Today, Labor Day, is a national holiday in the United States. Many people have the day off from work, myself included, and this resulted in a three day weekend. A mini holiday of sorts. Over these three days I’ve slept more than usual and done very little outside of eating and relaxing. It has left me peaceful and emotionally full.
One of my favorite Buddhist monks, Ajahn Brahm likes to say that you have to learn to be a friend to yourself. In this way you can be truly happy no matter what situation you’re in. One way to be a friend to yourself is to listen to your mind and body. If they are telling you to sleep, then do so. If hungry, eat, and if thirsty, drink. These simple precepts can be very difficult to put into practice. I often find myself thinking that I am hungry, but I will get something to eat later in order to better organize my day around a certain schedule. This does a disservice to my body, in favor of adhering to some silly timeline that usually doesn’t really matter anyway. This weekend I more or less did just as I pleased, and I find myself in a much better place both physically and mentally.
I was reminded today about my grandfather’s death by a friend who is going through a similar process with a loved one. The period of time where I lived with him through his death is one that I will always cherish. Not only because it allowed me to know him better as a person, but because it forever altered my view on life and death. Mortality suddenly became very real. This realization didn’t come on an intellectual level, but an emotional one. I felt as though a thick layer of fog had been lifted from my view of life after he died – almost like a part of me had died with him, perhaps a bit of naivety. I hope that she can find what I did through her experience. The ending of a life has the potential to be a gift to all those whom experience it – making everyones life fuller.
Over the past several months I’ve been reading less and living more. This doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped considering spiritual and philosophical matters – quite the contrary. There have been seemingly endless discussions on these subjects with friends and family and I find that over and over again the ideals of Buddhism appeal to me more than any other system. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find fault in compassion and wisdom. The so called “big questions” seem largely irrelevant to me now. I just don’t care where we came from, or what happens when I die. Perhaps that’s wisdom, or maybe a bit of blissful ignorance, but it’s very comforting to no longer be concerned with these things. I still find them interesting intellectually, but they don’t bear the weight that they once did.
We have no control over what happens after we die. Those who believe they know what happens, only do just that – believe. Those who say nothing happens are themselves making an assumption. You can choose to live your life based on a possibility, or just live, and I choose the latter.
Where we came from, if there is a God, and all such related questions are equally unimportant. The fact is that we are here, conscious of our surroundings, and interacting with them and each other. Since we know that to be true, then logic would dictate that we should attempt to make the best of our situation. How does one make the best of their situation? That is an important question, and one I will discuss in a future post.
In February of this year, Sam Harris spoke at the TED conference regarding his view that science can answer moral questions. I was excited to hear what he might have to say on the subject, as he is a noted atheist with a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. I came away with two impressions: 1) Harris seems to be eager to start a new world order based on his views and 2) Nothing he said seemed to go beyond what I consider to be common sense.
He spent much of his time making analogies and pointing out things that had less to do with science and more to do with opinion, and never showed a chart or referenced a scientific study. He opened with a huge statement – that most people believe that science will never answer the big questions about human life, such as “what is worth living for, what is worth dying for. What constitutes a good life?” Harris poses this important question, but never answers it. In fact, he never even addresses it again. In attempting to make the argument that morality is nothing more than an agreed upon set of standards, he fails to acknowledge the Achilles heel of scientific fact – that it is never constant. Facts change based on new data and analysis of that data. Today we agree that racism is wrong. Any poll taken would indicate this. However, go back a few hundred years and take a poll and you would find a very different result – one based on the accepted knowledge of the day. If science, in the form of common agreement (which is not really science at all), is going to be used to form a morality system, then I feel we have a long way to go until we will become the peaceful, harmonious creatures we all wish to be.
Harris argues that “values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Again, history shows us that there is nothing factual about values or value systems – they are dependent on far too many variables, including the individual’s momentary emotional state, to ever be scientifically assessed on a large scale. Certainly science may one day be able to tell us that our brains are naturally wired towards peace and harmony, a fact already agreed upon by most people, but that natural tendency depends almost completely upon the situation. Even Buddhist monks are taught that in severe cases you have a right to defend yourself, even if that means harming another human being. They believe that the intention is what’s important – and their intention would be to protect themselves or others, not to harm another person.
