My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!

francisco_varela

When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

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My Heroes – Literature: Max Frisch

I want to write about a “hero” from the field of literature. I really want to! But I had some difficulties choosing one! First, I was very sure I would write about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He impressed me sustainably with his psycho-horror and fascinating crime stories. From my point of view, he had an incredibly good sense for the “inner” terrors of people that are much worse than outer threats like diseases, losses, monsters or villains. The most horrifying “monsters” are our mental constructs, and in poems like The Raven, tales like The Tell-tale Heart as well as in his unputdownable novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, he illustrated these destructive powers of our vulnerable psyche extraordinarily well. However, after reading about his life, it is impossible for me to name him “a hero”! Besides being a literary genius, he seemed to have been quite a fool. He was alcoholic, sexually obsessed by women, married his cousine when he was 27 and she was 13 (!), and was an eccentric unreliable person. Not very heroic.

Then I remembered that I read all the books by the two outstanding Swiss authors Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). Actually, I like Frisch’s works more for several reasons. Dürrenmatt’s plays like Romulus the Great or The Physicists are outspokenly funny and intellectually deep at the same time, and his crime stories like The Pledge, Suspicion, The Judge and his Hangman, or A Dangerous Game are must-reads for every bookworm! However, Frisch’s criticism of postmodernism and his literary analysis of the ongoing alienation of man from his social and environmental lifeworld  (like in Homo Faber, Stiller, Gantenbein, or The Fire Raisers (German: Biedermann und die Brandstifter)), is much more profound and subtle than that of Dürrenmatt. My favourite book of his is the early work Bin or the Journey to Beijing (German: Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking)! It is a mental odyssey around the question How do we want to live our lives? and What is in our own power to do about it?, employing even a Buddhist touch of mindfulness, emptiness and inner balance. It is primarily this book that makes me choose Max Frisch as “my literature hero” over Dürrenmatt.

max-frisch

However, I was hesitating also with this choice. The reason is – same as for Poe – Frisch’s personal lifestyle. He was a notoriously unfaithful man. After his first failed marriage, he had a liaison with Ingeborg Bachmann (also a famous author). Over several years they had a kind of partnership that was dominated by dirty public fights and exhaustive pulling-each-other-down, affecting both their literary work negatively. Later, he married the 28-years-younger Marianne Oellers, but also this marriage was divorced after Frisch had several love affairs. He wrote about his sexual life in his novel Montauk (which is the name of a city in USA where he had an affair with a young American woman) which caused a public debate between his wife and him about where to draw the line between public and private life, ultimately leading to the divorce.

It seems, I have to find a compromise. Maybe, there is no “good literature” without its producer being a bit “weird”, notorious, eccentric, and unheroic. In any case, I learned a lot from Max Frisch’s works, and in terms of partnership conduct I’ll just take him as a negative example.

The Pannonia Chronicles

The Pannonia Chronicles

One of the more unusual experiences of my life has been this: I was the dictator of my own country! Here is the full story:

Back-story

Here is an overview of my family’s countryside house. On the right, between our residential house and the way that led from the road to the landlord’s bee house, that small stripe was my friend Christoph’s and my most favourite playground. We called it “the forest”.

scheme

However, we grew up and the space between those bushes grew smaller. Therefore, we conquered a new “playground” in Autumn 1993. It was an area of ~200m² between our garden, the paddock and the apple tree meadow on which trees and bushes were growing. In the beginning we had to fight our way through stinging-nettles and branches. Before, the area was a bawn for chicken and ducks, the only man-made structure was an old chicken barn, about 80 cm high. Here is a map of the area as we found it (tree positions only approximately).

