempts to get rid of unhealthy traits, habits and mindsets, a de-development so to say. Then, the term cultivation is more aptly fitting here: Planting seeds for future change towards more healthy states (character traits, personality, life conditions) and less unwholesome elements. I think, this point is also strongly connected to my tree of knowledge picture: Cultivation refers to exploring the roots and opening up more and more efficient channels of meaning construction. The fruits to be harvested then will be love, happiness, harmony and high life quality!

Now the ROSEBUD acronym changed into AVSIHAC (Awareness, Vision, Selflessness, Integrity, Harmony, Awareness (again, for ‘unconscious’), Cultivation). This is less easy to remember and there is also no poem about it, and I am sorry for that. But if you really understood what this is all about, you also don’t need any acronym. You just live it!

There is no One!

In an earlier letter on my worldview, I labelled myself as a monist. Recently, I found that this needs further elaboration and maybe a correction. Maybe I had a wrong idea of what is “monism”, a term with a long history in western philosophical discourse. The two fields of inquiry we are interested in, here, are ontology (the question of what is real) and epistemology (what is knowledge, what are we able to know about reality).

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Basic terminology in Western metaphysics.

Western philosophy is predominantly characterised by the dichotomy of mind and matter. This ontological dualism is built on a strong substance metaphysics: The materialist believes that the one underlying substance of everything is matter and that mental phenomena arise from material processes (for example, thoughts and imagination are the effect of neuronal activity in the brain). The idealist believes the opposite – that the one substance is mind and that the entire perception of the phenomenon “matter” is a mental creation. Both are, in their own way, monists – there is only one substance. Attempts to moderate between the two are dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, for example in Spinoza’s work. Furthermore, there is a strong religious association with the term monism: those who believe that there is only one almighty divine entity as the substance-creator (a god) are religious monists.

Strictly speaking, monistic idealists and materialists are still dualists since they obviously separate mind and matter. What I had in mind when calling my metaphysical viewpoint monistic was a non-separation of the two, a strict non-dualism. Perhaps, I may call it “dialectic monism” to make it clearer: For me as a convinced epistemological constructivist (all we know is constructed by our mind on the foundations of our experiences and formations) and holist (everything is interconnected in a net of conditionality), both mind and matter are embedded into an ultimate reality that “works” by only one set of mechanisms (are call it “laws”). As described earlier, the emergent character of an ever-changing world – the dependent arising in Buddhist philosophy – brought about the feature of conscious perception and cognitive processes. This is the origin of our mind. With our current knowledge about “nature” we may say that it arises from matter. However, at the same time – that is: dialectically – the whole concept of “matter” is the product of our mental reflections on our surrounding. And here my “monism” – thought of as “non-separation” or “emptiness” – comes into play: We easily fall victim of the illusion that our mental processing of the world is somehow separated from the “real” world outside of our mind. We separate into me and you, me and the world, inside and outside, and so forth. This conscious ontology is the phenomenal or conventional reality, but not the ultimate reality or actuality. The call for oneness is, therefore, a prescriptive one: If our goal is to progress towards enlightenment, we need to understand that there is no metaphysical substance, permanence and separable identity of things, but emptiness, impermanence and interconnectedness. In this respect, my “monism” may not be understood as “there is only one”, but as “there is only everything”.

A next question would be if there is an analogous insight for epistemological monism: The “mind-monist” – the rationalist – would claim that all knowledge is a result of mental reasoning (rationality). The “matter-monist” – the (traditional) empiricist – would understand all knowledge as the result of incoming experiential triggers that are caused by matter (for example, light, sound waves, molecular exchange, etc.). Again, dialectic monism replies that both are working interconnectedly. Ratio needs experience from interaction with the surrounding, while the processing of the experience itself is enabled through a sense-making by our conscious rationality (as depicted in my tree of knowledge). Again, there is no one (ratio or experience), but only everything (the experiential margin of our perception, the pattern formations of the past, our choice of strategies for sense-making and meaning-construction, etc.).

Now comes the tricky question: Why bother? Why would it matter for our daily life? Admittedly, not all philosophy has this pragmatic component of applicability or viability. Traditional metaphysics and epistemology as “armchair philosophy” were a purely intellectual academic endeavour. However, I am firmly convinced that these insights – when successfully put into practice – have a deep impact on our daily life. Take, for example, the love relationship of a couple: When the two are regarded as separated entities, it might always remain at the level of “you and me”. When we understand how we are all connected in karmic relations, there is the chance to reach the level at which there is only “us”. The way of communication, the willingness to listen and understand, patience, benevolence, all will be different. Another example is the attitude towards one’s situation in the job or – in case you are a student – at school or university: Do the challenges make you feel stressed, powerless or overwhelmed and do the people you have to deal with bother and annoy you? Or do you understand how those situations are the product of manifold interconnected factors (including you and your attitude) and learn how to control and work with these factors to create beneficial circumstances for yourself and everyone involved? Or politics: Is it really “us and them”? Or is it actually possible to induce transformations of system flaws by planting small seeds in family members, neighbours, friends, colleagues, etc.? Aren’t the leaders we get the ones we inevitably deserve as a society, due to the opinions and viewpoints that we allow or even support to form? Can we really blame certain people or parties for insufficiencies or are there maybe hidden causal pathways that we are not aware of or that we don’t understand but that let certain decisions and democratic practices appear in a different – sometimes more reasonable – light?

