Thursday, September 14, 2006

The power of music

Listening to music recalls memories from our lives, and so listening sensitively to music helps us to better know ourselves. The ordering of the melody or the rhythm reflects the way our thoughts are ordered.

Subconsciously we all realize this. Our favorite songs are the ones that call forth the strongest responses from our mind, the ones whose ordering best reflects the ordering of our own thoughts.

Listen sensitively to music! Take time to listen to your favorite songs without surfing the internet at the same time, playing a game, thinking about all you have to do, or whatever. Allow yourself just to listen and let the music affect you. Reflect on what images from your life the music brings to mind. This is music’s chief power over us and the primary benefit that it offers.

For example, You Never Give Me Your Money, Golden Slumbers, and Carry That Weight at the end of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, always produce strong feelings when I listen to them. The transition from the youthful enthusiasm of pursuing “One sweet dream!” expressed in You Never Give Me Your Money to bearing weight of expectations in Carry That Weight brings forth a barrage of images from my own experience of how, in elementary school and middle school, I was always eager to work to do what was required to get a high grade, but then in high school this enthusiasm and eagerness to “become successful” became a giant weight on my life.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I just realized I made a misstatement in my post about religion. I still stand by the basic point of my post that religion should serve to unite people of all different beliefs. However, in my post I stated "Nothing about Christianity should ever be used to separate or further divide humanity."

I actually contradicted this statement with the quote that came right after it: "The true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness. Our aim must be to diminish the number of the latter and increase the number of the former." - Victor Hugo

The truth is that Christianity is a religion about transforming one's life, and any attempt to transform will always be met with resistance of some kind, and therefore, with occasional division. What I should have said was that "Nothing except the fundamental religious truth of Christianity (or, as Hugo stated, 'the division between those who live in light and those who live in darkness') should ever separate or divide humanity."

Alright, in the future I'll try to move away from this sort of logical argumentation. I've become convinced that stories are the natural method of transmitting all types of knowledge. (Keep in mind that logic can still play a major role in stories; it's just that in stories, logic is always accompanied by relevant examples or explanation of the purpose of the argument.) So, altough it might be a little rough at first (I've never really been much of a "story" person), I'll try to include more stories in my future posts.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Just wanted to add this excerpt from De Mello's book The Song of the Bird that illustrates the point of my last post.

The World Fair of Religions – Anthony De Mello

My friend and I went to the fair. THE WORLD FAIR OF RELIGIONS. Not a trade fair. But the competition was as fierce, the propaganda loud.

At the Jewish stall we were given handouts that said that God was all-compassionate and the Jews were his Chosen People. The Jews. No other people were as chosen as they.

At the Moslem stall we learned that God was all-merciful and Mohammed is his only Prophet. Salvation comes from listening to God’s Prophet.

At the Christian stall we discovered that God is love and there is no salvation outside the Church. Join the Church or risk eternal damnation.

On the way out I asked my friend, “What do you think of God?” He replied, “He is bigoted, fanatical, and cruel.”

Back home, I said to God, “How do you put up with this sort of thing, Lord? Don’t you see they have been giving you a bad name for centuries?”

God said, “It wasn’t I who organized the fair. In fact, I’d be too ashamed to visit it.”

Apply the religious aspects of Christianity to religion; apply the historical aspects to history, the literary aspects to literature, etc.

Monday, September 11, 2006

View on Religion

Can’t have a philosophy blog that doesn’t address religion at some point, right? Not a proper one, at least, I guess. As most people reading this probably know, I personally am Christian. To me though, this should not be the cause of any sort of division between myself and others. Of course, a key part of Christianity is the Great Commission that the followers of Jesus should go out and spread His message. But I think it’s key for Christians to realize this means spreading the Christian way of living and has nothing to do with spreading the Christian set of beliefs. We should be concerned only with getting people to live in a Christ-like way; not with getting people to call themselves Christians.

“I gave up my religious convictions and practices because I just didn’t want to participate in any division of the human race, whether religious or political.”Erich Fromm (psychologist and author)

“Religious people in general are so discriminatory against other people, and that really disturbs me. My idea of religion is we all love and respect.” - Charles Barkley (former NBA star and future governor of Alabama hopeful)

What is the fundamental truth of Christianity? Is it our belief that 2000 years ago Jesus Christ was crucified and came back to life? I would say no. We may believe this is the historical truth as it is part of our tradition, and we believe strongly in the message this story tells us about life, but it is no more valid as a religious conviction than the traditional beliefs of other religions. Nothing about Christianity should ever be used to separate or further divide humanity.