Pannonia-scheme1

The copse was surrounded by a fence, we installed a wire fence on the Northern end (in those schemes the right side) to mark “our” area. The old chicken house was used as a “desk”. In August 1994 we had an idea: In our “forest” we should build a real hut. After making drawings and plans, we asked our parents for material and built it. First we made a frame from wooden posts and sticks, and then covered it with silage film that the farmers in our neighbourhood use for covering the silage (animal food). We were so proud of our building that we celebrated its roofing ceremony and invited our families for a BBQ party. The hut was 3 meters long, 1,50 meters wide and 2 meters tall. I was playing (no, working!) in the “forest” nearly every day. Here I was king! I borrowed all kinds of tools from my father and built things, a table, a shelf and other things as interior for the hut. And sometimes I just sat there and thought about my life and that the world would be better if everyone was like me and not like all the idiots around me… In October 1994 we created a garden, fertilized it with horse dung and planted strawberries. In December we constructed an oven inside the hut to keep it warm. The first attempts were very terrible, the hut was full of smoke and the oven often broke. Then we masoned it with cement. We made a fire nearly every evening! We decided to have a cash box and paid “taxes”: 1 DM (~0,5 Euro) every 2 weeks. In the meantime we got a lot of material from our parents, like pots, a fuel lamp, and some tools. When we measured the area we found this data: Width: 6,80m, length (Paddock side): 9,80m, length (middle): 10,50m, length (meadow side): 16,50m. We counted 28 trees, 21 bushes and 13 small shrubs. At the end of 1994 the area looked like this:

Pannonia-scheme2

I often made candles by myself from wax remains (my mother often used candles in the house and gave me the remains when they were too short). In February, we added a part to the hut as a storage space for some new stuff that we got (a barrel, several cans, a ladder). The oven still broke very often. Especially the stovepipe was very unstable.

Rise and Fall of Pannonia

One day in March, on the bus back from school to Hoetmar, Christoph and I talked about our “forest” (as usual). Then I had an idea: Obviously it is “our” ground, so why not making it independent from Germany and form our own country? We needed a name for it. I remembered a class trip to the “Panorama Park” in spring 1994, an amusement park 100km south of Hoetmar in which the mascot sang a song that goes like “I am the Pano from Panorama Park“. This name “Pano” sounds so stupid that we often made jokes with it. I remembered this name and suggested “Pannonia” (written with double-n instead of only one) as our country’s name and we are the “Pannos”. Christoph agreed, so we founded Pannonia on March 9th 1995. This day became the “national holiday”. As an independent country we needed a flag of course! I designed this one (with MSPaint of Windows 95 on our very first PC):

Pannonia

We also made passports for ourselves. We were now Pannos and chose new names: I was Detlef Panno and Christoph was Otto Panno.

We added a second entrance gate on the left side. The oven got a new bigger pipe, and a secret underground storage box was constructed (to hide important things from my sister who sometimes came and stole our things). To protect our country we attached barbwire around it. The inside of the hut was a little too dark, so we added a window. I enjoyed such construction work very much! And the more we made, the more skilled we became. The first constructions all broke, but later we built really cool things! Of course I told my classmates about my country. Some friends from another village (Everswinkel) also founded a country then, “Joppe”. It was self-understanding that we were arch-enemies! Christoph and me elaborated some military strategies, constructed weapons and practiced on the meadow (sword fighting with sticks, shooting with a “pea shooter”, a tube with the finger of a rubber glove). We planted carrots, peas and beans in the garden, also the strawberries grew well. When we repaired the oven once again we added a metal plate on it. Now we were able to cook! Sometimes we made Ravioli (canned ready-made noodles). In June 1995 we added another part to the hut. We still constructed with the same style: a frame made of wood covered with big pieces of silage film. In the beginning we used white film because we got that from Christoph’s parents. Later we got more robust black one from another neighbour.

