Parenting Check: Supporting Your Self-Esteem

I came across a few illustrations by Leonid Khan on brightside.me which compare “common parents” with “wise parents”. The page originally presented the 10 graphics as the difference between Jewish parents and other parents, which is of course entire nonsense and earned them much criticism (upon which they changed it to the new wording). Whether parents are “common” or bad or wise is not a matter of nationality, culture, ethnicity or religious confession! Rather, we find all kinds of parents with all kinds of attitudes and flaws all around the globe. In today’s letter, however, I don’t want to compare parents. I tried to take the illustrations as an inspiration to check my own behaviour and attitude towards you in our daily life. Since currently I am a houseman and we spend a lot of time together, there are many situations and opportunities to reflect on my (re-)actions and habits. Some of the themes probably don’t apply to you, yet, because you are still too young. But reflection can never start too early! I’ll try to do it reasonably!

  1. Reaction to failure

parents1

You are still at the stage of trying many things. Naturally, there is a lot of failure! You want to draw, but hold the pen the wrong way and don’t produce any line. You want to eat by yourself, but whenever you scoop your food, it falls down before reaching your mouth. You want to stack blocks or do a puzzle, but the parts just don’t want to fit! In case of the food, I still help you and usually end up just feeding you. The rationale behind that is a pragmatic one: If eating takes too long you get impatient and whiny, and I don’t want to clean the huge mess that you produce. Maybe that’s wrong. I should just let you do until it works. In case of drawing and puzzling, I try to aid you more passively and let you figure out by yourself how you can make it work. However, this also has limits. You get increasingly frustrated when the piece doesn’t fit. Guiding your hand, hopefully, delivers the message “See! There is always a way! Just keep trying, for example like this…”. I observe that you are a fast learner, trying to copy what I do (for example, turning and twisting the puzzle piece until it fits). So, a little assistance can support your exploratory learning process. I have to be careful, though, not to be too impatient when you don’t succeed in your efforts immediately, but let you experience the feeling of failure and the sense of achievement after keeping trying. You are not too young for anything! Just not experienced enough. Providing situations to gain this experience is my task as your father!

  1. Supervising your activities

parents2

The point, here, is that you feel more trusted when we let you do things without constant supervision. As in all the eight examples in this article, the pragmatic considerations we as parents have to make are risk and safety estimations. There is never no risk! You can always trip, fall down, hit your head, bump into something, etc. We keep the really dangerous things (electricity, fire, blades, falling heavy objects, etc.) away from you. In this environment, we can let you move freely and safely everywhere in our apartment without having to worry about anything that exceeds the “base risks”. When you find trash (and with your perfect eyesight you find the tiniest pieces of dust in the corners!) and show it to me, I tell you to throw it into the trash bin, and you go there and throw it in. I trust you on that and don’t watch you doing it. You come back with a proud face and clap your hands, me joining in. On the playground, you climb the play structures and slide down all by yourself. I usually stand in some distance and let you enjoy it without giving you the feeling that something could go wrong and that you would need assistance. Just do it! You seem cautious, but not fearful or afraid, and you are always happy when you find out that you can do something by yourself!

  1. Letting you get dirty

parents3

I failed on this one this week. When we played in the garden of our community, I scolded you for picking the soil from the flowerbeds and for being more interested in all the dirt than in the play structure and the toys. You still put many things into your mouth, so I worry you eat the dirt you pick up. I am still too concerned about your health (not so much about the cleanness of your clothes and hands). I should let you play more in the mud, especially when we are close to home where we can clean you again! I spent most of my childhood in the mud (in the countryside), so I should know how happy it can make a Kid! Relax, Daddy!

  1. Your intended achievement vs. The actual outcome

parents4

The point, here, is different from the previous illustration: It is not so much about fun over cleanness, but more about intention over outcome. At this young age, you have (maybe not yet, but soon) an undisturbed, untamed creativity and the urge to explore and transform the world you find. Making a cake, as in the graphic, is just one example. Painting something, building something, helping with housework, anything that you observe your parents do – could be other examples. Your intentions are always good: You want to make a gift for your beloved parents, or you just want to do something well. Naturally, at the age of 18 months, there is not much you do, yet, so there are not many situations in which the approaches illustrated here would apply. As mentioned earlier, you like to throw trash into the trash bin. Sometimes, however, you classify things as “trash” that actually are not. Once I told you emphatically that you must not put that into the trash, but of course that has no effect! You will just not understand why throwing away one thing gives you a praise, throwing away another earns you a scold. You firmly believe you did a good job. So I reminded myself of always thanking you whenever you did something out of your own motivation that you learned in earlier situations, no matter how “wrong” it is in this context, no matter how poor the result is, and no matter how much work it causes me to reverse the result of your effort.