If we were Buddha, we would be able to see through all karmic relations in the conditionality network. Or – to exploit a more recent cinematic picture – if we were Neo we would not see the illusion of the world (the conventional truth), but the Matrix (the ultimate truth). Most of us will never get even close to it. Some might notice the scratches in the surface of our illusion. The metaphysics of dependent origination and emptiness, as far as I can see it, is one of the most helpful insights to make intellectual progress towards a viable (that means: reliable, efficient, applicable, reasonable, verifiable) worldview, which should be followed by practical progress. It could be a mantra – The Mantra of Non-Separation – for every day: There is no one. There is only everything.

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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.

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by Alex Grey

Cosmethics

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?

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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.

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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!

A Tree of Knowledge

Today, I am a bit euphoric. I think I achieved a major breakthrough in sorting and elaborating my reflections. And all because of an atheist meme on facebook that labeled the Bible, the Quran and the Talmud “fake news” (a political fashion term at the moment). Critical with all “extreme” positions, I had to come up with a proper reply, but the issue turned out to be more complicated. I think I found a good way to explain my point. I present: My tree of knowledge!

Wait a minute… Tree of knowledge? Like the one in the Bible? No. That is a different story. But also yes, somehow. I will come to it later (maybe). Like the one described by René Descartes (“Philosophical works”, Vol.2, transl. John Cottingham et al., Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, p.186)? His tree had three parts: metaphysics as the roots, scientific knowledge of nature (physics) as trunk, and the three main branches medicine, morals and mechanics. Philosophy’s task then was to harvest the fruits of this tree as insight of the world. Its key questions are “What is knowledge?” and “What do we use it for?“. My tree is similar, but – in view of recent insights from biology, psychology, culture studies and constructivism – more sophisticated in the description of roots and trunk, and more up-to-date in the number and constitution of branches. Another famous tree of knowledge was proposed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (“The Tree of Knowledge. Biological roots of human understanding.”, 1987). This, indeed, is a book that everybody (!) should read! It is a key work in the field of constructivism, insightful not only for academics but for everybody who wants to go through daily life mindfully. However, the metaphor of a tree is not particularly illustrated in the book but simply refers to human understanding as a living and evolving network: “We will propose a way of seeing cognition not as a representation of the world ‘out there,’ but rather as an ongoing bringing forth of a world through the process of living itself” (p. 11). Maturana and – even more so – Varela, not only with this work but also with other impacting publications, belong to my most influential thinkers and scientists. Even though I try to avoid their flaw of widely ignoring the philosophical insights of the past 2500 years in their Tree of Knowledge, their insights contributed significantly to the elaboration of my tree of knowledge:

meaningtree

The roots constitute the sources of all our experiences. Everything we know about the world is constructed by our cognitive equipment: senses, central nervous system, brain. Parts of this system are memory, consciousness, emotions and other psychologically observable and explainable features. In simple terms: we observe, process, think, feel, recall and react. Then, we securely know that we are the centre of the universe. All experiences necessarily are made by us from the self-perspective. Nobody can make experiences for someone else. Same as a thought doesn’t exist beyond its being-thought, experience doesn’t exist beyond its being-experienced. The perception of a self (or an ego) inevitably goes along with the definition of everything else as the other. This illusion of separation creates the idea of world as something external. Within this world-space we experience desires and needs that feed our constant fear of non-existence and ceasing-from-existence. We experience many forms of suffering (in the literal form as pain, in the figurative form as unsatisfactoriness) and yearn for safety and security. This list of basic features is certainly incomplete, but I believe it is sufficiently precise to adumbrate the key point: all humans (as long as not physically or mentally disabled) share these features, and all humans build their decisions, viewpoints and their life on this foundation. Agree?