In August 1995 we affiliated a new “inhabitant”: a boy from my class called Steffen (Erwin Panno). In October, a 4th Panno was accepted: Stefan joined us (Herbert Panno). We had our first official big assembly on October 19th and 20th. First, we tried to organise our politics. With only 4 citizen, we decided that we wouldn’t need a parliament or government, but that we elect a dictator for one year. We called that “democratic dictatorship”. I was elected as the first dictator of Pannonia, probably because I was the one who spent most time there, because it was at my home. However, in order to keep our society balanced, I appointed Christoph as our agriculture minister (who had to take care of the garden), and Steffen as our minister of defence (but we called it “war minister”, planning defence strategies, but also “foreign affairs”). We also reformed our tax system (more money!) and decided to write a constitution. Then, the pleasurable part of the meeting started: We bought Ravioli, snacks and coke and slept in the hut. Actually, we also bought some beer, but we had to keep it secret, because we were just 14 (Christoph even only 12) and definitely not allowed to drink alcohol. That was the first time in my life that I drank beer. I liked sweet drinks (like coke) more, but it was cool to drink like the adults do. We talked all night about girls in our class, which of them we liked most, what part of a girl’s body is most sexy, and all these things that teenage boys think about. At midnight we had a night walk for 2 hours and frightened the neighbours’ dogs. Of course we were very smelly and dirty the next morning, but that was part of the game.

In November, we constructed a second hut. It was only 1 meter high, but we wanted to dig a hole inside of it. We had agriculture (our garden), military and thought we also need industry: mining. One side of the hut was left open, so we could dig and throw the soil outside. Now I was digging nearly every day. After 2 days the hole was 60cm deep. At the end of the year the hole had a size of 1,50m x 1,80m and was more than 1 meter deep. It was often filled with water that came from the ground or from rain.

In the diary that I wrote about Pannonia I found a mysterious entry from December 12th: Julia and Sarah (Christoph’s sister) occupied Pannonia. On December 16th the occupation was put down successfully. I just ask myself why it took 4 days (in the future, Historians will have to do some research into this matter!)… Since then, the two girls had their own space on the right side of the copse and – of course – were our No.1 enemies! In the meantime our arch enemies (formerly known as “Joppe”) were renamed “Sestania” (made from the first two letters of each of their names, Sebastian, Stefan and André). Actually, in school we were all friends, but for boys like us it was more fun to have “enemies” and to be “at war”.

Here is a picture of Pannonia at the end of 1995:

Pannonia-scheme3

During 1996, Pannonia saw major architectural advancements. In March, the old chicken barn was replaced by a two-storey tower, at that time our by far most sophisticated construction! The sand that we dug out of that hole was used to form a low levee around a wooden frame, a kind of bunker that had space for one person. Later it was fortified by an iron fence and a roof. The whole thing was connected to the hut above the hole which later turned into a tower, too. In May, we conquered “Lower Pannonia”, the North side of our country, by building an outpost: a hexagonal pavilion (classical Pannonia style: wood and silage film) with an elevated part in the middle of the roof. We made campfires inside this hut. The smoke could escape through the hole in the roof. One night we didn’t extinguish the fire properly, and the next morning I found wide parts of the film molten and burned. We were lucky that this didn’t turn into a serious bush fire! Here is one of the few real photos of Pannonia, taken in April 1996, when the bushes still had no leaves. Our silage film constructions looked pretty ugly – my Mom often complained about that, actually – but during summer it was almost invisible in the dense copse, covered by leaves.

1996-04 - Pannonia

Not only the architecture, also our political ideas advanced. As announced earlier, I tried to write our constitution. Of course, I had no idea about what a constitution should look like, so I took the German constitutional law and “translated” that into terms that meet our purposes. Most remarkably, the first sentence in the German constitution – “Human dignity is untouchable.” – didn’t make much sense to me. Dignity – what a hollow and hazy term! I changed it into “The freedom of the Panno is untouchable.“. In retrospective, it makes sense to me! What teenagers want to see protected the most is their freedom – freedom from parents, authority, limitations, and freedom to do what we like and to live out our ideas. Dignity is not much of an issue at that age.

In spring 1996, we recruited a 5th member, Benjamin alias Bruno Panno, but only as a “Half-Panno”, because his half-hearted commitment left certain doubts concerning his loyalty to Pannonia. By the end of the year, we attracted 4 further interested boys, all “Half-Pannos”, so that we can say that at the peak we had 9 citizen, counting all of them in. I must admit, I forgot who these others were (one was called Tim, I think).

