101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.

Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

The Suffering Refugees Who Can’t Go Home

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

– Angelina Jolie, A New Level of Refugee SufferingNew York Times

That is just a taste of the awful conditions and circumstances faced by the millions of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing some of the most savage and chaotic conflict in generations — not including the millions more displaced within their respective countries, and the hundred of thousands killed, maimed, or missing.

There can be no doubt that the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent emergence of IS from the chaos, is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral calamities in decades. It is hard to imagine that this horror is being played out in such a large scale in other crises across the world, from Central African Republic to Burma.

I have no idea how to even conceive of this suffering, let alone face it in person.

Jolie, who has a notable track record as a humanitarian, strikes me as sincere in her observations and humanism. One particular point that was salient to me as an International Relations major:

At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?

When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.

There is little more to add: after seventy years, it appears little has changed with respect to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. While conflicts on the scale of the Second World War have thankfully been absent — and still unlikely, if not ruled out entirely — large international wars have given way to chronic civil strife in certain countries that extend suffering and crisis across generations. It is awful how familiar and intractable this problem remains. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

On Depression, Suicide, and Being a Good Person

The psychologist Rollo May once noted that “depression is the inability to construct a future”. Whatever the scientific merits of that observation, I believe it offers a reasonable explanation for how someone could do something that most of us would find impossible: consciously ending their own lives, often regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances. If one is unable to see any point to their lives, or to conceive of any future beyond the painful past and present that is all they know, then what other choice to they have, as far as they can see?

Obviously, depression and suicidal ideation are fundamentally personal matters that affect each individual differently, so I am reluctant to generalize about how it feels, where it stems from, and so on. Please take this as the uneducated stream of consciousness of one person and nothing more.

All I can say is that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety (both thankfully far milder than most), as well as someone familiar with the subject through loved ones and personal research, I have learned one valuable thing: no expression of love or validation is too small. Every little bit counts. No matter how futile it may seem, at the very least we must try.

I have heard too many stories of people being brought back from the brink of suicide and despair by the spontaneous phone call of a loved one, or the random act of kindness from a stranger. Humans inherently seek out validation and meaning in their lives; as a social and sentient species, we require both love and a sense of purpose. Simply being acknowledged by another human being, or being given something to work towards — a charitable cause, the making of art, the caring of others — is enough to enrich our lives and keep us going.

There is little I can say that is not already known: that suicide is irreversible, that depression and mental illness are nothing to be ashamed of and suffer alone with, that the people around you care and want you to stay. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how much we remind ourselves of these things, or how much we try to be there for others, the tragedy of the human condition continues. Many of us will be or feel powerless to help ourselves or others. In response to tragedy, we will reflect, act accordingly in the short term, but then move on until the next grim reminder.

Of course, this is not to discourage people from seeking help or offering it — doing good is still valuable and necessary regardless of whether bad things continue to happen. Over the years, I have learned from both personal experience and the accounts of others, that no matter what your mental status — depressed, suicidal, satisfied, etc — doing good for others feels deeply uplifting and self-actualizing. After all, we need to start somewhere, and in such a cruel world, no act of goodness is too small. It will always matter to someone, perhaps enough to save their lives. What have we got to lose in the process?

Ultimately, my point is that we must remain vigilant in our goodness and conscientiousness, to be kind and loving to as many of our fellow humans as possible. As the Scottish author Ian Maclaren rightly advised, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. In doing so, we can better our chances at enriching, if not saving, both others’ lives and our own. Even if it does not work out — if people continue to suffer, act self-destructively, or remain unmoved to act morally — at the very least we can say that we did very sincere best, and will continue to do so as long as human suffering on both an individual and societal level remains.

If you have read up to this point, thank you, and remember that I am always here for you, whether you’re an acquaintance or my very closest loved one. Your value as a person is all the same. Try me, you’ve got nothing to lose and no judgement to contend with. I know I can seem distant and unavailable, but believe me, I can and will make the time. It is hardly an inconvenience. On the contrary, it would be my honor. Be well my readers.

Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?

Excellence as Habit

This apt observation was made over two thousand years ago, and it remains as relevant today as it did then. This reflects the universal fact that to be moral and virtuous is a conscious and continuous effort. We have to be as reflective and analytical as possible with respect to the decisions we make and the interactions we have; in this way, we determine the best course of action in terms of ethics, integrity, and self-improvement.

Furthermore, we should never be complacent about our presumed moral character, or assume we’re inherently moral as it is, because that could lead to a blind-spot in our own behavior. To be a moral person is a constant work in progress, because we’re constantly learning new things and expanding upon our understanding (and definition) of what is good, what is ethical, what is excellence, etc.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the rewards are worthwhile, especially if enough people do it at once.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you do to be a better person?Who or what has inspired you or helped you to this end?

Does Thinking About Money Make You a Bad Person?