"The true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness. Our aim must be to diminish the number of the latter and increase the number of the former." - Victor Hugo

Yes, as a Christian I believe that there are those who are saved and those who are lost, but this distinction should never be used to create barriers between people. It doesn’t help people to tell them “you have to live up to this group’s demands in order to be saved.” That doesn’t save; that either brainwashes or turns people away.

The fundamental truth of Christianity has nothing to do with some historical event. The fundamental truth of Christianity has to do with how we live our lives today. Not what actions we do, but how we approach life, how those actions are motivated. Christianity teaches that motivation should come from loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself. The fundamental message is that people should find their place within the Body of Christ. I believe this has everything to do with how people live, and nothing to do with what traditions they belong to. I see nothing that should prevent this fundamental message from being open to people with ALL kinds of traditional beliefs.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Alright, I haven’t really done much as far as making this a quality blog lately. But what I have discovered from my blogging experience so far, is that the purpose for writing something (other than “because we have to for a class”) can be divided into two separate levels. Most my previous posts resemble the first level, where my purpose of writing was to give form and structure to feelings that I had on various topics, without much regard toward how a reader would interpret them.

For the future of this blog, though, I hope to steer it toward the next level of writing, which has the purpose of communicating my thoughts and feelings in way that is accessible to the reader and, hopefully, interesting or helpful to them.

All writing, and all thinking, too, has the purpose of making the unconscious conscious, of transforming our unconscious feelings into concrete thoughts. Feelings are constantly changing, but once we have experienced a thought, we can fall back on it again and again. So, with this image of writing or reading with the purpose of transforming our transitory feelings about a subject into enduring concepts that can be applied to numerous aspects of our lives, I’ll “re-launch” this blog by reviewing the book that inspired it in the first place, Awareness by Anthony De Mello.

Review of Awareness

“The perfect review should indeed allow a reader to determine whether he or she is likely to enjoy or appreciate a film--but that does not require the critic to agree with the reader. The critic who tries to reflect public taste casts himself in the role of the ventriloquist's dummy, with the public of course acting as the ventriloquist. Opinion often varies between critics and the public, if I may say so, because critics know more about film, have seen more films, have thought about them more, are more experienced at viewing them, and are looking for more than immediate escapism.” – Roger Ebert (Rotten Tomatoes interview)

I don’t believe that I’ve read enough books yet to qualify as a “book critic” or to give out a meaningful star rating, like Ebert does for movies. What I will do for my next few posts though, is look at excerpts from some books that have been influential to me, and try to explain what I found relevant and affecting about the book. I’m starting with Awareness by Anthony De Mello.

It’s almost dangerous pulling out isolated quotes from a writer like Anthony De Mello, because De Mello often communicates through contradiction. For instance, he tells us “The only way someone can be of help to you is in challenging your ideas." (Awareness pg. 35) No doubt, all of us can think of countless other ways and specific situations in which someone could be of help to us in a way other than by “challenging our ideas”. However, this is a style De Mello has intentionally chosen in order to battle the sea of misconceptions that he sees over flooding our society. Rather than go through the semantic hoops that are technically necessary in order to make the subtle distinctions that he is after, De Mello chooses to “shock the truth out of us”. He says things that are not intended to be completely accurate, and are sometimes even logically inconsistent, but rather contradict our culture’s common assumptions, forcing us to either totally dismiss what he says or, if we read with an open mind, to consciously think about the point that De Mello is trying to communicate.

The backbone of this sort of “non-logical” communication is De Mello’s belief in logic’s inability to fully capture reality. He explains, "the guru cannot give you the truth. Truth cannot be put into words, into a formula. That isn't the truth. That isn't reality. Reality cannot be put into a formula. The guru can only point out your errors. When you drop your errors, you will know the truth. And even then you cannot say." (Awareness – pg. 99)

I’ll start with how De Mello starts, his message of “waking up to life”:

“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence. You know, all mystics—Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.” Awareness – pg. 5

“I was saying that we don’t want to be happy. We want other things. Or let’s put it more accurately: We don’t want to be unconditionally happy. I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. But this is really to say to our friend or to our God or to anyone, “You are my happiness. If I don’t get you, I refuse to be happy.” It’s so important to understand that. We cannot imagine being happy without those conditions. That’s pretty accurate. We cannot conceive of being happy without them. We’ve been taught to place our happiness in them.”– Awareness pg. 11

Before I really begin commenting on these passages, I want to examine more closely De Mello’s claim that “most people are asleep.” This passage I found on Wikipedia’s entry for “hypnosis” makes an interesting point about how different levels of “hypnosis” occur all around us.