  1. Your energy level

parents5

You sleep very well and, as an effect, are very active and attentive when awake. You run around a lot, climb everything that can be climbed (recently also the dining table) and often jump around like crazy. Sometimes I find myself trying to calm you down or stop you from jumping too wild on the couch. I shouldn’t! However, again, I think there is the reasonable pragmatic limit of safety! And a second consideration is the experience with the phenomenon of you being “over-tired” (I wonder if there is a proper term for that): Sometimes you are so tired that you get carefree and coltish, like in a state of euphoria, extremely rebellious and – with a 100% certainty – ending up crying, either after hurting yourself, or when we have to stop you and put you into bed. In such a state, it would be very unwise to wait for you running out of energy! Most of the time, however, it is a big joy for us to watch your energy and untamed vitality! Why would we stop you?

  1. Do it by yourself

parents6

As far as I understand, the idea of this picture is not “You can do it by yourself!”, but rather “You have to do it by yourself!”. It wants to deliver the idea that Kids must not always rely on their parents fixing everything for them, but learning that sometimes (and according to their abilities, of course) they need to get active by themselves. For a Kid of your age, there are not many situations, yet, in which this approach applies. All I can think of now is eating your food (insisting on you eating by yourself when you ask for being fed), playing with your toys (including opening boxes and bags, stacking blocks, solving puzzles, etc.), and climbing stairs or play structures (which you usually ask no assistance for). In the future, there will be more situations in which I hopefully remember to find the right balance between helping you (to not disappoint and frustrate you) and insisting on you doing it by yourself (even at the risk of failure, see point 1). So far, you want to be independent rather a bit too much than not enough. You are far from being a “lazy” Kid!

  1. Support your sharing ability

parents7

In contrast to the other seven illustrations that all show a particular attitude of parenting that aim at certain effects, this one here depicts a result (or an effect). It is, of course, desirable to support the formation of a habit of sharing, rather than having to be forced to share. The question is what parenting approaches and attitudes can support that. Apparently, you have a good sense of sharing. When I cut a Mango for you and give a small fork to you, you take turns putting a piece into your mouth and feeding one to me. You also do that with your main meals. You are very happy offering your food to us, which might be an expression of copying our behaviour (feeding you) in a playful way, rather than a truly virtuous act of sharing. However, our reaction (appreciation and expression of happiness and fun) will hopefully motivate you to form a habit of sharing. When someday you have a sibling we’ll come back to that…

  1. Reward your efforts

parents8

This is a very important point! I appreciate the illustrator’s choice to present the “bad” Mom with her attention focused on her smartphone, a serious symptom of our modern society. I try to leave my phone at my work desk, so that it doesn’t distract me whenever I deal with you, especially while feeding and playing with you. This gives me the capacity to really “spend time with you” (instead of just being around). I hope you can sense my appreciation of and admiration for everything you do! Same as for point 4, you don’t produce much that can be rewarded or praised. I posted some of your “drawings” on this blog, and the Mother’s Day gift that we prepared together is exposed on the fridge door so that all visitors can see it. I am sure that in the future you will give me many opportunities to show my pride and admiration for anything you do! I expect that this won’t be difficult for me!

Conclusion

All (human) life and its decision-making is risk estimation. As parents, we have to reflect day in day out on questions like “Is it OK for you or not? Is it safe or not? Is the risk level acceptable or not?”. In this framework, your self-esteem and your own ability to assess the acceptability of risk levels to which you expose yourself have to develop. Finding the right balance within this tension of “letting you do” and “keeping you safe” is not always easy. I tend to be too cautious in some situations (stopping your wildness, keeping you clean when playing outside), and I am convinced to do it right in others (not creating an atmosphere of caution when you climb the play structure, but letting you explore it by yourself). The most critical phase for most of these attitudes is yet to come, at a time when your abilities are more manifold and your urges to do something creative and effective will have grown. I hope I can establish a mindful awareness for the effects of my own habits and behaviours that trigger the formation of certain traits in you – one of them being a healthy self-esteem. Then we will see if Mrs. Khan’s illustrations prove helpful as an inspiration for self-reflection!