A major obstacle for Pannonia was the lack of sanitary facilities and electricity. Yes, boys can pee everywhere, but for “big business” we still needed to run to my family’s house. Whenever we wanted to use electric tools or simply listen to the radio, I had to connect a 50 meter extension cord to the nearest plug in the garage (only possible when there were no horses in the paddock). Weather, though, was never a problem. We managed to make the huts rain-proof, they withstood storms and heavy snowfall, and with the oven it was even comfortably warm in winter. In summer, Pannonia was completely in the shade under the dense canopy of the bushes and trees and, therefore, not too hot.

We have been quite busy in Pannonia throughout the whole year, according to the notes I took. We constantly remodelled the area, built things, got more equipment, and made it a fancy place. The landlord turned his bee house into a kind of “holiday house” and gave us the discarded beehive boxes. We stacked them together as a locker shelf in the first hut. We finally managed to make the oven stable enough to survive our excessive night sessions with more and more beer and endless conversations about everything. We truly “grew up” in Pannonia! In October 1996 we held our second “National Assembly” (again, of course, combined with drinking and staying overnight in the huts) in which I was re-elected as the dictator.

Pannonia at the end of 1996:

Pannonia-scheme4

In early 1997 we turned the mine (in the scheme labelled “hole”) into a new landmark building, a three floor tower with basement, ground floor and attic. It was the tallest structure that we built, but at the same time the least used one. I guess its construction coincides with a shift of interests away from Pannonia as our favourite playground towards other activities like playing music (I had my band “no more lund”, for example) or doing sports (Christoph played football in the local team). I still spent much time in Pannonia, working or taking it as refuge from the evil outside world. However, our space was almost fully exploited, and also our construction skills have reached their limits. Childish ideas like our self-drawn “passports” lost their attraction, and also our plan to make Pannonia independent – an option that we seriously discussed and (at least I) dreamed of – gave way for more pragmatic and down-to-earth considerations: Pannonia was and will ever be a fancy playground and, Anno 1997, a place to have fun. But definitely NOT a place to bring girls or to demonstrate our “coolness”, which both became more important in our lives when we got 15, 16, and beyond. The huts were cool but, as we had to admit, also dirty, ugly and uncomfortable.

On the photo, taken in February 1997, you can find me looking out of our first hut (in analogy to a real country, if the huts were cities of Pannonia, this hut was always regarded as “the capital”), and the beginning of the scaffold construction of the central tower above the hole.

1997-02 - Pannonia

After two years of stagnation – no visual progress, no more national assemblies, no new members – and after frequent complaints about the ugly appearance of Pannonia’s “skyline” (at least in autumn and winter), we decided to tear it down in late 1999. In 1998, I still spent much time in the huts, but when my interest and motivation dropped, too, I agreed that it would be the most reasonable thing to do. We deconstructed (if not to say “destructed”) all the huts, recycled the posts and boards (my father and the landlord used them for other purposes) and threw all the rest, especially all the silage foil, into the hole that we dug and covered it with soil. That was the end of an era for me. One of the most exciting and important parts of my life was buried in the ground.

Retrospective Reflections

Why has Pannonia been so important for me? Why did I put so much heart and soul into this “project”? I am inclined to characterise myself – the 12-16 year old me – as extraordinarily introverted and as unhealthily misanthropic, almost sociophobic. The experiences at primary and secondary school of being teased and bullied left a deep imprint on my view of other people: Everybody is either a fool or an idiot. Obviously, people didn’t appreciate my qualities – I was good at school, could solve mathematical and empirical problems, had some practical skills – but focused on exploiting my weaknesses (being shy, not good at small talk, not looking “cool”, low self esteem). Pannonia – same as my Lego role-playing worlds before – was my way of escaping, my refuge. In this smaller community with my childhood friend and two classmates who were like me, I felt much better and safer than in the larger, unpredictable and inhomogeneous conglomerate of the school classroom or the boyscouts group. Above all, Pannonia gave me confidence: The proof that I am good at something, namely being the leader of something and, as such, making it flourish and grow. I was a worthy dictator, and not the fool that everyone else wanted me to believe to be. Of course, these are thoughts that I can only have in retrospection. At that age, I was not able to reflect consciously about these kind of issues.

