Taming an Ox

We often recognise in daily life that something goes wrong with us. Sometimes our body sends signals that something is wrong, especially when a part of the body feels pain or when an organ doesn’t function well. Also, our emotions may be sources of unease or imbalance sometimes, when we often feel gloomy, lose temper too easily or when too enthusiastic happiness or joy makes us do things that we later regret or regard as stupid. Finally, the most difficult to detect among these three, our thoughts disturb us, cause insomnia, circle around the same things again and again, make us doubt, worry, complain, etc. I guess nobody (except Buddha and some Bodhisattvas) can say that everything in life goes well. When we recognise, understand and accept this fact, we are a big step further!

Imagine you are driving a car at high speed and something is wrong with it. You hear a strange noise or it trembles suddenly. It would be very dangerous and also impossible to find out the reason for the malfunction while driving high speed. Instead it would be reasonable to stop the car, get out of it, walk around it and find the problem (maybe a loose wheel, or something like that). Meditation is the same procedure for the malfunctioning of ourselves. When we recognise something goes wrong with our body, emotions or thoughts, it would be very difficult, almost impossible, to examine, identify or even heal the problem while driving high speed, that means in daily life when we use body, emotions and thoughts as usual. Meditation means to stop, hold on, get out of oneself and observe from outside. That’s what mindfulness is good for. Get out of ourselves and into our mind. Feel and recognise our body signals, not only pain, but also breathing speed, muscle tensions, heartbeat, and so on. Detect emotions and their sources, how they take control of us. With some training we can notice how the pure primary emotions (positive, negative or neutral feelings) are turned into secondary emotions (anger, hate, sadness, happiness, joy, boredom, etc.) by processing those original perceptions with our experiences and habits. We can also observe our thoughts from the outside, which is most difficult, because people tend to think a lot even during a meditation, and can’t imagine how to capture thoughts without thinking about them. In order to explain this matter I found another picture from real life. Imagine you give a party at your home. At 8PM the first guests arrive, you open the door and let them in. With everyone you start a conversation, talk about this and that, debate, tell the latest News, etc. If you proceed like that, many guests will have to wait outside until they have a chance to pass you, and you will be very busy. It would be better to open the door, let everyone in, recognize everyone, but not to talk to everyone for a long time, so that everyone can come in. There will still be time for further talking later. Now transfer this to the situation in our mind. There are always many thoughts that rush into our mind. And usually we spend a lot of time on each and every thought, discuss, debate, follow a line of thought, consider consequences, analyse implications, etc. By this we can never have a clear mind, because all the thoughts that are still waiting for their turn make us feel stressed and overstrained. During the meditation you let all thoughts in, like the party guests, but just recognise them and don’t let them start a deep conversation with you. When all thoughts are there, you have an overview and can say “Aha, these are the things I am thinking. Well, those thoughts are ill-logic and make no sense, so I won’t spend more time on them. These thoughts over there are interesting, I will focus on them later…”, and so on.

With the help of meditation we can understand ourselves much better and we can make strategies on how to behave in a healthy way in daily life. We can understand which behaviour is unhealthy (for example negative emotions that pull us down, or thoughts that keep us awake all night long), so that we can find ways to free ourselves from those patterns. It sounds so simple but is yet so difficult. I guess it takes years to gain an obvious effect from meditation (those 20-30 minutes every evening at home) on our daily routine (all the rest of the time, at work, in the subway, in the supermarket, on holiday, at home, etc.). Another analogy: In my very first swimming class, I didn’t enter the pool but practiced movements on a mat besides the pool, a dry practice. When the teacher was sure that I got it right, he let me enter the water. Meditation is the dry practice for the deep waters of daily life.

The goal of meditative practice is a clear pristine mindfulness, a being-in-the-moment, here and now. With this ability we expand the state of floating – the psychological term for indulging deeply in a hobby or pleasant passionate activity for some time, for example  two hours that feel like 15 minutes – to the entire life. The practice itself is not easy and requires continuous and steady exercise. Among laymen, there is the common misconception that meditation is a form of relaxing, a kind of retreat on a pillow to step out of the stressful daily life. They underestimate that the attempt to disconnect the mind from default emotions and thoughts and to re-configure it in awareness of how things really are is a notoriously difficult and exhausting endeavour. The Buddhist traditions refer to a huge canon of instructions with detailed description of sitting positions (like Zazen), emphasising the importance of unhindered flow of Qi for the liberation of the mind. A central element of different forms of meditation is an object of mental focus that serves as an anchor or fix point whenever the mind drifts off into thoughts and emotions. Some meditations suggest real items like a flower or a Buddha statue, others employ the most natural constant clock that we have: our breath. In Zen meditations, whenever we notice a thought protruding into our pure awareness, we should draw our mental attentions back towards the flow of our breath.

Experiencing these difficulties makes many beginners give up soon after starting the practice. Progress seems slow and the efforts are not rewarded in the same way as for other exercises (like piano lessons – everybody can play at least a simple song after a few classes – or basketball exercises – everybody will hit the basket sooner or later). What even is progress or success in meditation, and how can we notice it? In Korea (maybe also other East-Asian countries, but I don’t know about that), the idea and progress of meditative practice is often described with 10 graphic illustrations that show the stages of herding an ox. It dates back to the 12th century (Song dynasty) when a Chinese Master called Gao-An Shiyuan composed the oldest known ox-herding series. Since then, every influential Master designed his own series of drawings and composed poem-like verses to describe each scene. Here, I’d like to explain meditation with the help of such a series of ox-herding pictures. I use illustrations by the skillful artist Peter Mahr.

  1. In search of the ox

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Beginners of meditation often feel like someone who heard of rumours that somewhere out there is a wild ox, lured by the idea to have his own tamed ox, but having no clue where to start looking for it. Same as the man in the image may ask himself after some time whether the rumours are true, you may start doubting the usefulness and meaning of meditation. You start to consider various different ways of improving the practice. You find yourself at a complete loss as to what you should do. Maybe, after struggling for a while, you reach a point at which you consider giving up altogether. Although you have tried to practice, you cannot see any progress at all. To alleviate this sense of frustration, some people turn to other kinds of practices that seem easier, like praying to the Buddha, repeating the Buddha’s name, or reciting some sutras. By doing this, they lose the original goal of meditation out of sight. Therefore, for someone who is really interested in reaching a stage of increased mindfulness (in a symbol from the Matrix movie: someone who chose the red pill), it is of utmost importance to continue the frustrating practice! No worries, the next stage will come!