The trunk is the channel through which we process all these experiences in order to manifest them in our being-in-the-world (using Heidegger’s term). Experiencing is a process (for some scholars even an act) that only works in view of an experience background that is present in the experiencer, an active sense-making. This might be the biggest difference to Descartes’ tree of knowledge: It is illusionary to believe that the act of sense-making for all humans is always only scientific, exploiting knowledge of “the real world” (nature). Since Kant and latest since the convincing insights provided by constructivism, there are many more options. First, we all run on a kind of default setting. If not otherwise reflected or mindfully brought into our conscious awareness, the choices and decisions we make are controlled and determined by the cognitive and behavioural patterns acquired since we are born, under strong influence of our emotions, our education and other previous experiences that I like to summarise as the matrix. In this default setting we tend to be selfish, self-centred, vulnerable, manipulable and susceptible for external powers. Then, there is dogmatism and indoctrination: Someone tells us in one or the other form what certain experiences mean and what we have to conclude from them. In the light form, this includes the parental and institutional education at home and at schools. In the more drastic form we can find that in most religious instances (church), in some political systems, and in parts even in science; in short: in all systems that have anything to do with power of some over others (in the widest possible meaning). There are also more conscious and sceptical ways of sense-making: we can deal with observations and experiences empirically by setting them into perspective with other observations and experiences, we can contest them and refine our understanding of them. The most basic tool for this is logic. An important aspect of these strategies to “construct meaning from experience” is that they are more sustainable and stable the more a person is mindful and free in the choice of options.

In order to understand my choice of branches (here: religion, culture, politics, economy, science, technology) it is important to realise that this model applies for both individual humans and social agglomerations at large. Let me start with the societal level. In current societies, these spheres are the most present ones. Almost all societies developed or adopted institutions of organised religion or at least some kind of spirituality, organise themselves in some form of politics, established systems of production, trade and consumption (economy), started investigating nature and society (science) and invented more or less sophisticated tools that make human life easier (technology). Culture might be an outstanding point here, and some might disagree upon its presence in this set of social spheres. What I mean with it here are all the features and characteristics that serve as the identity-giving connecting fabric of a society: language, art, morals, codes of behaviour, Zeitgeist. Different societies express these branches in different fashions and to various extents, both regionally (an Asian society is different from a European one) and temporally (the Greek society of 500BC differs from the contemporary Greek society). From the historical perspective, some ancient branches disappeared while new ones flourished, others dried out or grew stronger. Let’s take, for example, the German tree: It is a completely secular society, so the religion branch is very small. Germans are – especially in view of their horrible history – convinced of their political system and very “political” in the sense that many topics on the political agenda are discussed – the Politics branch is rather strong. The same can be said for the economy branch, even though it is certainly smaller than the US-American economy branch since German are generally quite sceptical with consumption. Science might be one of the biggest branches: We can only know for sure what we have contested and analysed, including nature, art, religion, etc. Everything must be able to stand a critical investigation, otherwise it is either meaningless or wrong. Technology has shaped the German society quite significantly, but – in analogy to economy – people are sceptical with innovation and rather conservative.

There is an ambivalent correlation between the society as a system and its individual members. Each individual contributes to the characteristics of a society, but it is also society that shapes individuals and sets the margin for their self-expression. A religious society will most likely produce religious members. The process of social change and progress, therefore, is usually very slow. However, what is valid for the society at large is also valid for the individual: Everybody develops all branches in one or the other way and to a certain extent. Remember: these reflections are about “constructing meaning from experience”.

Example 1: Some experiences affect our understanding of features of our surrounding (our world construct): We long to understand nature and the world. Depending on the epistemic channel that a person prefers and applies, answers are found in the branch of religion or in science (This is a descriptive statement! It does not evaluate the legitimacy of choosing religion or science to answer questions about the world fabric adequately! This is done elsewhere.).

Example 2: Experiences concerning the fulfilment of needs can either be manifested in economy (for example as materialism), in religiously or spiritually motivated modesty, or in scientific explanations of human biology and psyche.

All parts – roots, trunk, branches – are dynamic and subject of change. Some roots grow deeper and stronger when a person puts a focus on certain types of experiences or when outer conditions (for example, the type of job, or the family situation) draw the person’s attention to particular aspects of life. The channels in the trunk are cultivated and expressed to different extents, too. Children mostly follow their default setting, but during youth and adolescence they discover new strategies for constructing meaning. Some become open-minded empiricists, others indoctrinated religious fanatics (just to be sure: there are also open-minded religious people and dogmatic fanatic empiricists). Once a channel is formed and solidified, it is very difficult to change the setting, yet not impossible. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that many branches co-exist peacefully. A scientist can be outspokenly religious by separating the types of knowledge strictly – empiric physical knowledge into the science field, normative spiritual knowledge into the religion field. It would take an enormous amount of active ignorance to claim that “there can only be scientific knowledge” (as done by atheists) or “there can only be religious belief” (as done by religious fanatics).

