Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Search For Meaning

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 30, 2015)

Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are,
and now flourish and grow warm with life,
and feed on what the ground gives,
but then again fade away and are dead.
~ Homer

Life is hard. It includes physical pain, mental anguish, poverty, hatred, war and death. Life’s problems are so significant that humans try desperately to alleviate and avoid them. But mere words cannot convey the depth and intensity of the suffering in human life. Consider that persons are starving, imprisoned, tortured, and suffering unimaginably as you read this; that our emotional, moral, physical, and intellectual lives are limited by our genes and environments; that our creative potential is wasted because of unfulfilling or degrading work, unjust incarceration, unimaginable poverty, and limited time; and that our loved ones suffer and die—as do we. Contemplate the horrors of history, and lives so insufferable that death was often welcomed. What kind of life is this that nothingness is often preferable? There is, as Unamuno said, a “tragic sense of life.” This idea haunts the intellectually honest and emotionally sensitive individual. Life sometimes seems not worth the trouble.

Of course the above does not describe all of human life or history. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and a thousand other things that make life, at least sometimes, worthwhile, and at other times pure bliss. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are trees, flowers, mountains and oceans; there is art, science, literature and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Life sometimes seems too good for words.

Now assuming that we are lucky enough to be born without any of a thousand physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine or war, the first problems we confront are how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Initially we have no choice but to rely on others to meet our basic needs, but as we mature we are increasingly forced to fulfill these needs on our own.  In fact most human effort, both historically and presently, expends itself attempting to meet these basic needs. The structure of a society may aid us in satisfying our needs to differing extents, but no society fulfills them completely, and many erect impediments that make living well nearly impossible. We often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.

But even if we are born healthy and into a relatively stable environment, even if all our basic needs are met, we still face difficulties. We seek health and vitality, friends and mates, pleasure and happiness. Our desires appear unlimited. And presuming that we fulfill these desires, we still face pressing philosophical concerns: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what is the meaning of life in a world that contains so much suffering and death? This is the central philosophical question of human life. Fortune may shine upon us, but we ultimately suffer and perish. And if all our hopes, plans and loves ultimately vanish, then what does it all mean? This question is not just academic; it penetrates to the core of the human existence.

Given the gravity of our query everyone, if they are lucky enough to have the chance, should think deeply about questions of meaning. And they should be honest in their quest, never cheating like the youths that Kierkegaard described: “There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked the sum out for themselves.” If we work out the answers for ourselves then perhaps we will find that Rainer Marie Rilke was right when he said: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”

Shinichi Suzuki and Schubert’s “Ellen’s Third Song” (Ave Maria)

Shinichi Suzuki (1898 – 1998) invented the international Suzuki method of music education. It is considered an influential pedagogue in music education, especially of children. During his lifetime, he received several honorary doctorates in music including from the New England Conservatory of Music (1956), and the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and he was proclaimed a Living National Treasure of Japan and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

When he was seventeen, Shinichi heard a recording of Franz Schubert’s “Ellen’s Third Song,” played by a famous violinist named Mischa Elman. (Suzuki supposedly likened listening to this composition to hearing the voice of God.) It was based on Walter Scott‘s popular epic poem The Lady of the Lake. It became one of Schubert’s most popular works, recorded in different versions under the title of Ave Maria, with various lyrics which often differ from the original context of the poem. It was arranged in three versions for piano by Franz Liszt.

But it is one of the most melodious pieces of music that I’ve ever heard.

Grandchildren (Oh Very Young)

My two-year old granddaughter sees the world differently from most adults—the commonplace is extraordinary to her. Every tree, bush and rock, every ant, dog and butterfly are objects of fascination; every ball, stick, and swing immerse her in play. Being in her presence I find, that I too pause to find the ordinary … extraordinary.

But there is a darker side to being with her. I sometimes tell her about my mother or my father, and soon she will ask “where are they?” I could give a comforting answer, but I must tell her the truth—they are gone and will never come back. And when she asks, “what of you and grandma? Then I will have to tell her that we too will someday go and never come back. And the same with her mom and dad. And the same with her.

I now see why parents either deceive both themselves and their children—to protect them all from this sinister truth. But we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or lie to our children. We should tell them the horrible truth, face it courageously, and then do our best to change it. We should make death and suffering optional, which science and technology may well do in the very near future.  And then we won’t have to lie to our children anymore.

Children help us to see both what the world is … and what it could be. And for that, thanks little one. Oh, and here’s a song for you, my little granddaughter. I remember when I was young enough I thought this song was about me, and then it became a song for my children, and now its a song for you …

Review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

(This post was reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 2, 2015)

I recently finished Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and found it a welcome addition to the literature on mindfulness. It also adds to the growing literature that tries to find alternatives to the antiquated religions which are slowly losing their appeal for millions of people. (Just this week a new Pew study chronicled the decline of religion in the USA.)

Anyone familiar with some of Harris’ other works (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and Letter to a Christian Nation) knows that he is an atheist, but readers of this book will find out, surprisingly perhaps, that Harris spent many years learning meditation techniques from Buddhists masters. This insights derived from his meditative experiences leads to his basic prescription for attaining spirituality without religion—Buddhist based mindfulness meditation. Such meditation leads to realization that what we call the self or the ego is essentially an illusion. (I have written previously about some of these topics herehere and here.)

Harris claims that while anyone can experience the insights derived from meditation, “Only Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta … have been absolutely clear in asserting that the spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.” Harris believes that eastern religions are clearly superior to their western counterparts for attaining spiritual insight. By contrast, “As manuals of contemplative understanding, The Bible and Koran are worse than useless.” Of course Harris notes that not all “Buddhists and Hindus have been sophisticated contemplatives,” for those traditions “have spawned many of the same pathologies as we see elsewhere among the faithful: dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, tribalism, otherworldliness. ”

But the differences between western and eastern religion can’t be overstated. Interest in controlling the mind and understanding the nature, cause, and the ways to end suffering are enough for those who want to travel the eastern paths—no supernaturalist beliefs are needed. Buddhism and Advaita Hinduism are mere lab manuals that help one explore human consciousness. And, as Harris puts it, “My purpose in writing this book is to encourage you to investigate certain contemplative insights for yourself, without accepting the metaphysical ideas that they inspired in ignorant and isolated peoples of the past.” This journey of self-understanding is one that we should all attempt.

(Disclaimer – I have tried to judge this book on its own merits. I know that Harris is a controversial figure, and I disagree with many of his political and philosophical views.)