  1. Discover the footprints

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Efforts in meditating can only be achieved with strong will and perseverance. You will face many obstacles that interfere with the practice, for example the people around you, your family, or some harmful friends telling you that you may as well drop the idea of meditation since it doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. By resisting the temptation to just give it up (like the man deciding to go back home and live without a tamed ox), you will achieve the first small successes. When there is no progress, it is simply because you are not exerting sufficient effort yourself. To think otherwise is foolish. It is ridiculous to complain that no one is helping you when you yourself are not making any effort.

At this point you may also start to notice that here and there are footprints. Maybe you suddenly realise that you were sitting without any thought for 10 minutes, feeling like only 1 minute has passed. The time between two thoughts is increasing, and you get a feeling for what it means to have a clear mind. A spoor! This may lead you to believe that now you are surely on the right path. Your task is to follow these footprints. You have to proceed entirely on the basis of your own effort. You may proceed slowly or quickly, but no matter how you proceed, you have to go on your own. You only find your own ox by following your own track. Other people found other oxen by following their own tracks.

  1. See the ox

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As you persevere in following the tracks of the ox, you finally begin to glimpse its tail or a horn behind a bush now and then. In this way you first catch sight of the ox. After practicing for some time, you gradually start to make progress. Occasionally, a little insight will light up for a few moments, die, light up again, and then die again. But, even the slightest experience of the pure mind, the Buddha Nature that the ox here stands for, is a proof-of-principle. It works! What you experience at this stage is something that you have never heard or seen before. Recognising now that such a thing exists, you reflect that it is probably correct to keep going in this direction. At such a moment the mind has to make an important decision: Continue or go home? Neo or Cypher (in terms of the Matrix movies)? Facing the ox may frighten the man. Find one’s Buddha Nature – a non-self – may be shocking for you. Only when you don’t give up now, when you don’t let the ox slip away again, when you proceed with confidence, you will be merited with your own ox. Although you are encouraged to continue, this is still an uncertain and ambiguous time.

  1. Catch the ox

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To attach a rope to the ox is incredibly difficult and exhausting, requiring the endurance of physical and mental hardships. The fiery nature of the ox is hard to control. Whatever you do, the ox will always try to retreat quickly and run away. After you have caught the ox and pulled it toward yourself with great effort for a while, it will suddenly pull you off in another direction. You try to pull it back, but again it manages to drag you elsewhere. It goes on and on like this.

What exactly is this difficult time? It refers to the stage when the meditation is composed partly of the state of clear mind, partly of distracted thoughts, and partly of sinking into dullness. At this time, these three factors seem to be competing with one another: at some time you find yourself in a state of dullness, at other times beset with distracting thoughts, and at other times in deep concentration. Our strong ego, manifested in solid patterns and habits that formed over years and decades, rebels against a free and clear mind since that would lead to its destruction (which is the actual goal of all these efforts). This is a very difficult period because now you are really fighting with the ox, like Neo fighting with Agent Smith.

  1. Tame the ox

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It is at this stage that you learn to handle the ox in the right way. Yet, this stage is still very critical. You become aware of the danger that the ox may be hurt or injured by your exerted forces with whip and bridle. In that case, all trust would be lost in a moment. At the same time, you don’t want the ox to break lose again and escape. This can be a very frightening time. From here, you can’t go back to a worldly life like before. You faced your Buddha Nature and can never ever again pretend that it is not there. People who reach this stage and stop here often drift off into nihilism or madness.

If you exert a great deal of effort for a while, then you will pass the critical moment. Thereafter, the ox comes following you voluntarily. This is the turning point. From an ox-less person we become an ox owner. We turn from a blind person into a seeing one. Once such a firm resolve has arisen in the mind, then you truly seize the abode of the meditative retreat. Now that the ox is being tamed in this way, the serenity of the mind is firmly held and does not move. The ego (as an external power over your mind) gives way to the Buddha Nature as the guiding force. Having passed over the critical moment, the ox now obediently follows without your having to grab hold of it and pull it.

  1. Ride home on the ox

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The fight is over, we can go home. Now, when you sit meditating, your wandering mind stops roaming around. You are here. When you sit, you sit. When you eat, you eat. When you walk, you walk. You are at a point where meditation also works in the supermarket or at the workplace. You play the flute while riding the ox, because there is nothing that could shake your firmness, nothing to be concerned about. Left to himself, the ox will just follow the way it has to go. Now that it has been tamed, however much you ignore it, it will no longer go anywhere that is not allowed. As for yourself, no matter whether you are sleeping or moving around, standing or lying down, no one else will be aware of the inner composure you have attained. At this sixth stage the practice really begins to develop with every step.

  1. Forget the ox, take a rest

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Now the ox is gone. First, you had to make an effort to hold on to the ox; then, after some time, it began to follow you with its own accord. At this stage, you do not have to pay any attention to it at all. It proceeds correctly along the way by itself. You are your Buddha Nature. Now, you can rest, doze, sleep, or whatever you prefer to do, because what costs you effort before, now proceeds constantly without any extra bit of mind power. Resting in balance and equanimity becomes part of our daily life. Even vigorous activities like working, driving a motorcycle, playing a music instrument or performing sports are, somehow, a way of resting in the Here-and-Now. Like in Daoism the wuwei (literally doing nothing), this form of inner stillness must not be mixed up with laziness and complete inactivity. It means that now you don’t do anything as the result of your fears and mind poisons (delusion, attachments, resistance), but as the result of your free and clear mind. There is no more waiting, since there is never nothing going on. There is no such thing as wasting time, since there is only this moment. Anyone coming and saying “Do something!” is just stirring up sand since you are doing the highest of all things all the time: Resting in mindful awareness. 

  1. Man and ox are both forgotten

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Both the ox and the man have now been forgotten, and you are sitting in silence and emptiness. Everything has been identified as constructs of your worldly default mind. In your initial deluded state, all phenomena – including space and time – are experienced as existing. But at this time, space and time collapse, there is only here and now. Finally, you grasp the real essence of what this means. Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness. Conventional and ultimate truth become one. This is finally the moment of awakening. This is the moment of complete freedom of mind. It is fine to come and fine to go. It is fine to lie on your back and fine to lie on your belly. Whether you are in hell, among the hungry ghosts, or amid the animals, everything is fine. If you find yourself in hell, in heaven, or in the Buddha lands, all you know is smiling mildly.