“Harry Cannon (FNRAH) defines hypnosis: "a psychological mechanism by which a suggestion moves directly to and is accepted by the subconscious mind." For this (hypnosis) to take place you require four things:

1. A focus of attention 2. A heightened emotion 3. The suggestion itself 4. No critique of the suggestion by the conscious intellect.

When these four requirements are met, suggestion takes root in the subconscious and so has action out in motor function. This simply means that the suggestion is acted upon by the mind.

Harry postulates that we are constantly being affected by hypnotic process. He gives the following example: “Imagine a small child being caught by their mother taking something that does not belong to them from another child. Imagine then the mother chastising her child for this action (the child now has a focus of attention and a heightened emotion). She then instructs her child to stop it and not do it again (the given suggestion). This suggestion, laid down during the child’s formative years has, by the criteria above, moved to the subconscious mind without any intellectual argument from the child. Because of this experience, a new social boundary has now been placed upon the child who, in later life will definitely ‘feel’ those same feelings and emotions whenever it finds itself in a similar situation.”

So hypnosis is all around us and is happening all the time. The level and apparent intensity of the ‘hypnotic state’ is the witnessing of an individuals subjective experience of it, and nothing more.” -

So we are “hypnotized” by certain emotional suggestions that, to a large extent, dictate the way we behave around other people. I can think of numerous examples of this within our society. Society tells us, “Be friendly and helpful to everyone you meet, but most people are too busy to care how you really are feeling.” “It’s not proper to talk about private personal issues when you’re in a group activity.” “Whether you realize it now or not, showing up on time to all your classes and getting all A’s will make you into a good citizen in the future.” “Accept people as they are, and let them live their own life and make their own decisions.” “Education is key to being able to contribute to society.” I’m sure there are many other similar “common sense rules” we use to define the social norms of our culture. Some of these I agree with, others I don’t, but whether we agree with them or not is not the point here. De Mello is saying that we should not let any these “rules” affect our ability to be happy. Whether you’re friendly to everyone, or act like a jerk on occasion; whether you're too nosy around others or too distant, don’t worry about it; you can’t change yourself through worry.

That’s all I really have that’s worth saying, I think. Anything else I want to say would just be me repeating De Mello’s message. So, I posted some of my favorite passages from Awareness, for those who find this kind of stuff interesting. Of course, I’d be happy to lend out my copy if anyone wants to read the whole book, or it can be bought new for about $11 or $12 from (cheaper new) or Amazon (cheaper used and good user reviews).

There's a lot of good advice in this book that has helped me to get past (to some extent, at least) the messages society tells us about what it takes to be a "success." I highly recommend for anyone who is feeling at all disillusioned with Western culture and is willing to read with an open mind.

Excerpts from Awareness

I went ahead and included a good many passages. If you like the first few, I think you'll like the others, while if you don't like the first few, the last ones are more of the same type stuff, I guess. Anyway, like De Mello wrote, "My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it, fine; if you don't, too bad! As the Arabs say, "The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the gardens."" (Awareness - pg. 6)

“The great masters tell us that the most important question in the world is: “Who am I?” Or rather: “What is ‘I’?” … You mean you understood astronomy and black holes and quasars and you picked up computer science, and you don’t know who you are? … You mean you understood what Jesus Christ is and you don’t know who you are? How do you know that you have understood Jesus Christ? Who is the person doing the understanding? Find that out first. That’s the foundation of everything, isn’t it? It’s because we haven’t understood this that we’ve got all these stupid religious people involved in all these stupid religious wars—Muslims fighting against Jews, Protestants fighting Catholics, and all the rest of that rubbish. They don’t know who they are, because if they did, these wouldn’t be wars.

But what I’d like to stress right now is self-observation. You are listening to me, but … are you aware of your reactions as you listen to me? If you aren’t you’re going to be brainwashed. Or else you are going to be influenced by forces within you of which you have no awareness at all. And even if you’re aware of how you react to me, are you simultaneously aware of where your reaction is coming from?” – Awareness pg. 44-45

“But notice, you’ve got the “I” observing “me”. This is an interesting phenomenon that has never ceased to cause wonder to philosophers, mystics, scientists, psychologists, that the “I” can observe “me”. It would seem that animals are not able to do this at all. It would seem that one needs a certain amount of intelligence to be able to do this. What I’m going to give you now is not metaphysics; it is not philosophy. It is plain observation and common sense. The great mystics of the East [when they ask “Who am I?”] are really referring to that “I”, not to the “me”. …