Most people would agree that time and money are very important things in life, second to or on part with love, healthy, and family. But can dwelling too much on one or the other influence your overall ethical character? According to a study reported in The Atlanticthe mere thought of trying to acquire more money — even by honest means — can make you a bad person.

“The increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley wrote in a widely-cited paper showing that the “upper-class” was more likely to lie, cheat, violate driving laws, and even take candy from children.

It’s not just having money that makes us dishonest. Even thinking about it—lustrous gold coins, money trees, year-end bonuses—makes us us more likely to behave unethically. A new study this week both indicts the immoral intoxication of money and offers a simple solution: When you make people think about time rather than money, they become self-reflective and less likely to do the wrong thing.

In four experiments, Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Cassie Mogilner (Wharton) primed subjects with words associated with money or time. Then they asked them to complete certain tasks like a number matrix and a sentence-unscrambling test. The participants, who could lie about their performance, rewarded themselves with money for each task they allegedly completed.

Nearly 90 percent of those primed to think about money cheated, compared to just 42 percent in the time condition.

The pernicious influence of greed, consumerism, and materialism is nothing new or controversial. But the idea that merely thinking about these things primes negative behaviors and ideas is an interesting one — and probably something most people would find contentious. After all, we’ve all thought about wanting to make more money at some point in our lives, so does that mean we’re periodically tempted to be dishonest or exploitative?

Well, why not? It’s not too difficult a conclusion for me to swallow, personally. Few human beings are ever consistent in their moral or ethical character, and most of us find ourselves frequently faced with temptations to do bad things (and justify them) for our own gain. So the idea that we can get carried away with our own desires, even if we don’t mean to be, isn’t terribly surprising.

And what about the influence of time?

Thinking about time makes us reflect on who we are, the professors concluded. Self-reflection makes us honest because we evaluate ourselves in the long-term, rather than focus on the clear short-term advantages from cheating. “Even good people can and often do bad things,” Gino said in an email conversation. “People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral.”

In other words, if you make a habit of thinking about the bigger picture — what little time we have left to accomplish our goals or spend time with our loved ones, for example — you’re more likely to realize the error of your poor, short-term judgements.

It gets more interesting:

In previous research, Gino and the behavioral economist Dan Ariely predicted that creativity enabled dishonesty. People who could produce more novel, useful ideas in general could also come up with creative ways to rationalize unethical behavior. (“Sure, I got her fired, but she can better reach her potential in another industry”; “I’m not stealing from this national bank, I’m adjusting for the implicit subsidies it enjoys as a Too-Big-To-Fail institution”; etc) Stimulating creative thought in their study increased dishonest behavior by blurring the line between morality and immorality.

Many people associate criminality and immorality with poverty and ignorance; but more often than not, the intelligent and otherwise well-off person has every reason to be a bad person — literally, they’re smart enough to figure out reasons to justify their malevolent actions. To me, this drives home the often neglected point that there is a difference between intelligence in terms of cognitive ability — retaining, learning, analyzing, and so on — and knowing about ethics, morality, empathy, and other things that underpin benevolent behavior.

But in this research, Gino showed that self-reflection highlights that line between right and wrong. “In a sense, it reduces their ability to engage in this creative explanation for why what they are doing is okay,” she said.

Introspection is key. Take more time to think about things and weigh the consequences and long-term implications. It’s not easy, but the potential rewards — for you, your loved ones, and the wider society — are vast. But in a world dominated by money, materialism, and cutthroat competition, this is even more challenging. It’s easy to justify dishonest behavior when you’re struggling in an increasingly inequitable and cynical world.

Link

Have Young Americans Lost Their Moral Compass?

In recent months there has been a visible struggle in the media to come to grips with the leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities. This response has run the gamut. It has involved attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

In broad terms, commentators in the mainstream and corporate media have tended to assume that all of these actors needed to be brought to justice, while independent players on the Internet and elsewhere have been much more supportive. Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No. In my view, just the opposite.

The article is a pretty engaging read, and I recommend reading it and deciding for yourselves. 

The “Divine command” theory of ethics: is it more common than we think?

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

Caveat emptor: I am not a philosopher and proffer these posts, as always, as tentative thoughts, designed to hone my ideas, inspire conversation, and learn from my readers.

It has always seemed to me that Plato’s Euthyphro argument pretty much disposed of the claim that morals are grounded in God.  If you need a refresher, that’s simply the argument that if morals are underlain by God’s commands, then anything that God commands is good by definition. (Plato used “piety” rather than “morality,” but the argument is the same.) But by those lights God could say, “Stoning adulterous women is the moral thing to do” and we’d have to go along with it.  (This is, in fact, the “divine command” theory—DCT used by William Lane Craig to justify the genocide of the Canaanites.)

But of course few of us want to adhere to the notion that whatever God says

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