  1. Return to the origin

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Finally you realize that you have recovered your very own treasure, which you had forgotten all about. When you quietly reflect on it, you recognise that all of the exertions you put into the practice were actually unnecessary. Now when you simply open your mouth, this is a teaching of Dharma; when you walk along, this is also a teaching of Dharma. All of this has been there all the time, but you had to walk a long detour and get rid of all the luggage, the ballast that you accumulated since birth. In fact, it would have been better, had you been blind, deaf, and dumb because then you would not have been dragged into doing so many useless tasks. But you saw, heard, and thought, all coloured and deluded by desires and fears under impact of the mind poisons. Now your seeing, hearing and thinking have been cleared so that everything you do, say and think is filled with the Dharma.

  1. Teaching on the marketplace

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Now you are a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-like being that chose to remain in the world of Samsara rather than entering Nirvana in order to be of benefit to sentient beings. You cultivate the way of the bodhisattva in sharing your insights and gently hint others at wild oxen so that they can start their awakening process. You perform the deeds of a bodhisattva and embody the virtues of the Dharma (the Eightfold Path). Your mindful equanimity is unshakeable: If circumstances are favourable, you smile; and if circumstances are unfavourable, you still smile. With a laugh you take things as they are. In this stage, you are supporting all sentient beings in beneficial ways. Your karmic imprint on the world is tremendously positive! This is the highest state of mind you can reach.

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For more details, further insights, and a great collection of other ox-herding illustrations, visit this website by Gabor Terebess!

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My Misanthropy – 4. Responsibility

4. Responsibility

Writing is a therapy. It makes many ideas clearer in my mind. After a text is produced, I think it over, which often induces some kind of progress or change in my views. At the end of the previous post, I sounded quite hopeless and daunted about human stupidity. Today, I am not that negative.

Where are we now? I explained that my misanthropy is the product of introversion, strong ego and self-confidence, and high expectation on rationality and reasonability. But in contrast to yesterday, today I think, my main concern is that there is always a chance for change. My critical statements are associated with a plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness, for sharpening cognitive and intellectual skills, and the strong belief in everybody’s potential to overcome mindlessness, delusion and stupidity. In this respect, my concern doesn’t even deserve the label misanthropy. There is always chance to do better, and that’s why I am telling all this! With other words: As a realist, I have to be a misanthrope (because people give me reasons for it), but as an optimist, I am confident that it doesn’t have to be like this forever.

Obviously, the call for fighting and reducing stupidity is an ethical one. Stupid decisions have an impact on others (human, biosphere, eco-system), usually a negative one. Therefore, I claim that everybody has an ethical obligation to reduce stupidity to his or her best knowledge and capability. This is a responsibility claim that needs further circumstantiation.

At a closer examination, we find that responsibility is never just one-dimensional as in someone is responsible. There must, at least, be a second dimension, that which that someone is responsible for. Moreover, it can be analysed what is means in this case. Where does responsibility come from? Usually it is attributed by someone to someone, or in some way expected by someone from someone, or delegated by someone to someone. These two someones should be in any way related to each other so that responsibility claims are justified. Last but not least, there is also a fourth dimension: Someone may legitimately attribute responsibility to someone for something only in view of a certain body of rules or a level of knowledge. A necessary precondition for being a carrier of responsibility is the ability to fulfil the duties and obligations that go along with it. Above all, the person claimed responsible must be in a position of knowing the rules or of having relevant knowledge.

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In order to clarify responsibilities, there are two strategies: We can start from cases and ask who is responsible for what in which way; or we can start from roles and ask what is the particular person’s situation in terms of responsibility. The former is often perceived of as accusation and blame. Besides, responsibilities are denied and shifted to other people. The latter approach appears more useful for our purposes: What can people in their various roles (family members, friends, citizen, consumers, professionals, decision-makers) be held responsible for? A pragmatic standpoint is necessary: Responsibility is a useful concept only when it is enacted from the now-perspective. Someone is now held responsible for future issues, that means in the position to respond to inquiries and claims for taking action. Note that past-related claims are usually expressed in terms of accountability: Someone is now held accountable for the effects of a decision or action in the past, that means the burden of reacting on it is on that persons account.

Let’s have a look at the four dimensions of a responsibility claim concerning stupidity. The blue someone – who is held responsible – is everybody. For single cases, it must be clearly distinguished between particular roles and positions, and also between individual and collective (institutional, social, etc.) responsibility. Yet, in one or the other way, I am addressing every member of the human race.

The now-perspective helps us defining what it is, exactly, that people and groups are responsible for (the yellow something): I am not stating that people are responsible for their stupidity (which, to be precise, would be a case of accountability), since that would be more like blaming (“See the result of your stupidity! Now clean that mess!“). Legally, of course, many foolish, asinine and idiotic people are responsible for their deeds and are sanctioned accordingly. Mindlessness, for example, is not an excuse for causing a traffic accident. Even though a person that caused a traffic accident is not a criminal, the person still violated the obligation to pay attention to safety and proper driving style. Here, however, I’d like to shift the focus away from the consequences of stupidity and towards the chance to interfere with it before it manifests itself: fight and overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy by right vision, right thought, right consciousness and right concentration. Everybody is responsible for self-cultivation and training one’s self-awareness and mental and cognitive capacity. Now we have clarified the simpler two dimensions.