The time between the age of 12 and 16 brings significant and crucial changes in personal development and interests. I believe, this is the age in which the future path of a person is paved the most. Besides playing drums and acquiring musical skills, Pannonia is my main source of positive life attitude without which I would have drifted off either into depression, serious misanthropy, or aggressive disorders. It served as an outlet for all my inner insecurities, instabilities and worries – and as an introvert I had many! The experiences of being respected by my peers, of sharing thoughts and secrets (in those endless nocturnal meetings around the fireside), of experiencing that I am just a normal boy with an inside world that is similar to others, was extraordinarily relieving for me! It also taught me how to expose myself in front of myself, something that is far from being trivial for a young teen!

Besides this psychological dimension, there is also a normative one, as I believe. The idea of making Pannonia an independent country was most likely inspired by the conviction that “we – with the values that we defend – would be a better society than the one that we currently find ourselves in“. We reflected directly and in open debate about values like freedom, justice, or fairness, when we discussed our constitution. From an uninformed, greenhornish, teenage perspective, though, but firmly convinced that our views are “right”! But also on a deeper, rather unconscious level, since Pannonia fell into an era of my life in which I progressed from a “mindless” child into an assertive and reasonable teenager, it served as an environment in which I formed and contested my value system and normative (if not to say “ethical”) integrity. I wouldn’t underestimate this impact that Pannonia and my dedication for it had on me!

As a conclusion, I wish that all children and teens would have a chance to build their own personal version of Pannonia, maybe not physically in a copse (since that is not available for everyone), but at least in their own room and with the proper amount of freedom and creativity! It might be the main reason for me wanting to move to the countryside with my family, giving my Kids the chance to experience something like this. Not only for practical skills and creativity, but also for personality development in the very critical time from childhood to adolescence. Being a “dictator” one time in your life – letting confidence and integrity rule you until the end of days!

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

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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

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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

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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!

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

Bare necessities

In an earlier letter I wrote about the steps of development, from body-centeredness to mental advancements to spirituality. Today, I’d like to elaborate on a similar yet slightly different model, inspired by Maslow’s pyramid of needs. He distinguishes three levels of human needs, manifested in 5 steps of particular interests. The “basic needs” are the most fundamental physiological needs (enough food and water, sufficient warmth and the chance to rest) and safety needs (being free from harm and danger). Then, there are psychological needs such as belongingness and love (having relationships, family, friends) and esteem needs (feeling productive and being merited for ones accomplishments). Finally, people have self-fulfilment or self-actualisation needs (having hobbies, being creative, expressing and satisfying one’s inner states).

maslowpyramid

This pyramid can be “read” in various ways. First, the suggested hierarchy may be understood as an order of development of both human civilisation as a whole and individual human beings in particular. Non-human animals and our closest evolutionary ancestors are driven by their physiological needs, and to a lesser extent by safety needs. When early humans as conscious and self-aware beings formed clans and rudimentary societies (in contrast to non-aware social animals like bees, ants or fish swarms), the emotional bonds among clan and family members made them realise love needs. When the survival and well-being of a society (or clan, or family) depends on the activity level and its success and efficiency of each individual, and when successful and efficient activity was merited, the psychological need of prestige and esteem supported the motivation to actively contribute to social life and to increasing life quality. When all this is taken care of and there is still time left, then there is room for self-actualisation in the form of creative and artful activities – the birth of human culture. On the individual level, the basic needs (food, sleep) are the first expressed ones, along with security and safety needs. When the newborn baby feels well-taken care of, it starts forming bonds with the caretakers and love-givers. When getting socially active, needs of confirmation and rewards are expressed, and from a certain age on, Kids feel the desire to express themselves according to their skills in a meaningful way.

