Questions and Chaos

Life in the 21st Century

A New Mental Map

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No one wants world hunger; no one wants global warming, no one wants the extinction of species. How is it that as a society we create conditions that we as individuals don’t want? Human beings are, perhaps, in the unique position of relating through the world through the filter of our beliefs. We make decisions based on our mental map. Frances Moore Lappé argues that what will change conditions in the world is changes to our mental map. We need to change our mental map from one that is scarcity based and anti-life to one that is life affirming. The premise that there is not enough of what we need in the world leads to beliefs that take us into a spiral of powerlessness. Speaking here, in Oregon on October 2, 2008, she discusses how we can reframe our beliefs on environmental issues in ways that open us to new solutions.

Everything we know is based on past experience, either ours or someone else’s. It is only in giving up what we know, and being willing to experiment with what we don’t know, that we are likely to find new directions. As Frances Moore Lappé says, “It is not possible to know what’s possible.”

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A Note to Sam Harris

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I think you’re right: what the world needs is more love and curiosity.

I watched a You Tube video where Sam Harris gives an interesting talk to the Atheist Alliance International conference.  I haven’t read his books. I’ve listened to talks by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett but haven’t read their books either. I’m not all that interested in what atheists can tell me about religion.

I was a small child when I first heard the story of God asking Abraham to offer up his most loved son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. I couldn’t understand why the creator of the universe, the creator of sunshine and flowers and kittens, would want to kill children.

I remember being nine years old and struggling to hold back the tears through a thundering sermon. “Everyone sitting here is responsible for nailing Jesus to the cross.  You,  personally, hammered in each of those nails with your sin and disobedience. I choked back sobs. I didn’t want to kill Jesus and I had no idea what I had done that was so terrible. I couldn’t change what I didn’t know. I would always be guilty.

As uncomfortable as I feel with religion, I’ve been uncomfortable with accepting the label of atheist. Atheists always seemed to be as angry as the preachers. Preachers argued against sin and atheists argued against religion. Both of them are taking the same position of “I am more right than you are.” “I am a better person than you are.”

I also had some difficulty seeing atheism as a rational alternative. I can’t help thinking that there must be a logical fallacy involved, somewhere, when people identify themselves as being against something that doesn’t exist.

There needs to be a better way. While science tries to give testable answers to questions about how the world works, it has nothing to say about what we value, who we love or how we can feel safe in the world. Perhaps what we really need is to put our beliefs and values to the test, to see if they are producing the results we want.  We need to put our emotions to the test. Does love produce the result we want or does hatred?  Does anger, and teaching others to fear us, produce the result we want.

When religion puts all the results we can expect into the next life, it holds us captive. We depend on the unverifiable stories of others to determine our actions. We need to test our results in this life. As humans, we seem to have a tendency to do more of the same with more intensity when we’re not getting results we want. We all know people who yell more loudly and punish their children more harshly when the children don’t respect them. A more useful tactic might be to stop and ask the question, “Are my actions getting me the results I want?” 

It’s clear from the state of the world today that the “way we’ve always done things” isn’t working very well. We need to have the curiosity to ask, “How can we change to get the results we want?”

Like Sam Harris said, “What we need most is love and curiosity” — and I would add to that, creativity.  Love and curiosity and creativity are the starting points to learning how to live well in the world.

Life Without Death

Friday, November 9, 2007

Every biological creature, every living thing that has ever existed eventually dies. It’s a fact of existence for all living entities of any size and shape. Whether it’s a single celled bacterium, an elephant, a sequoia tree or a human being, death is its common and unavoidable destiny. How is it that human beings have become so attached to the belief that “people shouldn’t die?”

When we imagine life without death, we imagine that we would just keep on doing what we’re doing indefinitely. However, when we look at ourselves from an evolutionary perspective it is actually death that drives life. Without the threat of death we would not be what we are. All of our experiences and activities have evolved from the need to gather energy. Life is the drive to sustain our energy and fend off death. Without the existence of death none of these activities would be necessary.

If we did not die we would not need to reproduce. All the experiences we consider most precious and meaningful would not exist. There would be no need for attraction and sex and all the drama we create with those experiences. There would be no generations of children, parents and grandparents. Family relationships and rituals would never have evolved. There would be no weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs or family feuds. Passing our life to the next generation has created our most meaningful relationships and activities. Without death, there would be no need for any of them.