I am the red someone – I attribute responsibility to you. All of you! Is that legitimate? I need to show that there is a relation between me and everyone, so that nobody can claim that their stupidity (whatever form) is not my business. I do that on the grounds of a holistic concept of conditionality: Human decision-making sets forth cause-effect-chains that determine future states of the world. Buddhists call this Karma. With everything we do, say, or think, we influence the further course of the world fabric, sometimes in very tiny and incremental amounts, sometimes in huge and clearly visible ways. An easy example might be the last presidential election in the USA. Why would I mind that a sick society gets the president that it deserves, the masterpiece of an idiot? Be it their problem, far away from me! Yet, clearly, the US-American politics have a global effect, be it through war-mongering, protectionist economy, climate change denial, American soft imperialism (spreading the American way of life through Hollywood movies and dumb TV shows around the world where mindless people admire and copy it), and so on. What you US-American dumbasses do in your country has a more or less direct impact on my life, my safety, my health, etc. If you are not able to maintain a political system in which you have good choices (and not a choice between the two most despicable individuals on the planet) and in which pragmatism rules (isn’t that even an American thing, see Dewey, James, Pierce…?!), and if you are not able to connect with people around you in proper communication and persuasion that can prevent them from making stupid choices, then either your activity or your inactivity sets forth a causal chain at which’s end stands the entire world. That’s why you are legitimately held responsible! The same goes for consumerism, for example mindless purchase and application of cosmetic products (supporting destruction of rainforest, animal testing, pollution of air, water and soil, etc.). Sometimes the paths are more hidden, especially when the stupidity occurs in the private and not in the public sphere. If you easily lose your temper, your kid will be emotionally instable. It is very likely that your kid plays with other kids – maybe my Tsolmo – in the kindergarten or school and exposes them to his or her own bad temper, learned from the parents. One more example that covers foolishness from lack of education and collective social and political responsibility: I mentioned the unsustainable forms of agriculture and nomadic stock farming in sub-Sahara Africa. Attribution of responsibility to those nomads and settled-down farmers only makes sense in view of their capacity to satisfy existential needs and to understand the local and global context of their practices. With other words: They should be open for changes and alternatives as soon as they are available, feasible and justifiable. Responsibility in this context, must, furthermore, be attributed to people in the Western developed countries (Europe, North America)! Without our support, our care, our concern, and our active pressure on politics, there won’t be any change to the better. Increasing the motivation of local decision-makers in politics and economy to induce political and social changes that lead to a more sustainable lifestyle and practice, should be the concern of all those who know about this problem. As Peter Singer also pointed out: Remaining inactive in the face of global poverty and lack of education is highly immoral. Everybody can be held responsible to engage in collaborative improvement of human capacity and decision-making.

In short: There is only one case in which your existence has no impact on me: You live in solitude at a remote inaccessible place with no connection to the rest of the world. In every other case, there are possible pathways of karmic potentials that connect you to me. Use your creativity to think of more examples, even with the tiniest and longest chain of events and entities!

The fourth dimension – rules and knowledge – secures that the attribution of responsibility is justified in terms of the responsible person’s ability to understand and fulfil the responsibility claims. The claim for responsibility to try one’s best to overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy weighs much heavier for an educated person that grew up in peaceful times at a favourable place in a stable and loving family than for a member of a poverty stricken society in a war zone with no access to school education. I’d like to use the example of traffic in Taiwan again: People say the traffic in China, India or Vietnam is much worse than in Taiwan, as if it could be worse was a proper excuse or even justification for the local practices. In China, for example, the discrepancies between urban and rural population and their development are enormous! In contemporary Taiwan, the coverage of education is homogenously high, the lifestyle can be considered modern and developed. Taiwanese people see themselves as a developed nation, a knowledge society with high life standard, technological advancement and international competitiveness. A comparison with China or India is inappropriate since it would mean to lower Taiwanese standard to that of developmental states. All Taiwanese have school education and may be expected to be able to estimate effects of physical causes like the velocity of cars or their momentum when driving though curves. They have driving lessons before getting a license, so they may be expected to know the traffic rules. They grow up in a society that is built on Confucian foundations, highlighting the importance of respecting social relations, so they may be expected to know concepts like consideration, safety, patience. Yet, they drive like fools, violate or disregard traffic rules, and act inconsiderately, impatiently and in an extremely self-centred manner. When I claim that Taiwanese people are fully responsible for their driving style, I find that very much justified in view of the degree of development of the Taiwanese society, including education, culture and self-perception. However, we might also turn that argument around: As long as Taiwanese people behave like this in traffic, Taiwan can’t be considered a developed country. Driving like this and not attempting to change it means to admit that we are a country of mindless fools.

I hope these reflections could create some clarity concerning the attribution of responsibility for working on one’s stupidity. Nobody is perfect! Mistakes can be forgiven! Yet, we must try, harder, every day! Giving in to stupidity – no doubt the easier way – is something we as mankind can’t afford! Too powerful and impacting our activities have become! With this I leave the field of individual-focused misanthropy and turn to anti-anthropocentrism and the problem of mankind as a failure of nature. This will be the topic of the next post of this series.

My Misanthropy – 3. Stupidity

3. Stupidity everywhere!

In the first two posts of this series, I mentioned it already: My image of the cognitive and intellectual capacity of people is generally rather low. In simple words: I think people are stupid. But this is not precise enough. Moreover, it sounds like an offensive judgment. Here is not the place for insults and bashing. Instead, let me try to clarify my claim by more precise definitions and observational facts that circumstantiate it.

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Many people would agree that stupidity, in some way, has to do with a lack of knowledge – be it factual or technical knowledge (facts, logic, anticipation of consequences of action, etc.) or normative, social, moral knowledge (values, norms, customs, etc.) – or with a lack of personal and social competences like emotional self-management, empathy, social interaction, or performance as a citizen. According to this definition, all babies are stupid, and so are all those who didn’t get a proper education (for example the population of poor and underdeveloped countries). It is obvious that the definition of lack, here, strongly depends on the expectation on how much a certain member of a society should know and on what is the standard for social performance. We would not call a member of an aboriginal tribe in the Amazon jungle “stupid” just because he doesn’t know the physics, biology or geography that are taught in high schools. We also wouldn’t blame a baby that drops his toys for not knowing about the effects of gravity.

A first useful classification would be intended and unintended stupid behaviour or action. This separates those who are fully aware of the stupidity or wrongness of their decisions and actions (still doing it anyway) from those who are either not aware of how and why their action is stupid (not reflecting it at all) or convinced that their action is not stupid at all (even after reflecting it). Intended idiocy covers crime and – in deontological terms – immoral acts. Thus, I distinguish three forms of stupidity:

  • Foolishness: This is an unconscious and, therefore, unintended form of stupidity. Fools just don’t know better. It includes uneducated people, mentally disabled or demented people, little kids, but also clumsy and unlucky people. Fools do stupid things rather by accident and out of ignorance.
  • Asininity: When people know how to do well in a particular situation but don’t do it due to a lack of understanding and/or intelligence – mindless people. Asinine people somehow choose to do stupid things since they have a chance to choose otherwise. With other words: Asinine people are those who don’t use their brains even though it may legitimately be expected from them, for example adults with school degrees, sufficiently socialised members of a society.
  • Idiocy: Intended wrongdoing and misconduct, a product of bad intentions rather than ignorance. Idiots are people who choose to cause harm to others, people with a lack of ethical integrity, people who aim at increasing the suffering of others.