A second reading is the relation between those needs and the granting of human rights. The more basic a need the more we are inclined to grant the satisfaction of that need as a “human right”. It is important to distinguish negative rights (the right of freedom from something) from positive rights (the right of freedom to something). From my understanding, Maslow’s pyramid implies that from top to bottom the “freedom from” rights increase in significance and importance. Everybody might agree that people should have the right of freedom from being blocked from access to food, warmth and sleep. But not everybody agrees that people have a right of being loved or a right of having a job or a right of committing to a passionate hobby (or, strictly speaking, in terms of negative rights: the right of freedom from being blocked from access to it). The positive rights, in contrast, increase from bottom to top: People are granted the right of freedom to choose their hobby, their favourite music, their religion or their job. Usually, people are also free to choose their friends and partner (not the parents and siblings, though). However, in case of the basic needs, they are usually not spoken of in connection with terms of freedom of choice. It appears plausible, however, to understand the physiological and safety needs as “more urgent” than, for example the need to have a hobby or a job. This hierarchy is also mirrored in international agreements on human rights protection and manifested in actual law-and-order systems. When imprisoning criminals, their right of freedom to choose their activities, their destinations or their social surrounding is taken from them (so to say), but even in a prison it must be ensured – according to common sense – that they have enough to eat, a place to sleep safely and that they are not tortured or humiliated. On a less “political” but more “familiar” level, we might make the example of parents that bar their 10-year-old daughter from having a tattoo with the argument that her safety (from harmful health effects of the carcinogenic ink) outweighs her freedom of self-actualisation (which, as she believes, having a tattoo is part of). Here, it is also obvious that from bottom to top the number of options to choose from are increasing immensely. On the basic level, we simply have to eat, sleep and stay away from unhealthy environmental conditions. It is also clear what safety and security imply. The ways to serve the need of friendship and love are much more manifold, not to speak of the choices for esteem and self-fulfilment needs.

Third, there is an ethical reading in the pyramid – even though I wonder if Maslow or others who exploit this illustration would think of it in this way. Ethics as the attempt to find solutions for conflicts and problems that occur in the inter-sphere between individual people, societies and cultures is concerned with strategies of argumentation that can convince parties of the rightness or wrongness of certain viewpoints, decisions and/or actions. People have different interests, desires and preferences. When these collide, a solution is needed as an orientation for what would be a proper way to proceed. Commonly, people agree that “my rights end where your rights start”, but that is often too simplistic and not helpful for many conflict cases. This pyramid may serve as an orientation for a hierarchy of rights. When two need-based rights collide, the one further down in the pyramid is to be prioritised over the one further up. When a politician’s interest in power (as a form of prestige) and votes leads him to making decisions that are undermining the social stability of his country (like Trump in USA), it is unethical. When I neglect my children’s need to spend quality time with their father because I am more interested in my job or my hobby, it is unethical. This reading is connected to the second reading on rights: Limiting someone’s options for self-fulfilment is less ethically problematic than limiting someone’s options for seeking safety. When I prohibit a certain hobby you have many alternatives to choose from. But when I mistreat you or don’t care for you, you can’t just choose another family. On the socio-political level, when a legislation prohibits smoking in public places (as in Germany) some people complain, but it is not a big problem. When a legislation prohibits homosexual relationships (as in Russia), thus limiting the satisfaction of relationship needs for a significant group of the population, it is ethically highly questionable. When a legislation is not putting sufficient energy into the social balance (as in Myanmar, not governing the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims), it is losing its justification. When a legislation is not even trying to feed its population (as in North Korea), this legislation is better put out of power (forcefully, if necessary) since this is clearly a violation of human rights.