Throughout the speech and in his Project Reason foundation, is it clear that Harris’ focus is on the Western religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. From the Project Reason mission statement:
“While the foundation is devoted to fostering critical thinking generally, we believe that religious ideas require a special focus. Both science and the arts are built upon cultures of vigorous self-criticism; religious discourse is not. As a result, religious dogmatism still reigns unchallenged in almost every society on earth—dividing humanity from itself, inflaming conflict, preventing wise public policy, and diverting scarce resources. One of the primary goals of Project Reason is to change this increasingly unhealthy status quo.”
While I certainly agree that religious dogma serves no great purpose and can in many cases be harmful to individuals and societies in general, to say that religions aren’t based in self-criticism is simply not true. All of the major Eastern religions have a long history of being critical of their teachings. This is especially evident in Buddhism where one of the first things a student learns is that it’s not only acceptable to question the teachings, but encouraged. I’m quite sure there were some heated debates amongst the Christians at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. To generalize about religions and their followers is not a good way to prove science superior to faith.
Harris also states, “The distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science.” This is laughably false. Not only are there many different methods actively used to determine if a human has died, but there is even a difference between whether a person is “clinically dead” or “legally dead”. Even if you focus on clinical death, when a person’s circulation and breathing ceases, brain activity can still continue and since Harris himself believes that your personality is the product of your brain, then technically even when we are clinically dead we are still conscious for a time and therefore still a living being. All of this is further complicated by the fact that we can now be kept alive by machines after these systems have failed. I won’t even go into how each doctor has a different interpretation of what is “healthy”.
I agree with Harris that universal morality doesn’t mean there can not be exceptions to agreed upon morality and values. If we all agree that lying is wrong, it doesn’t mean that in certain scenarios a lie might not be the best possible solution. We live in a culture that fully embraces things only when they are black and white. If you call yourself a Christian, then you are obliged to believe in everything the Bible dictates whether it applies to modern life or not. Those who take a more reasoned approach to their faith, choosing to believe certain things and not others, are seen by many as being inferior in some way – like a person who can’t choose between white bread or wheat when in line at a sub shop. Someone who was sure of their convictions should be able to tell you what they believe without hesitation. Of course, this can also be seen as blind faith – though that phrase is absurd since all faith is blind. As with all things in life, there are and should always be shades of grey.
The most disturbing and dangerous statement Harris makes in his TED speech is as follows:
“Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it IS to have a domain of expertise. That is what it IS for knowledge to count.”
He goes on to say that we have convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere at least, we must count every opinion. While I agree that it’s illogical to give serious weight to the opinions of those who would harm others or cause pain, what Harris proposes is simply a new religious order – one based in science but no less dangerous than those based in faith and dogma. Here he indicates that certain people should be given “moral authority” while others should not, but who is to determine which people should be given this right and privilege? Surely any scientist would agree that the most reliable data comes from the largest number of subjects. For example, if you asked 10 people what color the sky was and eight said blue and two said white, you could say with some confidence that the sky was blue. However, if you asked a few million and got the same percentage of blue versus white then you could be much more certain of your answer. Harris says that the world needs “…people like ourselves to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts.” People like ourselves. I suppose he was referring to the mostly white, mostly affluent people in the room he was addressing. Perhaps Harris believes that affluent whites are the superior humans intellectually and should therefore be given the duty of morality police for our entire global society. More likely, he’s speaking to the scientific community as a whole, but that still doesn’t sit well with me. What gives him or any group of self-appointed scientists the right or the wisdom to choose how others should be judged? Surely he would object to being held accountable for his actions in a hostile foreign court, and I can see how people of faith would be equally infuriated by him telling them that they don’t have a valid opinion on the subject of human values.