These categories are, of course, not very clear. From a Buddhist as well as from a psychological perspective, also idiotic acts with bad intentions are the result of ignorance. In fact, many mental disorders are named with the medical term idiocy. A person with bad intentions might be misled by emotions or by lack of coping abilities, not being aware that there is an alternative to choose that would be less idiotic. I use these categories to make a clear distinction concerning forgiveness of stupidity: Foolishness can easily be forgiven. Asininity has to be pointed out, criticised, and eliminated (besides being forgiven). Idiocy has to be punished and sanctioned (besides being treated and forgiven). Let’s have a look at some cases.

Half of mankind has no access to proper school education or lives in existential fear (hunger, war, natural disasters), and doesn’t care much about intellectual capacity, scientific knowledge, or intelligence. It would be highly unfair to demand smartness and cognitive farsightedness from them. When nomadic farmers in the Savannah in Africa destroy valuable land, it happens out of ignorance and lack of education. We can’t demand sustainable agriculture and stock-farming from them as long as they have no chance to understand what it means. All they know is that they are hungry, and how their ancestors did it. Yet, a lot of human activity has a severe impact on the ecosystem with devastating effects on Earth’s biosphere (including mankind), and must, therefore, be labelled foolish. Education and better dissemination of knowledge (know-how, know-what) and competence might be a remedy, making the fight against foolishness a political task.

I like to believe that the group of idiots is the smallest of these three. We find criminals, rude and hateful people, reckless and ruthless assholes all around the globe. Yet, they are often the exception rather than the norm. Most societies established law-and-order systems and social sanctioning pathways that keep most members on the track. The crime rates in Germany and Taiwan are both rather low compared to violence stricken countries like Mexico or Afghanistan. Generally, Taiwanese people are very kind and well-behaved (exception: animal abusers and黑道 (heidao, Taiwanese mafia) people), whereas in Germany I often came across disrespectful, insulting, shameless assholes, like football supporters destroying trains and beating up people, vandals destroying public property for fun, moochers, and other scum (one of my reasons for moving to an Asian country). Among the most despicable crimes, from my perspective (feeding my misanthropy), are business crimes that lead to environmental destruction (illegal pollution, bribing regulators to get permissions to build facilities in protected habitats, burning rainforest for bigger plantations, etc.) or exposure to harm (concealment of known consumer risks for reasons of profit, violation of food safety regulations, etc.), and violation of political responsibilities by lying, supporting inequality and injustice, suppressing critical voices, violating rights, and knowingly undermining social stability. I will write more about this form of inacceptable human behaviour in section 5 of this series.

The most tricky group are the mindless asinine people. They are tricky because it is less obvious that they are stupid. They are not idiots because they don’t commit any crime or choose to act unethically. Yet, their performance has a huge impact on my life! In Taiwan and Germany, we may assume that everybody receives or has received a formal education. Still, many people choose ways of meaning construction (default setting, dogmatism) that lead to undesirable manifestations of social spheres. Religiosity, political ideologies, economy with its monetary system, consumerism, hedonistic pleasure-seeking – none of these phenomena are illegal or directly immoral. Yet, they are all the result of mindlessness and stupidity. Why is that? In everything we choose to do we are driven by archaic deeply rooted experiences: fear, attachment (greed, envy), and resistance (anger, hatred). These forces override empirical rationality and reason. It makes no sense at all to take the Bible literally and believe in an almighty God in the sky, but still people choose to believe it because it makes their life simpler and feeds their most fundamental fears (of death, of loss, of hopelessness). We all know that our consumerism damages the ecosystem, but still we buy more useless products, produce more trash, and keep insisting on cheap energy (rather than expensive but sustainable energy). We know that mass-media entertainment and most TV program is entirely nonsensical and stupidifying, but still many people choose to watch it day in day out. We know that social media has an adverse effect on our socialisation and friendship quality, but still many of us spend hours per day staring at screens. Because it is simple, easy, and satisfies our desires, the root of all dukkha (suffering in the Buddhist sense)…

answers

I would like to go one step further and include everyone into this group (stupidity in the form of mindlessness) who is self-centered, or even wider: who has a self that is more or less strongly manifested and unquestioned. We are all the undoubted center of our universes. We follow interests and desires, shaped by experiences and our matrix (education, culture, society, etc.), and find it perfectly legitimate to put ourselves above everybody else. This is a very natural occurrence and nothing despicable. Yet, it causes trouble. Since 2500 years, European and Asian societies know better. The Ancient Greek identified the human capacity to step out of our animalistic nature and raise ourselves up towards freedom. Laozi, Kongzi (Confucius) and especially Gautama Buddha proposed manifold epistemic and practical ways to cultivate a mindful character and personality. Yet, only few people have the capacity to understand those ideas and put them into practice. In Taiwan, the self-centeredness and mindlessness of people is strongly manifested in traffic: People are completely inconsiderate and unaware of the consequences of their actions. Imagine the stupidest and most reckless manoeuvre that comes to your mind (like making a sudden U-turn on a crowded main road at rush hour) – there will be a Taiwanese who does exactly that right in this moment. As I said before, Taiwanese are very kind and friendly people, so they have certainly no bad intentions when behaving like that. They are just not able to anticipate and comprehend why they should pay attention to such things, and they are utterly impatient and careless. Road safety? Responsibility? Consideration for others? Pfffft! It is late and I want to get home, so out of my way! This form of recklessness is especially problematic since it effects the life quality of everybody! Moreover, it is avoidable! Also Taiwanese have driving classes and have to pass a test. They should know all the rules and the effect of their violation! Yet, the Taiwanese society failed in establishing a culture in which people understand that it is useful and important to have such tests and such regulations. Instead, people learn the rules only to pass the test and then forget them again because who cares?!.

Another aspect in this category is the entire field of emotional incompetence. Bad-tempered, aggressive, capricious, whiny, uncontrolled people terrorise their surrounding. Lack of emotional intelligence is, certainly, one of the most impacting factors for loss of life quality, both for the emotional person him/herself and the people around such a person. I know, we are all victims of our emotions, and blame or accusation may be a little unfair. I even know people (like my first girlfriend) who think it is perfectly OK and “human” to lose temper and freak out in a burst of furious rage from time to time. We are not robots, right? Right! We are civilised, mindful, conscious beings that have a chance – and, therefore, an obligation – to reflect upon emotional triggers and resulting reactions! Yes, I demand too much, I know. That’s why the only solution is misanthropy. We just can’t do better!