Advertisements

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/
evaluative
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.

buddhathink

Sand

Apparently, we don’t have a TV at home – but you don’t care, yet, because you don’t even know, yet, what a TV is. Television is a technology in the field of mass media. In the 1960s it entered almost every household in Germany, other European countries, the USA, Japan, and many other countries, soon ubiquitous all around the globe. It presented moving pictures which was regarded as a huge advancement compared to the other major mass media forms in place, the radio and the newspaper. Why, then, don’t we have one now? To be sure, we consciously and wholeheartedly decided not to have one. To explain that, I’d like to share a story with you:

A professor stood before his Philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty bucket and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the bucket was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the bucket. He shook it lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the bucket was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the bucket and of course filled up everything else. He then asked once more if it was full. The students responded with an unanimous yes. The professor then produced a cup of tea from under the table and proceeded to pour the entire content into the bucket, effectively filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed.

Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this bucket represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children, your friends, your favourite passions – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else – the small stuff. If you put the sand into the bucket first,” he continued, ” there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner dancing. Play another match chess. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.” After a few moments of silence in the classroom, one of the students raised his hand and inquired what the tea represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a cup of tea.”

This story is about priorities and about our important and useful ability to step back and reflect on our life, the decisions we make and the options we choose. On the one side, it is good to realise what our golf balls are, because only then are we able to lead a mindful and fulfilled life. On the other side, it is of the same significance to identify and eliminate all the sand! And I can tell you, what we call “progress”, especially the technological one, produces more and more sand, time killers that lure our weak and opportunistic minds to choose them. My standard example for “sand” in this respect is TV. To put it straight: 98% (roughly) of what is transmitted via TV channels is nonsensical, meaningless, stupidifying, dull bullshit (this will probably be the only time you will ever read this word from me here). Yes, there is informative News. Luckily, nowadays, we have more diverse and alternative sources for News, especially via internet. Yes, there are interesting documentaries and educational shows. These are either the remaining 2%, or they turn out to be much less valuable than other sources of knowledge and learning. And, yes, sometimes it is simply entertaining and funny, for example in form of good movies, live concerts, cultural shows, etc. Again, there are better sources for that. When you read a book, your imagination creates the visual impression from the words you are receiving. In your mind, a creative sense-making takes place. When you watch TV, your mind is much less creative and by far less challenged to “make sense” of what it perceives. Besides, culture and arts should also be consumed “directly”, not through a TV screen. Moreover, TV consumption is unhealthy both for body (sitting around, blue light screen) and psyche. This last point deserves more attention and explanation.

The major problem I have with TV consumption is that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t challenge our intellect, emotional and empathic skills, creativity, thoughtfulness and practical skills. The severe lack of self-fulfilment that goes along with watching TV leaves us behind with the inherent feeling of emptiness (not in the Buddhist sense), of having wasted time, and of stagnation. If you are already “empty” (like most of the people in “modern” countries), you might not even get aware of it. But if you grow into a mindful, creative, curious and active person that seeks self-fulfilment, you will probably choose to watch TV only when there is really nothing else to do (which means: never). When you delve into a book, create an artwork, practice a musical instrument, exhaust yourself with sports, socialise with friends, play in the sun or explore nature, I promise you will always feel “better” than after watching TV. Of course, it is not about always doing something “smart” or meaningful, there must be time for relaxing and low-level entertainment. But then, I imply, it is still about “making choices”, and the TV gives you only an illusion of choice, as Roger Waters wrote in The Wall in 1979: “I got 13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from.” As mentioned above, today, there are much more sources of all sorts of information and entertainment. We don’t need a TV to choose interesting movies, informative documentaries or comedy.

tveducation

The problem is: TV is a “simple” way to pass time. Same as alcohol is a simple way to cover sadness. Or as smoking is a simple way to deal with insecurity and nervousness. Or as chocolate is a simple way of self-reward. It is a temptation, a welcome counter-pole to the stressful and difficult “daily life” with school, job, conflict-solving, standing one’s ground and fulfilling one’s desires. People choose TV because they are tired. And because vegging in front of the TV doesn’t require any brain cells. What these people obviously didn’t experience is the power of a passion (a hobby, for example) or of interpersonal quality time (playing with children, meaningful conversation with close friends or the partner) to serve as a huge source of energy. In the terms of the story: sand sucks your energy out, while golf balls deliver energy to you! Even after a long workday, and especially when you are tired. You just need to get your ass up! In Buddhist terms: Watching TV is suffering (dhuka) in the sense that you give in to your deluded desires and your resistance to challenges. Our (your parents’) decision not to have a TV is motivated by the attempt to eliminate all sources of unhappiness and suffering. Instead, we (your Mom and I) play cards almost every night before going to sleep. This simple card game is as “stupid” and non-challenging as a TV show, but we look at each other, talk to each other while playing, interact (at least more than in front of a TV screen) and have fun “in our way” (instead of in a way dictated by a technological device). My vision of the future is a family life full of activities like this, outdoor activities whenever the weather allows it, and playing games, playing music, create or build something together, whenever we prefer staying inside.