While it’s true that science at it’s highest levels doesn’t ask you to believe in anything or significant importance, at the level in which most people understand it we are asked to take almost all of its principles for granted. I don’t understand the complexities of photosynthesis, but I know that giving a plant light and water will help it grow. In the same way, scientists like Harris ask laypeople to have faith in that which they do not fully understand in order to see things the way they do. The difference, they would tell you, is that what they are asking you to believe is based in proven fact rather than fictional dogma.
Science and spirituality can and should co-exist peacefully. There is no logical reason to exclude one for the other. When something cannot be explained by science, one can simply seek a spiritual answer. This doesn’t mean that ancient rituals and dogma should be followed, quite the contrary. The kind of spirituality I’m speaking of is internal. Today the only way to find true inner peace is through spiritual methods. There is no compassion pill or love injection. You have to nurture these things yourself, and arguably these are the most important facets of being human. Most of us will never be remembered for inventing or discovering anything, but we can all be remembered for being kind and loving.
In recent decades atheists and scientists have been arguing with great intensity against religion, and they have made some interesting and obvious points. The world could do with a lot less dogma and a lot more kindness and compassion, and a great deal more common sense. However, what Harris and his friends at Project Reality propose has nothing to do with these things. They replace God with science, compassion with statistics and common sense with theory, but they don’t change anything by doing so. They simply don’t present an option that’s more appealing than what most people currently choose to live with.
When I discuss the tenants of Buddhism with people unfamiliar with it, they are often quick to assess it as a selfish and pessimistic religion. It’s easy to see why they think this way, as the first noble truth of the Buddhist path is that all things lead to suffering, and another core teaching is that you must first seek to purify your own mental state before helping others. While these truths my be difficult for many Westerners to accept, they are none the less true.
The teaching that all things lead to suffering doesn’t mean that everyone is essentially bad and will suffer for it. It simply means that we will all experience physical and emotional pain and, eventually, we will all die. It’s important to understand this because many of us spend a great deal of time fighting aging and pain, which does nothing to change the end result. Every relationship, no matter how wonderful it is, will end. All of your friends are going to die. These need not be saddening truths, they are simply reality. Sadness is a perception. What makes one person cry could easily cause another to laugh uncontrollably. In my short time studying these topics I have been able to come to terms with some of these truths and that understanding of the true nature of things has helped me to better handle life’s challenges. People who worship a God often turn to their creator when they want something or receive something, but very rarely at other times. This lack of a consistent relationship indicates that it is primarily a marriage of assumed necessity, rather than one which really benefits either party. What makes asking for a God to help you and different from trying to help yourself? Whether you believe that God has done something for you or not, you wanted it, and the intention to have things be better in your life is the important part of the equation.
In Buddhism it is believed that you must first release yourself from bondage before you can help anyone else. The problem here is that it can take an entire lifetime, or ten seconds, to release yourself from the prison you’ve created. All of us are put into this prison voluntarily as we age. We are taught that we are unique individuals who are part of a society and we are each assigned a role to play. Some of us are told we’re talented artists or scientific geniuses, while others are told that they have no talent and therefore shouldn’t hope to be anything special – that’s a role, too. We are given the title of brother or sister and instruction is given on that role as well. Many Westerners believe that not only do they have a role to play here on Earth, but that they will continue to play it eternally in heaven or hell, which is why it’s all the more important to know who you really are. When you stop believing in these things, other people will simply classify you as strange or problematic. After a time you being to see these symbols and labels for the identification tools that they are, and your perception of reality completely changes. Your existence seems connected to others, and you feel more like you should be kind to others rather than just ignoring them and getting to your next destination that much more quickly. This is the reason that it’s important to work on removing your illusions about self and reality before attempting to teach others your learned truths. It’s not selfish if there is no such thing as a self, and it’s not wrong to fully understand that which you wish to impart on to others.