Inspired by Maslow’s pyramid (that makes good sense to me), I thought about an additional or even supplementary pyramid of necessities for life quality. The pyramid of needs doesn’t say anything about the sources for the satisfaction of those needs. What must be given for a certain life quality? How can that be prioritised or hierarchised in order to come to insights that can serve as orientations for actions and decisions (such as the “human rights” approach based on the hierarchy of needs)? Here is the result of my reflections:

mehlichpyramid

The basic necessity that is needed for survival is environmental stability. Embedded into an ecosystem, human beings can’t survive without it. If the fine-tuned environmental balance is disrupted, the whole system will be affected, for example through changes in biodiversity, food chains, climate, chemical constitution of the atmosphere, etc. Environmental health is the basis for our food sources, for access to fresh water, for breathable air and the ecological niche of the human race. All anthropogenic activity (including system formation such as society, culture, economy, money, etc.) is dependent on it and, therefore, secondary to it. Second, human needs can only be satisfied when there is a certain level of social stability. In extreme cases (war, riots, anarchy, violence), this can affect the survival chances. In a more moderate sense, political stability provides autonomy and grants rights to the citizen that it is governing, thus enabling integrity. Here, integrity means inviolacy and the ability to act at all. However, it gradually (in the pyramid upwards) takes up the meaning of righteousness (ethical integrity) when the levels further down are taken care of. The third level that corresponds to Maslow’s belongingness and love needs is labelled ethical stability. With this, I mean an atmosphere of trust and co-operation among family members, neighbours, colleagues and peers (those in direct vicinity of one’s life). Only in that kind of surrounding can people start building close ties and rely on each other, increasing each others’ life quality by mutual support and collaboration. Only such a society is able to establish a system that offers livelihood options. This might be the most critical and debatable part of my pyramid. It implies that – as soon as a society reaches a certain level of integral peace and co-operation, people will feel the desire to act as parts of this society, bringing in their skills and abilities. They do that, as I believe, out of self-motivation and not because the social system forces them to. Moreover, it is not clear to everyone why economic needs play a role in this fourth level rather than on the first level (providing food, housing, clothes, etc.). The economic system we have, arisen from a functionally differentiated society (to use Niklas Luhmann’s term), dictates a lifestyle of shared competences in various types of jobs. Only in this kind of system depends the daily supply of food, housing, etc. on the financial income from one’s job (livelihood). This is man-made and not a universal law – it could be different. That’s why the basic needs (or here: the basic necessities) have, in principle, nothing to do with the economic system that we established. Having a job is only a necessity because we as a society chose to live like that. This fourth level in my pyramid is rather referring to livelihood options as a multitude of ways to unleash one’s productivity potentials because that is what we naturally fill our lives with when the lower three levels are secured. When survival is certain and the personal integrity secured, we start being concerned about our identity. We define ourselves through our social ties with family, friends and peers, but also – and maybe predominantly – through our social roles as competent experts in a particular field of skills or knowledge. Ultimately, when there is sufficient capacity and time for it, we form habits of thought or action that agglomerate to what we call culture. People use their creativity and intellect to engage with art, philosophy and spirituality. They choose hobbies (“spare time activities”) and fill leisure time with joyful and pleasurable endeavours. Some of those are part of the identity formation mechanisms, others are simply a “luxury” in the sense of “they are not really necessary for our life”. However, in any case, it is usually those aspects of life that give us the feeling that it is worth living for.

Same as for the needs pyramid, also the necessity pyramid can be understood as a development description, analogue to the one given above. More interesting – and the main reason why I think this way of putting it produces further insights – are the political and ethical dimensions in it. In both fields (politics and ethics) we asks “What shall we do?”. When taking this pyramid as a decision guideline, the answer is: “Start at the bottom, fix the problems, and work your way up!”. In reality, however, we observe trends that proceed in the opposite direction. Governments are eagerly promoting industrial aims for the sake of job creation and material wealth while resources and energy demands ruin the environment and the eco-system. The climate changes in an accelerated fashion under the influence of human activity, but important decision-makers and consumers seem not to care due to the conveniences they desire on the 5th level (self-fulfilment needs and cultural necessities). Religious and societal conflicts dominate the News (for example islamistic terrorism, racism or homophobia, unemployment rate) while the serious global problems arising from atmosphere warming, pollution and species extinction are marginalised and only peripherally brought to people’s awareness, at least not as an “urgent issue”, not to speak of one that is wholeheartedly worked on.