I am totally aware that my aversion against TV is highly exaggerated and for many people even offensive. Of course, not everybody who watches TV from time to time is an idiot! But it is, as always, a matter of balance and – most of all –  a matter of mindfulness and conscious choice! For now, since you are still a baby, we decided not to expose you to TV consumption or any other form of “staring at a screen”. So far, you obviously grow into a curious, active, healthy, energetic, cognitively very skilled girl! Therefore, I believe, it is not the worst choice!

Let there be trees!

I am not very convinced of ancient Chinese philosophy. There is certainly an insightful metaphysical depth in the Yijing (易經) and its elaborations on change, harmony, conditionality and emergence. This was aptly substantiated by Laozi’s (老子) philosophy, but I always feel like something is missing in the Daodejing (道德經). His wu-wei (無為) idea is often not feasible in daily life and, therefore, appears a bit too easy and naïve. His follower Zhuangzi (莊子) is closer to my taste with his skepticism and pragmatism. Kongzi (孔子), Mengzi (孟子) and Xunzi (荀子) have been much too idealistic in their vision of “moral cultivation”, and much too optimistic concerning the intellectual and mental capacity of the “ordinary people”. At the same time, Mozi (墨子) and Hanfeizi (韓非子) have been too extreme, each in their way. Mozi was what we would now call a “Hippie”, convinced that human nature is unconditional love for everyone and everything, while Hanfeizi on the contrary depicted the human nature as evil and selfish, only tamed by strict law and punishment. Chinese Buddhist philosophy (Wei-shi, Hua-yan, Tian-tai and Chan) is much more inherently consistent and plausible from my point of view. However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from ancient Chinese scholars!

There is an allegory told by Mengzi that I find very meaningful: The Ox Mountain (Niu Shan, 牛山, written in Mencius 6A:8). Imagine a mountain slope with a forest of tall firm trees. Lumberjacks come with saws and axes and cut down the trees. New sprouts appear, but the new open space is immediately occupied by oxen that eat the fresh sprouts or trample them down so that no new trees can grow. Therefore, once the lumberjacks did their work, the mountain slope will forever be bold, threatened by erosion and home to rampaging oxen.

oxmountain

Nothing can grow here no more…

He used this image in the context of explaining why despite the inherent goodness of people there is, apparently, so much evil in the world. He regards morality as “firmly grown” in the human mind, but cut and corrupted by “human affairs” and the inevitable negative experiences that every human being makes throughout his or her course of life. Once the perforated morality gave way to “the dark side”, the void is filled with instances that support the evil ways, destroying all chances for the healing of morality. The trees are our morality, the lumberjacks are the negative experiences, the oxen are the powerful agents of evil that keep us on the immoral track.

I think this story can also illustrate approaches of psychotherapy and how we deal with “bad people” in general. To me, it appears reasonable to regard character traits as subject of constant change. This change can be actively influenced. Thoughts and “mindsets” lead to particular actions, and repeated actions form habits and customs, and these habits constitute a person’s personality and, therefore, his or her “fate”. It is of lesser significance whether the “nature” of human is good or bad. I regard it as more significant that human character depends strongly on experience and how meaning is constructed from it. That also means that nobody is like this or that eternally and unshakeably. The criminal is a criminal because his way of life made him that. The idiot is an idiot because his or her experiences formed certain character traits that make him or her appear as an idiot to me. The bad-tempered freak has a good chance to develop a calm and easy mindset if only the conditions for it were set right. There is always a chance for transformation and change. The question is: Do we spend efforts on directing and guiding this development in a desirable way, or do we fatalistically believe in destiny, get desperate over is-states and remain inactive? Let’s try to give everyone a chance. Everyone’s mountain slope (mind) has the potential to be covered by a vivid forest of tall firm trees of emotional, intellectual and moral integrity.