All these forms of stupidity – the ignorant, the superstitious and religious, the mindless, the self-centered, the greedy, the bad-tempered, the reckless and ruthless – lower my life quality significantly! Some directly by bothering and annoying me in daily life situations, others indirectly by messing up the social and ecological environment. The worst is: The situation seems so hopeless! We simply can’t implement proper education (for knowledge AND values) everywhere around the globe! There will always be injustice, motivation for crime, lack of vision, self-centeredness! Human stupidity is ubiquitous and eternal – I am sure I am not the first to state this.

In this post, I made some bold claims. The most debatable one, probably, is that people in civilised societies have the moral and social obligation to cultivate a mindful and considerate awareness for their ignorance and stupidity so that they have a chance to overcome it and perform better in their lives. This point needs more convincing arguments in the next episode of this series.

My Misanthropy – 2. Friendships

2. Friendships

When I was 20, my friend introduced the psychological test The Cube to me. I had to relax and focus on my mental awareness. My friend talked me through the scenery. I found myself in a desert. I saw a sand desert (like an extended beach) with dark yellow sand dunes and a dark blue sky. The atmosphere was pleasant and calm. The line of the horizon was more or less in the middle of my image. Now, the first object appeared: a cubic structure. Immediately, in front of my inner eye, a monolithic black massive cube stood firmly and unshakably in the desert sand. It had a metallic flawless surface that nothing could ever scratch. Certainly, it wasn’t hollow, even though we would never be able to find out. The second item was a ladder. I found an old wooden ladder leaning on one of the cube’s walls, about half the height. It was slightly damaged, with missing and broken rungs. Actually, it looked a bit like the old ladder in our horse barn. Now, a horse entered the picture. An impressively majestic black horse, rearing like the one on the Ferrari logo. It stood in a slight distance on the rear left of the cube. The next thing, a storm, didn’t want to fit into my desert. There was no space for a storm, it felt wrong. After a bit of hesitation, I settled my unease with a twister that roamed around at the horizon on the right. It added up to the impressive scenery by being at save distance (certainly never coming closer) and by being an impressive natural phenomenon itself. The last element that I had to add to the picture was flowers (or only one, if that seems more appropriate). A well arranged flower bed, yellow-red flowers surrounded by red bricks, appeared in front of the cube. It felt a bit misplaced, but was much more acceptable than the storm.

cube

After returning to this world, my friend explained to me that all the elements in this image mean something and tell something about me. The desert depicts my soul, the cube is me (or the image I have of myself, my ego), the ladder symbolises friendships, the horse is my partner, the storm represents my perception of problems in my life, and the flowers stand for my (future) children. I learned that my soul is balanced and grounded, that I have a huge ego and strong self-confidence, that the main connection to my partner is admiration and that I wish her to have a strong and independent character, that my life is obviously free from any troubles and problems, and that my ideal concerning my future children will be to take good care of them and let them flourish. I skipped the ladder, here, because I want to talk about this particular item, since this article is about friendship. I may talk about the other insights in other blog posts, maybe. Or I leave it to your interpretation.

The ladder was short (in comparison to the cube), useless and weak. It leaned on the cube and didn’t seem to attract anyone’s attention, like a forgotten tool or discarded trash. The book that my friend used to interpret my picture suggested for this case: Friendships don’t mean much to me. It is rather me who is a stronghold and listener for others who see me as a friend, but not vice versa. My friends don’t lift me up or support me reaching different (higher) spheres. The fact that my ladder is old and broken might hint at past disappointments or other negative experiences with friends. Moreover, while my self appeared indestructible, eternal and firm, my friendships appear labile, perishable and transient.

I can’t tell whether psychology tests like this one make any sense or have any empiric foundation, or if they are not better than astrology and horoscopes. I know from my own experience, playing this game with many of my friends, that it very often resembles the life situation or worldviews of the proband. A woman with huge problems at her job (causing her a broken partnership) had a very strong and devastating storm in her image, blowing away her horse. Another friend who made the conscious decision never to have kids had the flowers trampled down and eaten by the horse. A friend that I would characterise as a dreamer with emotional weaknesses had a fragile glass cube floating above the sand. Let’s just assume for a moment that the depictions somehow represent the actual attitudes and personality traits of the image-maker. In my case, the ladder I visualised made very much sense to me!

I was never a dominant person that had a large group of peers and buddies around. Dominant and loud people scared me. My circle of friends has always been rather small. As a teenager, I had my Pannonia friends, my band mates, and around 5-6 good friends in my class at school. I had no friends in my village except the two boys in my class at Gymnasium. I was boy scout and member of the table tennis club in Hoetmar until the age of 14, and after that didn’t keep any contact with any of the boys and girls there. After Abitur (final exam of Gymnasium), most of the friendships faded away, because I didn’t really feel any urge to maintain them. In many cases I was happy that I didn’t have to meet those idiots anymore, in other cases they were happy that they didn’t have to meet me anymore. I remember, six months after end of Gymnasium, I complained to my best friend Jonas that he and some others meet up but never invite me. He replied that he felt like I don’t fit into that group and that the others don’t have a good image of me. Honestly, I never found out what is wrong with me. I can’t remember being rude or mean or offensive. I guess it has to do with the massive black cube…

The same happened after graduating from university. The few friendships I established – I was never a member of the Club of Cool People – just faded away after some time. When I left Germany in 2013 for Asia, I didn’t feel like leaving any important friendships behind. With modern communication facilities (social media, chat programs), I tried to keep in touch with some friends, but the mutual interest dropped rapidly after being out of sight. At my new (and current) home Taiwan, I only have rather superficial friendships with language exchange partners and (ex) band mates. The interest in what I have to share (for example in this blog, or on facebook) is close to zero. I guess, most people in my friend list on facebook unfollowed my posts. The focus of my current life is you (Tsolmo) and your Mom, besides my books, my music, and my writing.