I suggest that crimes are punished on the basis of this pyramid. Environmental destruction and pollution (for example by corporations or shipping companies) as the worst possible crimes are punished with lifelong imprisonment. Terrorism, genocide and tyranny are punished accordingly. Corruption, brainwashing through media or educational curricula, all forms of fascism and discrimination might fall into that same category when they threaten the social stability. The next level are crimes that undermine the ethical integrity of the society: intriguing, fraud, betrayal, abuse, harassment, etc. Stealing money (no matter how much) or other commodities, however, is not a big deal since it is motivated by greed and avarice – character traits that mostly the criminal himself is suffering from, as such already punished. These people need help, not punishment. Crimes in the art/culture realm are hardly possible, then. Copyright violations (for example by downloading music and movies illegally) are a bagatelle compared to crimes that target the more fundamental necessities of human life.

There are two fields of human interest that I’d like to comment on in view of these pyramids: education and technology. Where in these pyramids is education? Some might say it is the guarantor of social stability, therefore it is something that should be granted as a right, and something that the international community should eagerly work on to provide to each and every human on this planet. Others argue that it is only useful to serve the need of esteem or the necessity of livelihood, respectively. It is for identity formation rather than for personal and social integrity. I agree with the former viewpoint: There can’t be integrity, neither personal nor ethical nor societal, without education (at least reading, writing and basic mathematics). A lot of social instability around the globe arises from the immaturity of wide parts of the population due to a lack of education. Educated people will be more free from the despotism of leaders (political, economic, ideological, etc.), and more willing to develop the social conditions to the better (whatever that means). They will be able to secure the satisfaction of basic needs and create capacities to satisfy also the psychological needs and identity-relevant necessities. Moreover, the right education will support environmental protection, sustainable livelihood and economy, and more responsible consumerism and lifestyle practices.

This brings me to reflections on technology. Basically, I (alongside many scholars in Philosophy of Technology) regard the creation and usage of technology as the result of needs and desires. People invent and apply artefacts in order to make their life easier. The oldest known tools (if understood as technology, as I do) helped their users to ensure a sufficient supply of food, clothes, housing and warmth. Still today, many branches of technology are serving purposes of survival, be it for food production, medical technology, housing, protection from natural forces, etc. Other items serve social purposes, for example transportation systems or mass media. Relationship needs are addressed in various forms of communication technology, but also indirectly in the form of making work processes less time-consuming, thus enabling more time with loved ones and for socialising. Technical artefacts enable many new forms of jobs and ways to be a productive member of a community, for example scientists and engineers. Moreover, technological solutions are strongly interwoven into cultural practices, arts, entertainment, and alike. However, at the same time, technology also has negative impact on all levels of human needs and necessities: technology-caused environmental destruction and pollution, social imbalances due to unjust distribution of access to technology-induced wealth, interpersonal and individual conflicts arising from misuse of technology, limitations of livelihood options due to replacement of human workforce by technological solutions, and personal numbness and blunting as a consequence of mindless consumption and application of “cold” technology. In technology assessment, negative and positive effects of technological progress, often referred to as “risks and benefits” are analysed and evaluated according to certain parameters. In the same fashion as I categorised the heaviness of crimes, I suggest to evaluate technology on the basis of my pyramid of necessities: In the first instance, technology must be “environmentally friendly”, that means its design, production, implementation and application must not interfere with the environmental integrity and balance. If it does, no matter how useful it is in serving needs of the upper levels, refrain from it! In the second instance, it should be ensured that it serves social stability by promoting justice and fairness through its general availability and non-discriminatory effects. Then we can start asking in which way it affects people’s life habits (interaction within families, among friends, with colleagues) and people’s options to choose doing anything meaningful in their life. Then – and only then – may we take into account all those intended purposes and anticipated effects that the technology in focus has on the amenities of human daily life. There is a lot of technology (in the widest sense) currently firmly implemented in our daily life that would fail this assessment: individual auto-mobility (cars and motorcycles), cosmetics, agricultural techniques (especially meat production), energy production from fossil fuels, just to name a few examples.

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.

rosebuds

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!