The truth that there is no such thing as a permanent “self” rang true to me the first time I read it in Buddhist texts. After all, when you ask a person who they are, they often give some conventional reply – such as “I am John,” which is a name, or “I am a carpenter” which is just a job title. If you ask them to really tell you who they are, beyond these conventional things, they will either become angry and defensive or simply repeat the previous types of answers, insisting that they are those symbols or roles. A word of caution: don’t ask just anyone who they “really” are, because it can really upset people. Make sure you have a strong relationship and that the person can handle the question. If they say they are a man or a human, ask them when did they become one? Was it when they first realized it, or when they were born? If you go further back, was it when they were a fertilized egg, or a sperm? Even further, did they begin when their parents were born, or maybe even their grandparents? As you can see, it’s impossible to really say when someone becomes who they “are”, rather we simply agree that their current life begins when they are born and draw their first breath.
So, it’s very difficult to pinpoint when the thing we call ourselves actually began, and it is equally difficult to say when we end. Some will say it’s when they heart stops, some the breathe and many the brain activity. Since we don’t know when we become ourselves and when we cease to be, it is only logical to acknowledge that there isn’t any true, permanent self. In a greater sense we are all a part of everything else and never begin and never end.
Still, I know that I often feel quite alone, which is a feeling I shouldn’t get since I realize at least on a basic level that I’m never alone. When I feel lonely I wish to have a woman to share my thoughts and feelings with. It feels natural to want a women to share my life with, although I don’t know why. Lying alone at night, I sometimes feel as if I have failed to achieve something, or that I need to try harder to find someone to share life with, though all of these notions are based in a sense of self that I don’t believe truly exists. -I- feel that -I- need someone. That means that part of me believes there truly is something here that needs another something in order to feel like a more complete thing. Telling someone what I’m thinking somehow makes those thoughts more “real”, more important. If feels like having a witness means things really happened, that I didn’t just imagine them, and that makes me feel more alive. So much of our relationships are based on shared experiences that without them most of us would be quite alone with the very self that doesn’t exist. Perhaps we are socially or culturally conditioned to feel the need for other humans, and particularly the attention of the opposite sex, but I don’t like the thought of being so easily manipulated. I think I’ll go have some a bite of Brand X and a swig of Brand Y now, and go to sleep.
Things have been very busy lately, which is why I haven’t posted here in some time. I moved out of Pops’ house a few weeks after he passed away and I’ve spent the last two weeks settling in to my new apartment and working on other projects. I did come across something interesting in a book I’m reading, The Monk and the Philosopher.
There is a discussion regarding what exists “behind” the objects we see and agree upon in a convention sense. For example, we see an apple and agree that it’s an archetype “apple.” We throw the apple in the air and agree that it will fall to the ground due to the “law” of gravity. These archetypes and laws are considered by some to be the unseen forces of nature – the principles that bind together our universe and essentially our reality.
The scientific view is that there are certain constants and other things that can be agreed upon. The Buddhist view is that there are static forces or objects, since all things are constantly changing. What is really interesting is the discussion of God in this context. If a creator, who is always deemed to be all-powerful in religious doctrine, decides to create something then he is simply acting under the influence of his desire and is therefore not in complete control of his on whims. Accordingly, if the creator creates without deciding to do so, then control over the creation is not his and he is not all-powerful.
It’s quite an interesting problem, with no obvious solution for those who wish to believe that their creator is all-powerful. Of course, they could simply say the rules that appear to apply to everything that God created do not apply to him, but that seems like a cop-out. All of these questions are largely unknowable to us at the present time, and may always be, but they are certainly fascinating to ponder.
How do you say that your grandfather has died? It’s not easy to state. It isn’t like saying “I had chicken for lunch,” or “the Cubs lost again last night.” The statement is gloomy and most of us would simply rather not say or hear it, but he did die. He is not going to create any new memories, or help others create them. He’s just gone.
This isn’t my first experience with death, but this time it was up close and personal. I spent almost seven months living with Pops leading up to his death and saw him every day. Death came slowly, but not painfully. I don’t think Pops wanted to live any longer, though he never said that explicitly. I’m telling you this so you won’t feel sorry for him, which is illogical because he’s dead, but people seem to do that anyway. Pops didn’t suffer and he was able to die in his home, which is what he wanted.