All of our needs originate from the avoidance of death. Without death there would be no need to sleep, to wake up or even to breathe. Without the need for food and security there would be no reason to work, no reason to move at all, really. We would have no need to build, to create or to develop technologies. Without a need for relationships or creativity, communication would not be necessary. There would be no languages, no songs, no stories and no religions.

If we did not die what kind of existence would we have? Would it be fair to say that we would not live? Would we perhaps have an existence more like that of a rock? In a paradoxical way it is actually death that drives life. It is our avoidance of death that fuels our creativity and our cultures and gives meaning to life.

It is ironic that our fear and hatred of death often translates into a fear and hatred of life. The war machine is sent out when people are afraid of death. Death is hidden away in our society. Death might make us notice how unhappy and empty our lives feel. Some people who have faced chronic illness have said that it was the best thing that ever happened to them, because it motivated them to appreciate and love life. Death is the boundary that makes life real and precious.

Dedicated to,and inspired by, my dear canine friend, Tara, who is hobbling about exuberantly, with terminal bone cancer.

A Zen Story

Saturday, September 1, 2007

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

 From Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors.

I love this story especially on days when things go “wrong.” It’s a reminder that things can always change the next day. The story speaks to our dualistic way of thinking where everything is divided into right or wrong. Our labels aren’t an adequate description of what is happening. It is possible for events to be good and bad at the same time. It often depends on the perspective from which you look at them.   It also speaks to our short term judgement. We really aren’t able to see the long term effects of events in our lives until they happen.




Thursday, July 5, 2007

“Everything you believe is questionable. How deeply have you questioned it? The uncritical acceptance of beliefs handed down to you by parents, teachers, politicians and religious leaders is dangerous. Many of these beliefs are simply false. Some of them are lies designed to control you. Even when what has been handed down is true, it is not your truth. To merely accept anything without questioning it is to be somebody else’s puppet, a second-hand person.”Beliefs can be handed down. Knowledge perhaps can be handed down. Wisdom can never be handed down. The goal of philosophy is wisdom. Trying to hand down a philosophy is unphilosophical.

Wisdom requires questioning what is questionable. Since everything is questionable, wisdom requires questioning everything. That is what philosophy is: the art of questioning everything.

The above quote is from the introductory philosophy textbook The Experience of Philosophy 3rd Ed., by Danial Kolak and Raymond Martin.

All my life I have been in love with questions. I would never accept “because I said so,” or “because that’s the right way”. I have always wanted to know “why?”

Questions are the doors to possibilities, the doors to change and the doors to living well. After all, what is wisdom, except the ability to question and make choices that create a high quality of life. Wisdom is the ability to make healthy choices from the vast possibilities available.

In areas of life from the profound to the mundane, every new question entertains a new possibility. Einstein asked, “What would it be like to travel on a beam of light?” and his search for the answer changed our understanding of the universe. Asking a better question can change our lives just as dramatically. Simple changes, such as asking, “How can I make this easier for myself?” instead of “Why am I so stupid?” or “How can I communicate with that person?” instead of “Why is that guy such a jerk?” Asking a different question gives us a different answer and when the answer translates into action we produce a new result. Questions create change. The fastest way to change the world is by asking creative new questions. As well, the easiest way to adapt to a rapidly changing world is to ask many questions.

For centuries beliefs have been handed down as knowledge and wisdom. From the time we are born everyone tells us how the world is and how we should behave to fit into it. Years of education teach us to memorize answers, but rarely teach us to ask better questions.

Most of what we learn from others teaches us how the world was for them. In fact, the world changes every day, scientific knowledge changes every day, and we change every day. Most changes happen in small increments so we are often not aware of them. We think the world is the same until something big happens: the spouse asks for a divorce, our job no longer exists or an illness throws life into disarray. We become so attached to what we know, to the answers that we hold, that often we are afraid to entertain any questions.

Yet to live with questions is to be open to all possibilities. Asking questions enables us to adapt, to change, to grow and to create. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet urges us to live the questions:

“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Never, in the history of the human race have we lived in such a time of accelerated change. We need to adapt every day. We need to ask questions.