We can think of countless examples in what way this metaphor depicts the development and constitution of social spheres like politics and economy as the result of meaning-construction. This would blow up this letter by far too much. Instead, I’d like to draw the attention towards the fourth element in this illustration: the fruits. When a branch flourishes, there are fruits growing that a person or a society has to harvest. A strong economy branch will support wealth and material well-being, but also greed and competition. A strong religion branch will increase the capacity of hope and identification with the community, but also fascism (separating the own beliefs from the others’ beliefs) and dogmatism (for example promoting creationism and denying biological evolution). Some fruits are sweet, others are poisonous or stink. It is these fruits that make people conclude that some branches are more valuable and viable than others, that some branches are better kept small or even cut off while other branches deserve more care and nourishment. Atheists often deny the legitimacy of the religion branch. Anti-capitalists see a social threat in the economy branch. Political reformists and anarchists would like to reshape the politics branch according to their political ideals. Reportedly, there are even “science-deniers”. Very often, the suggested “cures” focus on the materialisations and embodiments of meaning-construction within the realms of the respective branches: Atheists (as in the initial remark) want to defame or ban the historical religious books, anti-capitalists want to abolish money or the monetary system, anarchists aim at freedom from any political leadership. History has proven that forceful and violent attempts to reach these goals will almost always end up in conflict and misery. Try to take away the Bible from a religious Christian, and he will stick to it even more, like a child to exactly that toy that you try to take. It will also not be possible to change that person’s roots. The only sustainable chance is to encourage people to open and use different channels of meaning-construction. If you want to change a religious person, present to him alternative interpretations of worldly phenomena, philosophical ways to reason virtues rather than divine laws, or how meaning of religion changes when church is unmasked as a political rather than a spiritual institution. Don’t expect the religious person to change easily. He will try to change you instead: explaining different conceptualisations of “God”, “loving-kindness” as the core element of religious insight, benevolence and grace of charity as spiritually motivated virtues. Ask yourself first, if your own personal choice of how to construct meaning from experience is always exclusively right! The same can be said in the case of “money”: Is it really money that we should condemn as the root of all evil and the cause of greed and injustice? Or is it because we give it too much meaning?

Many people feel powerless in regard of huge overarching “systems” like church, political leadership, capitalism, technological progress, cultural matrix. They might criticise that my focus on strategies of meaning construction is too individual and idealistically ignoring that institutionalised systems and their power outweigh the impact of individual person belief and knowledge systems. Maybe, maybe not. I agree that a heavy precondition for my reflections is a certain degree of freedom of choice. People living in tyrannies might not have a chance to change the fashion of the politics branch. Capitalism is so deeply entrenched in people’s life that it doesn’t really give them a chance to choose their lifestyle. People in the poorest country on earth face such urgent existential problems that questions of meaning-construction turn out unaffordable luxury for them. However, most of us do have a choice. Systems only have power over us when we give it to them, which is mostly by not taking full advantage of our capacity to choose how we construct meaning from experience. Mindless people are easier to control than people with a clear and well-reasoned, well-informed worldview. Naturally, there will always be those people with deeper insights and a wider variety of choices (those with a thicker trunk) and those with rather limited possibilities (with thinner trunks, easily bendable in the wind of opposition). Here, we need communication and discourse on all levels (family-internal, among friends, in social groups and public in general) in order to plant seeds in each other to refine and sophisticate our meaning-construction strategies. We need to make sure, of course, that it is the better argument (in terms of logic consistency and viability) that wins, not the most powerful position or the most popular. Then, sooner or later, some branches decay while others flourish or new ones sprout. Again, we see that the picture fits perfectly!

There are several possible streams of thought from here on. Some of them will certainly be the subject of future letters I will write here:

  • Education – How can home and school education support a child or teenager to identify and use various channels of meaning-construction mindfully? How can we develop more options for ourselves to deal properly with our “root problems” (suffering, desire, self, etc.)?
  • Culture – What does this scheme imply for intercultural communication? What does it mean for cultural change in general?
  • Buddhism – This picture fits so perfectly into Buddhist philosophy that an article on that relation is almost inevitable!
  • Constructivism – I believe it is worthwhile pulling the constructivist elements of this model into awareness. We can learn many meaningful lessons for daily life from it!
  • Science and Technology – As part of my profession, I believe that this metaphor helps enlightening some of the mechanisms that support scientism and technocracy in our society. If we want to deal with emergent problems like climate change and progressive emotional dullness (a la Konrad Lorenz) successfully, it might be necessary to pay attention to the patterns implied in here.

For now, I’d just like to refer the reader to one of the most important and meaningful speeches ever given (in my humble opinion): David Foster Wallace’s “This is water“.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.