Why am I so bad at maintaining friendships? Option 1: I am a complete idiot that nobody can like or get along with. Feedback from my wife, from family members, from friends, shows me that I am not that bad. My flaws are at a reasonable level, like everyone has flaws. Option 2: I don’t care. This is what the ladder in the desert image suggests. Friends don’t raise me up. I do! Friends come and go, anyway. Why invest energy, then? An important aspect might also be that I am the kind of person that is very much de-motivated by criticism and personal complaint. I tend to focus on things that I know I am good at and that I know I have a chance to get praised for. I will never sing an unknown song in Karaoke because there is a chance of failure and looking like a fool. I don’t like dancing in a club but would rather play the drums on stage. I will rather choose to meet a friend who likes to hear my advice on something than a group of people who might choose to do something that I am afraid of (like going ice skating). Whenever I feel unpleasant or stressful with people, I will give up trying to be their friend. This was the case with class mates at school, with those at university, with colleagues, and even band mates. Additionally, I am a total homey! I don’t like to go out drinking (but rather invite some buddies to come to my place and have a beer here!), am too thrifty to waste money for expensive drinks or food in restaurants and cafés (but rather invite… see above), and feel most comfortable at home, doing the things that I like (reading, writing, DIY, cooking, baking,…). So, it seems, I just don’t care about friendships.

How is this linked to misanthropy? The crucial question is: Does my situation make me unhappy or even depressed, or not? It is surprisingly difficult for me to answer this, and I spend quite some time and effort on finding out. Psychologists (like my ex-girlfriend, and in many books and research articles) often point out the strong link between firm embedment in social relations and perceived life quality and satisfaction. People with either quantitatively (many) or qualitatively (good) well established friendships are happier, less depressed, more successful and healthier. If that is true, I should be unhappy and gloomy. At the same time, I wonder if it is this generalised insight from the psychologists that causes me pressure and dissatisfaction, but not my situation as such, since I don’t feel unhappy with only few friends and little social interaction. As I explained, I am happy doing the things that I do, and I don’t need friends to ease my mind, because as an introvert I do that remotely on my own. Yet, it bothers me that obviously nobody is interested in my thoughts, ideas and reflections. The quantity is not an issue, but maybe the quality is!

What is a good friend, then? I define friendship mostly via communication. A friend is someone who is willing to share his or her thoughts and ideas, and to listen to my thoughts and ideas and talk about them. Conversations with a good friend don’t need to have any limits or restriction, we can just talk what we feel like. Especially, friends may give each other direct and honest feedback, something that not so close people shouldn’t do! I want a friend who can tell me “Your idea is wrong! Look how you appear like an idiot in this or that situation!“, but also “Wow, I never thought like this! Thanks for the inspiration!“. The basis is, of course, a mutual interest in each other and the other’s well-being. Unfortunately, in the age of facebook, instagram & co., real personal interest is rare. People have 2000 friends in their list, but don’t care about any of them like “traditional” friends. People lose interest when having to read more than three lines of text, but only want to see photos or funny memes. Same as I am not good at (and not interested in) small talk about meaningless nonsense, I am also not good at (in the sense of not willing to) sharing private photos and irrelevant trivial daily-life choices and decisions (like what to eat or what to wear or what to buy). A friend is someone who can give me inspiration, sometimes confirmation, sometimes criticism. I expect open-mindedness, honesty, the willingness to use the brain, and a consciously chosen high level of ethical integrity.

It means: Maybe I would care more about friendships if there were people around me that are worth it? Now, this is a highly offensive statement, of course! And THIS is the misanthropy I am talking about! My image of people in general is so low that I don’t see any necessity in making anybody my friend. If you don’t understand what I am talking about when reflecting on mindfulness, epistemology, constructivism, ethics, good life conduct, then leave it and don’t waste my time! If you don’t appreciate my cognitive skills and my creativity, then I am also not interested in you! I am working on and eliminating my own flaws, but if you are not willing to even face yours, then I have difficulties having any respect for you! You smoke? Weakling! You wear make-up? Mindless consumer! You think philosophy is useless? End of the conversation! You hate jazz? Goodbye!

Obviously, my expectation on people is very very high! Some (my Mom, for example) interpret that as arrogance. I look down on people, obviously. I disagree. I am very self-critical! I have many flaws! I am not better than anybody else. Sure, I have skills that others don’t have, but others have skills that I don’t have and never will have! I am not above anyone, so I can’t look down on anyone. I just demand a lot! Especially smartness and wisdom. And this is the major problem, as mentioned earlier: Most personal flaws are the result of not using the brain properly. The cardinal vice that people can have, the deadliest sin, is idiocy. I try very hard to eliminate all idiocy from my personality and character. However, I can’t see this attempt in many people. That’s what I dislike about people: lack of effort on self-reflection and self-cultivation! That’s my misanthropy and the reason for me having so little motivation to build friendships.

Or, maybe, I didn’t meet the right people, for reasons that are my very own problem. Fear (of failure, of humiliation, of trouble), attachment (in the Buddhist sense, to my habits and patterns), bitterness (from past experiences). Instead, I am King in my castle. The massive black cube…

To close this topic, here is one last message to you, Tsolmo: Don’t be like your father! Probably, you won’t experience your father as a very social person, going out with his buddies, often inviting visitors, or giving friendships an outstanding value. Yet, I hope you won’t become an asocial person like me! Meet friends, invite them to our home, visit theirs, establish strong bonds that give you emotional and cognitive support! It is important for your independence and for your personal development and integrity! You may take me as an idol in some respect, but please not in this one!

My Misanthropy – 1. The Roots

I confess it: I am a misanthrope. Misanthropy is defined as hating people or mankind as such. Hate sounds a bit too strong to me. Yet, I can’t deny that my image of people and of mankind as a whole is very negative. I guess, that is a very important part of me, one that you (Tsolmo) will be exposed to sooner or later. Therefore, I dedicate this and the next five blog entries to this topic. I will start with an attempt of a short self-analysis to find out what made me a misanthrope. Then, I will reflect on friendship and on the idiocy of people. A four-dimensional model of responsibility will support my claim that we may expect more from people. Moreover, I will widen the scope from individual people and social collectives to mankind as such, examining anthropocentrism and the inevitable failure of the human race. The series can’t be complete without a link to Buddhism and its cure against hatred: compassion and loving-kindness.

It is important to point out one thing: I don’t suffer from it. I hate people because they lower my life quality, not because misanthropy is a kind of phobia, mania or psychopathic disease. Someone with arachnophobia usually doesn’t suffer from spiders themselves, but from the phobia that causes unpleasant states of mind in the presence of (harmless) spiders. Not spiders are the problem, but the phobia! These dispositions are irrational and the result of a malfunctioning or distorted psyche. Misanthropy is different. As I like to explain in this series, there are good rational reasons to justify a misanthropic mindset. The view itself doesn’t cause me any trouble. I don’t feel mentally exhausted, scared, or puzzled after moments in which misanthropy is manifesting itself. When people or mankind show their despicable features again, I feel rather confirmed in my misanthropy. Therefore, not misanthropy is the problem, but people!

quote-misanthropy

1. My Narrative

The first question is, of course, what the roots of my negative image are. I believe there are basically two influences: My experiences with being bullied and teased, and my upbringing in a very rational spirit (“If you just use your brain properly, you will never face any trouble!”).