When you’re caught up in labels, what value do these labels have, as far as the “I” is concerned? Could we say that “I” is none of the labels we attach to it? Labels belong to “me.” What constantly changes is “me.” Does “I” ever change? Does the observer ever change? The fact is that no matter what labels you think of (except perhaps human being) you should apply them to “me.” “I” is none of these things. So when you step out of yourself and observe “me,” you no longer identify with “me.” Suffering exists in “me,” so when you identify “I” with “me,” suffering begins.” – Awareness pg 49-50

"When you renounce something, you're tied to it. The only way to get out of this is to see through it. Don't renounce it, see through it. Understand its true value and you won't need to renounce it; it will just drop from your hands. But of course, if you don’t see that, if you’re hypnotized into thinking that you won’t be happy without this, that, or the other thing, you’re stuck. What we need to do for you is not what so-called spirituality attempts to do—namely, to get you to make sacrifices, to renounce things. That’s useless. You’re still asleep. What we need to do is to help you understand, understand, understand. If you understood you’d simply drop the desire for it. This is another way of saying: If you woke up, you’d simply drop the desire for it." - Awareness pg. 16

“Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change.” No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is you.

… Suppose you witness some out-and out injustice, something that is obviously and objectively wrong. Would it not be a proper reaction to say this should not be happening? Should somehow want to involve yourself in correcting a situation that’s wrong? Someone’s injuring a child and you see abuse going on. How about that kind of thing? I hope you did not assume that I was saying you shouldn’t do anything. I said that if you didn’t have negative feeling you’d be much more effective, much more effective. Because when negative feeling come in, you go blind. “Me” steps into the picture and everything gets fouled up. Where we had one problem on our hands before, now we have two problems. Many wrongly assume that not having negative feelings like anger and resentment and hate means that you do nothing about a situation. Oh no, oh no! You are not affected emotionally but you spring into action. You become very sensitive to things and people around you. What kills the sensitivity is what many people would call the conditioned self: when you so identify with “me” that there’s too much of “me” in it for you to see things objectively, with detachment. It’s very important that when you swing into action, you be able to see things with detachment. But negative emotions prevent that.” – pg. 51-52

“But it’s what all the mystics in the past have been telling us. I’m not saying that “me,” the conditioned self, will not sometimes fall into its usual patterns. That’s the way we’ve been conditioned. But it raises the question whether it is conceivable to live a life in which you would be so totally alone that you would depend on no one.

We all depend on one another for all kinds of things, don’t we? We depend on the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Interdependence. That’s fine! We set up society this way and we allot different functions to different people for the welfare of everyone, so that we will function better and live more effectively—at least we hope so. But to depend on another psychologically—to depend on another emotionally—what does that imply? It means to depend on another human being for my happiness. Think about that. Because if you do, the next thing you will be doing, whether you’re aware of it or not, is demanding that other people contribute to your happiness. Then there will be a next step—fear, fear of loss, fear of alienation, fear of rejection, mutual control. Perfect love casts out fear. Where there is love there are no demands, no [requirements], no dependency. I do not demand that you make me happy; my happiness does not lie in you. If you were to leave me, I will not feel sorry for myself; I enjoy your company immensely, but I do not cling.

I enjoy it on a nonclinging basis. What I really enjoy is not you; it’s something that’s greater than both you and me. It is something that I discovered, a kind of symphony, a kind of orchestra that plays one melody in your presences, but when you depart, the orchestra doesn’t stop. When I meet someone else, it plays another melody, which is also very delightful. And when I’m alone, it continues to play. There’s a great repertoire and it never ceases to play. – Awareness pg. 54-55

“What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. You are always a slave to what you’re not aware of. When you’re aware of it, you’re free from it. It’s there, but you’re not affected by it. You’re not controlled by it; you’re not enslaved by it. That’s the difference.” – Awareness pg. 71

“You don’t need to belong to anybody or anything or any group. You don’t even need to be in love. Who told you you do? What you need is to be free. What you need is to love. That’s it; that’s your nature. But what you’re really telling me is that you want to be desired. You want to be applauded, to be attractive, to have all the little monkeys running after you. You’re wasting your life. Wake up! You don’t need this. You can be blissfully happy without it.

Your society is not going to be happy to hear this, because you become terrifying when you open your eyes and understand this. How do you control a person like this? He doesn’t need you; he’s not threatened by your criticism; he doesn’t care what you think of him or what you say about him. He’s cut all those strings; he’s not a puppet any longer. It’s terrifying. “So we’ve got to get rid of him. He tells the truth; he has become fearless; he has stopped being human.” Human! Behold! A human being at last! He broke out of his slavery, broke out of their prison.