I observed many strange things in the weeks prior to his death and the days since. Family that previously visited rarely if at all suddenly began appearing with great frequency. It seemed as if they were trying to satisfy an unspecified quota, getting all of their time in at the last minute. I would suggest that this is a terrible idea. People are simply in no condition to reminisce when they are dying, and even if they are able to, they would usually rather talk about something else. Pops very rarely brought up the past himself, preferring to ask us about our lives, discuss the weather or local goings on.
Dying is not an easy thing to do, even if everyone can do it. My grandfather didn’t leave behind any pearls of wisdom that I am aware of. He didn’t have any last requests. During his last few days he was unaware of his location and spoke to ghosts from his past. He rarely recognized anyone, and was completely unconscious for most of the day of his death. I was glad that I had time to talk with him before this. More than anything, I was happy just to have been with him – to experience my grandfather as he was at this time in his life.
As he died my family was very somber and there was much wailing and praying. All of his sons and daughters are Christians, and they each in turn commented on how he would soon be in heaven with grandma and how they would be playing golf again and all would be as it was here on Earth. It was all surreal to me, a person who doesn’t believe as they do that when you die the most important part of you travels on to eternal glory (or damnation). This clearly brought them comfort though, which was contradicted by their crying. Surely if a person is going to the most wonderful place imaginable you wouldn’t cry for them – you would rejoice! This must mean that on at least a subconscious level they didn’t completely believe his final destination would be heaven, or at least they weren’t positive. As we all do, my aunts and uncles simply realized that their loved one was gone from their lives and would never return, and that mad then sad.
As for me, I haven’t cried yet. I haven’t really been sad. There was never any question that he, as all of us, would die. He didn’t seem to fear death – he wasn’t in pain. His life is simply over. My grandfather has died, but before that final act, he lived. For 82 years he laughed, cried, ate and slept. He walked down streets and loved his family and did all of the other things that prove we’re human. All around me I see people grieving in their own ways. Without religion you must look at death in the harsh reality in which it exists. Dogma doesn’t alter this reality, it only serves to complicate it. I see no reason to shed a tear because he did the most human thing of all. If it is true that we cry for the dead because we miss them, then thinking that they are in another place should not console you. If we mourn because they are no longer alive, an afterlife won’t bring them back. The idea that we might see them again in heaven would be appealing to those who didn’t feel as though they spent enough time with the person during their life, so it seems that the best thing to do is to make the most of the present. It’s no coincidence that the word is synonymous with gift.
What is reality? There is probably no way to define it, since the concept is just that and is different for each of us. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we usually refer to reality as that which we can all agree on in the present. That tree is there, and it’s brown with green leaves, for example. That’s what we all consider our shared reality.
A person suffers from what we call delirium when they begin to lose their connection with our shared, present reality. This may be for a moment or a few hours or days, but it rarely ceases in old age – it simply progresses. That word, progress, is a term I never knew could mean anything negative, until a doctor told me that my grandfather’s emphysema would continue to “progress,” meaning that it would eventually kill him. I found this use of the word to be shocking, deceptive and somewhat cruel. People are so afraid to simply say what they mean, that they put spin on the one thing we can all be certain of in life – that we are all going to die. I digress.
I began to notice Pops slipping out of reality during times of stress – when he was having trouble breathing, couldn’t sleep or had to be moved more than a few feet. He would call out for people who weren’t there, ask questions regarding events in the past or just say things that didn’t make sense to anyone around. This happens now with much more frequency and for the past few days I have been unable to have any useful discussions with him. The most I can get from him is a simple, one word answer to straight forward questions. Any other response may or may not be logical or based on the question asked and must be taken with a grain of salt.
I wonder, as I look into his eyes what he is thinking that he cannot express. Does he perceive our reality, or his own? Should we really be trying so hard to bring him into our present, or would he be more comfortable in his own state of mind? Has he created this other reality for comfort, consciously or is it out of his control? Some would argue that nothing is out of our control, that if it were so then who would be controlling it? Therefore, even delusions are our own creations – our way of protecting ourselves from the sad state of affairs that time and inevitability have put us in. If he is trying to die, why should we stop him?