I don’t want to blame it on the countryside. I don’t think rural people (at least in Germany) are different from city people. All kids are exposed to social interaction. Yet, living in the countryside might have had one significant impact: I could choose to live remotely in my own world. In this world, life was harmonious and simple. Out there, in the social world, at Kindergarten and primary school, and later at secondary school, life was not that easy. For a reason that I didn’t understand (and still don’t understand), other kids (mostly older boys) teased me. On the school yard, on the school bus, in the village. Maybe my introverted and shy character gave them the expression that I am weak and a good target for their fun. For me, it wasn’t fun, though. What’s wrong with those boys? Why can’t they just accept me and see my qualities. Being told that I am smart very often by parents and teachers, I liked to believe it. I was also able to build magnificent Lego castles and could even play drums. So, why the hell would they tease me? There was only one possible solution: They must be stupid. Unintelligent. Not able to see beyond the narrow margin of their stupid life. Not able to grasp the implications of their actions and words. Not able to see things from someone else’s perspective, from MY perspective! I assume, it was during those primary school years that I formed the strong conviction that being smart always results in being nice, and that people who are not nice and kind must, therefore, be utterly foolish and stupid.

This idea had a serious consequence, according to my logic: If everyone was as smart as I am, then the world would be full of nice and kind people, and there would be no bullying, no unfairness and injustice, no exploiting of the weak by the dominant people, no misery.

The teasing of the primary school village boys turned into bullying at the secondary school. Classmates – even those I considered my friends – had fun calling me “farmer”(even though my family didn’t have a farm, just a house in the countryside) and making nasty comments about it (like “Ew, there comes the farmer again, what a stink!” or “Will your father come to pick you up with your tractor?“). I hated that! Those spoiled city kids, what do they know?! In the countryside, I could play drums without bothering the neighbours, and I could even have my own country Pannonia! Why can’t they appreciate those benefits or even envy me for having that kind of awesome life, but instead have to make it look like I am a fool?! I was quite confident and knew that they are wrong. What bothered me more was: Why are they doing that? Again, there was only one plausible solution: They must be stupid! I started keeping track of my classmates performances with a little book like those used by teachers to note down marks and students’ performances. Florian made a stupid comment about my jacket: 6! Anika smiled at me: 1! Stefan wanted to know where I bought that new cool pencil case: 1! [Note: In the German school system, marks range from 1 (very good) to 6 (insufficient).] Then, at the end of the year, I knew who was my friend and who will not be my friend. It wasn’t that serious, I guess. For example, Florian (a real example) became my bandmate later, so I was obviously good at forgiving. Yet, it shows how serious this thing was for me, the 13 year old Jan.

I am not a psychologist. Maybe my retrospective analysis is simplistic and plain. Certainly, the logic that I am a misanthrope because classmates made stupid comments is fallacious and too simple. Yet, I believe that the discrepancy between my peaceful and idyllic countryside life and the unpleasantness that I was exposed to whenever having to deal with other people plays a very important role in developing this negative attitude towards people. A seed was planted: Be careful! Don’t trust anyone! People don’t have the capacity to understand you! See what stupid things they do all the time! This seed was watered at countless occasions! The boy scouts summer camp, the rock festival, the carnival parade, the local fairground, any public place – everywhere stupid people doing stupid things that make this world a worse place! Of course, this is not true, but this is what I perceived (and still observe). With this mindset, I retreated more and more into my world, delving into my hobbies with a rather small circle of close friends.

Another factor seems important: News. Problems everywhere! I didn’t mind poverty, crime and war. That was a human problem. But I was seriously concerned about the destruction of our planet by the human race. Loss of rainforest, pollution of air and water, destruction of landscapes by industry and agriculture. A life form that destroys its own habitat – how stupid is that? On top of that, the church (and religion classes at school) wanted to tell me that mankind is the crown of creation. What a bullshit! We are like a disease for this planet! This insight raised my misanthropy to the global level. Not only the idiots around me bother me, but mankind as a whole! Beautiful and innocent species go extinct because of human stupidity! The ecosphere suffers from the ignorance of men. There is a clear parallel to me suffering from the idiocy of people around me. I understood and felt for the planet! Both of us, Earth and me – that was utterly clear to me – would be better off without people!

I use the past tense because I thought like this at the age around 18. In parts, I still think like that, but in the meantime my thoughts and reflections became a little more sophisticated and differentiated. As I explained in the introduction, my misanthropy is not a misled sociopathy, but the inevitable result of my experiences and observations. Two problems arise from it: If I hate mankind (as in every human), how can I love you (and everyone who means something to me), or does it mean that I also hate you (and my wife, my friends, my parents, etc.)? And: If I am such a hater, wouldn’t it be better for society to get rid of me, or at least sanction my negativity and my insulting attitude?

The first problem: I find it totally legitimate and acceptable to make a clear distinction between the particular level (me and my personal relationships, interpersonal ties and emotional connections, etc.) and the general level (mankind). My capacity for love is not interfered by my misanthropy. I value my family and my friends with a healthy portion of emotions involved and with the moral integrity that may be expected from an educated member of society. Moreover, needless to say, my misanthropy is purely intellectual, but never violent, aggressive or attacking (neither with hands nor with words). I admit, I don’t care much about people dying in wars or in natural disasters as long as I don’t know them. But I will, of course, to the best of my abilities, always protect you (Tsolmo) and my dear ones from any danger, harm or threat. More about that later!

The second problem: You (the reader) may find it disturbing that I judge you as stupid even though I don’t know you. I said it, right?: Everyone is stupid! How offensive! You may give me animal names or use other swear words, telling me what I can do myself. You may block my blog or unfollow it, and never visit it again. Haters are not welcome in our contemporary societies. Yet, be reminded: I try my best to explain my views. I try to examine the (psychological) roots as well as the logic and heuristic of my current conscious worldview. I will give reasons and arguments (in the next 5 texts of this series). If there is anything wrong with my idea, there will certainly be a way to convince me of that. It’s just that nobody succeeded with that, yet. I want arguments! The burden of proof that people are NOT stupid and that mankind is NOT a problem for this planet is on you!

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)!

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!