No event justifies a negative feeling There is no situation in the world that justifies a negative feeling. That’s what all our mystics have been crying themselves hoarse to tell us. But nobody listens. The negative feeling is in you. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred book of the Hindus, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “Plunge into the heat of battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.” A marvelous sentence.

You don’t have to do anything to acquire happiness. The great Meister Eckhart said very beautifully, “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.” You don’t do anything to be free, you drop something. Then you’re free.” – Awareness pg. 81-82

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Harmfulness of Grades in Education

Originally published: August 13, 2006, 3:32 AM

I get really angry thinking about the way education is carried out in this country. Specifically, I hate the whole idea of ranking students based on their performance on compulsory work. I don’t have a problem with grades being used as a means of certification. For example, I agree that it makes sense to grade students who all have the goal of becoming doctors, because there should be some kind of test to ensure doctors are responsible, capable people. But these pre-med students are not under the compulsion that I am talking about. They know what their goal is, and they have freely chosen it. I ask, “what certification are middle school, high school, and even first and second year college students working toward that warrants the use of grades in their classes?”
First of all, shouldn’t the point of education to be to educate the students, rather than to find out which students are “best”? The counter-argument to this is that “grades aren’t there to rank students, but rather to let students know where they are.” If it were true that it’s the goal of every student to get into med school some day, then I would agree that grades do a very good job of telling students where they are in relation to fulfilling their dream. However, it is my experience that many students don’t really know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
Rather than be a predictor of a student’s future med school potential, education should strive to teach students how to apply knowledge of a subject to their everyday life. And the fact is grades do a routinely terrible job in measuring a student’s ability to apply their knowledge of a subject to their daily life. (There are plenty of students who get A’s in psychology, philosophy or religion, but it’s rare for a student to allow their life to be significantly changed by what they learn in these classes. What’s more, I believe a C student is just as likely as an A student to let their lives be affected by a subject.)
Okay, so grades are useless for showing how much a student really got out of a subject, but we need grades as a way to make sure people show up for class and learn to be good, responsible citizens, right? NO, NO, NO, NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NOOOOOOOOO!!! The way to encourage others to better themselves is always through showing your interest and concern for them and can never be accomplished by forcing them to adhere to your demands. Forcing demands on others is a technique that should only be brought out when necessary; it is not a philosophy that a healthy system can be built upon. Yes, we need to set high standards in our schools and to hold high expectations for the brightest students. But it is imperative that students view these standards and expectations as arising from our concern about them rather than as arising from the competitive demands of the social and economic system.
Imagine being an observer at a basketball camp. Rather than letting the kids enjoy playing basketball, the camp directors decide to figure which kids will have the best chance of playing in college. But the way they do this is that they tell all the kids to go and collect as many things having to do with basketball as they can. The kid who can collect the most about basketball surely is the most knowledgeable and devoted to it, they figure, and will therefore make the best college player. Some kids run off immediately to find books, balls, trading cards, and whatever else they can find relating to the game. Another group of kids ignores these directions and start playing just for their love of playing basketball. But when these kids see the camp directors praising the first group of kids for what they’ve collected and telling them what good college players they’ll be, more and more kids stop playing basketball and go off to collect paraphernalia. The small group of kids that keeps playing basketball is largely ignored. Most of them never even get a shot at playing in college though, while scholarships are readily handed to the kids who have large collections of Nike shoes and NBA jerseys.
Now replace “basketball” with “education” and “playing in college” with “being successful.” That’s a picture of what education is like today. I swear to you right here; it will be torn down.

Friday, July 07, 2006

What we control

Epictetus begins his work The Enchiridion by telling us:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
"The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered.” (The Enchiridion by Epictetus)

At times before I have felt a deep sense of isolation; that no matter how much I accomplish it still wouldn’t be enough. Other times, I have ceased caring at all about my goals and have just wanted to enjoy some of life as it passes by. Both of these views resulted from a misunderstanding that I held.

Epictetus goes on to advise us: “Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” (The Enchiridion by Epictetus)

What I now see is that it is good that there are some things I control and some things I don’t control. The pressure of controlling everything would be too much for any of us to bear. We need the reassurance that the universe will go on, even if we fail in our goals in life. But at the same time, the way to truly enjoy life isn’t to let it pass by. As Epictetus tells us, “those (things) not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.” In other words, submitting to them would never bring us a true sense of purpose or a real inner happiness. Rather, as Epictetus advises, we should set goals and work to accomplish them, applying ourselves fully to what circumstance has given us control over.