When dealing with a “weird” person, someone with a low integrity or with distorted character traits, the first question we have to ask is: What cut down the trees? What in this person’s life acted like the lumberjacks with saws and axes? Very often it has been incidents or continuous experiences in the person’s past, for example education, family situations, mistreatments, unfavourable outer conditions, stress, existential fears, etc. Of course, the past can’t be changed, but understanding the past and its role for the present state is the first important step to initiate the future course in this moment. Empathic skills and a good will certainly help to see a person in a more understanding light rather than from an accusing and reproaching stand. The second question, then, is: What are the oxen that prevent the new sprouts from growing healthily? Therapeutically, this is the most pressing issue. Most psychoses, neuroses, obsessions, addictions, emotional and other disorders, habits and character manifestations can be understood as compensations of a lack of something existential (for example love, attention, self-fulfilment (freedom), respect and acceptance) or as an outlet for suppressed desires and needs. This must not necessarily be grown into a psychological disorder or disease, but may be expressed through imbalanced emotions and their eruptions, in self-isolation and diminished self-esteem or self-confidence. These “oxen” kill every chance of “recovery” since they occupy the person’s mind, decision-making capacity, actions and statements, and thus dominate both inner balance and social interactions. When encountering people that we label as “weird”, “bad” or “sick”, we often don’t care about their lumberjacks and oxen. We just see them as “this” or “that”. Admittedly, we also don’t have the time and capacity to show everyone our empathic and caring side. However, in case of friends and family members, we should always be aware of the fact that every person has an individual narrative of his or her life, with a history full of lumberjacks and oxen, and at the same time a mountain slope full of sprouts that desperately try to grow into tall trees. Chasing away the oxen and inviting the lumberjacks for a tea so that they are distracted from doing their ruinous work, that would be true help and support from a friend or a family member! I am firmly convinced that not only studious psychotherapists have the competence to do that, but everyone who has the capacity to love a close person, who is willing to lend an ear or a shoulder, and who understands that NOW is the time to let the past be past and pave the way for a desirable change towards a brighter future.

Frederick and the colours

I re-discovered a book that I liked a lot when I was a little boy: ‘Frederick’ by Leo Lionni. Reading it again, I remember why I was fascinated by it! It tells the story of five mice living in a wall next to an abandoned farm, preparing for the harsh winter months. They work hard collecting grains, nuts and straw, except Frederick who seemingly just sits around dreaming. Asked why he doesn’t work he replies “I do work! I collect sun rays! I gather colours! I gather words!”

frederick1

The winter comes and soon all supplies are finished. The mice feel cold and stop chatting. Then Frederick distributes his supplies: He tells them about the sun rays and they feel warm. He tells them about all the colours and they can imagine them clearly. He recites a poem and entertains them by that.

frederick2

I liked this story (and still do) because it explains that intellectual labour is as valuable as physical labour. I have always been a “thinker”, a “theorist”. My Mom often told me “Why don’t you do anything?! Make yourself useful and mow the lawn/mop the floor/tidy up your room/help me with the dishes!”. She wasn’t aware that she forced me to leave behind an unfinished thought and mental construct, which was as unpleasant for me as an unfinished housework for her. A similar situation occurs today (I mean “these days”), in Taiwan, where the majority of people is convinced of technological progress and material wealth as the source of a good life quality. When they ask me what I am doing and I tell them I am an ethicist, they ask “But what do you DO? What do you produce? Nothing, uh?”. Again, I feel misunderstood.

I think this is a story for all those who believe that material achievement (things, money) is all we need for our lives. For those who think that science and technology are entirely sufficient for world explanation and human progress. For those who regard arts, philosophy and spirituality as useless blabla or waste of time and (mental and monetary) resources. For those who don’t understand what philosophers and artists do all day. We collect all those meaningful things that you are too busy to pay attention to and that you miss when your supplies are used up or turn out to be inefficient nourishment. That’s why – in academic terms – they are “humanities”. Frederick doesn’t contribute practical means, but he offers something as important as that: orientational knowledge that helps us remember the grand meaning of our existence, that gives us a choice to overcome the suffering of daily struggle and use our mental capacities to create warmth, community and positivity. To be prepared for that requires work (gathering sun rays, colours and words), even though for an outsider it might look like just sitting around. But both philosophers and artists (painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, writers, etc.) actually do spend big efforts on providing orientation, meaning, inspiration and humanistic visions in times of cold scientism, impersonal technocracy, inhumane economic profit chase, global political imbalance and the dawn of unpredictable but globally impacting environmental and climatic change. We are not living in a “different world”! It is this world that we are concerned about! And since winter is approaching, you will need us more than ever!

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.

world1

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.

world2

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.

world3

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!

world4

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.

world5

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.