Although all of us are dying, we often only refer to the process when it begins to draw to a close. In my life I have been close to death numerous times, but never in such a way as I am now. My grandfather is 82 years old and has come home from a two week hospital stay to die. We have been told he will be fortunate to make it through the holidays. A heavy smoker for much of his life, Pops had lung cancer and part of a lung removed in the 80′s. He suffers from emphysema and macular degeneration, leaving him legally blind and unable to walk more than a few feet. For some time now he has been on oxygen 24 hours a day, and for the past week since returning from the hospital he has been confined to his den where a hospital bed and portable toilet were brought in. Various levels of cognitivity are seen throughout the day. At times he is able to clearly convey his thoughts, but more often he has difficulty speaking.
I have been living with Pops for six months. I have seen him go from an active lifestyle to his current state, slowly and painfully. He has often told me things like “Old age stinks” and “Son, I’m not going to be here much longer.” This has been difficult to hear, but there is a certain dry honesty that is comforting. He knows that he is coming to the end of his life, and on some level he is facing that reality.
Pops was never a religious man as far as I can remember. He never went to church, spoke of God, or professed love for Jesus. He was a Christian in the same way that many people I know are; simply through inheritance. In the past year, after his wife passed and he grew more feeble, Pops has made a significant effort to attend church services. He has told me that he has to “get right with God.” Like most Christians, he seems content to have lived 99% of his life away from God, because as we all know you only have to accept Jesus at the end to get into heaven. He welcomes a prayer these days, and speaks about local churches as if they were competing baseball teams. This church has the best preacher, but that one has the better congregation, while another other has the easiest access for seniors. I don’t think you could say my grandfather lived a particularly idealistic Christian life, in the sense that I doubt he did a lot of missionary work or community service, but I would bet that he lived a typical lifestyle for his demographic.
He takes comfort in the idea of going to heaven, believing that when he dies he will be reunited with his wife and all of the things that old age has robbed him of will be restored. Pops knows that I’m not a Christian, and that I don’t subscribe to the idea of heaven. I found him surprisingly open minded about my views, although he made it clear that he thought I was wrong. It would be unimaginable for me to try and tell him at this point that there was no heaven, and that when he died he would most likely simply cease to exist. I think that at this point he is simply living to die; hoping that his death will be painless and that he will be welcomed into heaven. At this point, to rob him of that hope by casting doubts in his mind would be a shameful mistake.
We wouldn’t know we were alive if death didn’t surround us. Being a caretaker of an elderly, dying man has reinforced that view for me. The life in his eyes is like a wave as it reaches the shore; its crests and troughs become more alike and begin to merge into one steady, even flow. Perhaps in a sense death is just the end of a long wave, when we finally dissolve back into the mist and sand.
Morality as we understand it is a concept, and as such is an abstraction. We say a person has good morals when they act in a certain way, and that they lack morals when they act in the opposite way. Because these judgments of morality change from culture to culture, person to person, and even minute by minute it is difficult if not impossible to assign a generic moral code to the human race.
Of course there have been those who have tried to say that certain moral principles are universal. There seems to be some comfort in the idea that we are all bound by a common thread of decency, a mysterious inner voice that tells us that certain things are wrong. Interestingly most moral systems focus on what is wrong rather than what is right. Take for example the famous ten commandments Judeo-Christian faiths. They are almost exclusively “thou shalt not” statements and other verbiage telling you to worship God in a certain way. It seems strange to me that we need to be constantly instructed in what not to do, but what is right and proper seems to come naturally – especially in Western religion.
If we were able to survive hundreds of thousands of years without formal ethical systems, then why do we need them today? Logical dictates that we do not, and that the obvious reason for their existence is to lend an air of respectability to the religious doctrines that they are associated with. A key argument for most people of faith is that without their systems of religions people with lack the value systems that we hold dear. This can be countered simply by pointing out the fact that all civilizations have honored the basic moral tenants set forth today and they did so without the dogmatic religious doctrines of our era. One can also see that those who do not align themselves with a particular faith are still able to function quite peacefully in our society. This begs the question; if we don’t need religion for moral guidance, then what purpose does it serve?