Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book & a Movie for December

In a pleasant surprise, I stumbled upon The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak.

Story of a young girl in Nazi Germany, so you might not think this is holiday reading, especially since the narrator is Death himself (now you know why I like it). But this is an exceedingly charming and heartwarming book that continued to surprise me in quiet ways right to the end. 

Strongly recommended.

Last night we saw Clint Eastwood's movie about Nelson Mandela, Invictus.  The theater was filled with slightly restless young adults who drifted in when Avatar was sold out, but to their credit they found themselves engrossed in a very good and uplifting film about one of this century's most remarkable men. Clint Eastwood has emerged as a true wonder himself, turning out a very good movie each and every year——something you never would have dreamed the Dirty Harry movie star would achieve.

Very fine movie.

(By the way, an extraordinarily good film, The Hurt Locker, has been rereleased into select theaters after getting lots of Golden Globe buzz. If you find it playing near you, see it.)

A Theory, part II

A couple of posts ago, I argued (a little bombastically, I admit), that the central concern of life has has to do with those ineffable tastes of happiness and unhappiness that flavor our experiences. Understanding the maddeningly slippery nature of these qualities is really the driving motivation of our lives, I suggested. In our heart of hearts, every man and woman would like to undersstand happiness and unhappiness, and have some degree of competence at courting the one and escaping the other.  Pretty much all other endeavors are slightly muddied or disguised forms of this central instinct. 

And so this means, very simply, that a well-lived life becomes an honest study and appraisal of the causes of happiness and unhappiness, and testing out methods of cultivating the happy and weeding out the unhappy. 

I'd submit that every religion, every spiritual practice, every cultural endeavor, all forms of science,  can really be boiled down to this basic elemental wish:  "I want happiness.  I want to be free of unhappiness."  Keeping this idea in the forefront seems essential to an understanding of self and others. 

Monday, December 21, 2009

Home Again

I've now recovered slightly, after the previous 24 hours have seen me on three separate flights enroute home from China. The flights themselves totaled 17 hours or so, but add another 3 hours trapped on the tarmac in a plane with two different mechanical problems, and it was not a pleasant day.

The day began at 4:00 am in Nanjng, China, where we left for the airport in the wee hours for a flight to Beijing. Not a big deal, except for the fact that I'd been struggling with the stomach disorder that plagues many visitors to China. The projectile vomiting had subsided, fortunately, but I was still dealing with (ahem) some disorder at the other end of the digestive tract, if you get my drift. I was finding it wise to be within ready reach of a toilet at all times. Mind you, a toilet in china is very often a squat affair, not the nice porcelain throne we normallythink of.

But no big deal. Planes have toilets. Chinese cab drivers are nothing if not blindingly fast. Off to the airport.

Safely into Beijing in a nice two hour flight that required only three trips to the toilet. Plenty of time for connecting flight to Beijing, and waiting lounge had a bathroom right next door. It was even a western style toilet. And it even featured toilet paper--not a common luxury in china.

The 12 hour flight from Beijing to San Francisco wasn't terrible, but it was 12 hours, after all, which is a hell of a long time to sit on a plane. I sat on the aisle, and the restroom was always at ready reach.

It was, however, an hour late getting into San Francisco, which meant we had to race frantically through the airport. Planes don't wait, even for planes for tourists with rebellious digestive systems. Because San Francisco was our port of entry back into the US, we had to clear customs, of course, and SF airport was an absolute zoo, with thousands and thousands of people, exaggerated by the fact that many east-coast bound travelers had had flights cancelled due to storms.

But really, not all that big a deal, so far. Though feeling extremely wan and pale, I was two thirds of the way home. We made the final flight, moments before the gate closed.

Then the plane pushed back from the gate. And we proceeded to sit on the tarmac for a full three hours while two different mechanical problems were addressed. Now, I normaly love to fly, but I have a peculiar claustrophobia when it comes to being confined in small spaces with lots of people. I can ride an elevator alone all day, but cram it with people and I have to count my breaths carefully on a long ride up a skyscraper. I don't have normal flyer's phobia, but rather a fear of being confined in crowds, and on a full plane, that time between the closing of an airplane's hatches and getting airborn is one that often sees me meditating quietly and struggling against panic. Once aloft, I have no problem, because I'm quite aware that if the damned thing crashes, it will break wide apart, and I'll surely be free of the crowd. Violent death doesn't trouble me at all, but God, spare me a crowded small space.

Our plane was crammed to the gills, and I found myself sitting in the very last row against the window--you know, the seat that won't even recline. And upon announcing that the plane wasn't moving for at least two hours, the crowd leaped to their feet to line up for the rest room.

And me, fighting a stupendous case Chairman Mao's revenge.

Well, no, I didn't soil myself in public, although in reality, it really wouldn't have mattered, because the plane had at least 12 infants aboard, at least 10 of which already had soiled diapers. Nobody would have spotted my transgression. After struggling with a bit of claustrophic panic for an hour or so, I found my way over the crowds and stood in the back galley area and nervously talked with the chief steward, who seemed to recognize my brand of claustrophobia. In a place where I could pace just a bit while eyeing the red emergency handle on the back escape hatch, I managed to get by okay.

To United Airline's credit, they did eventually get us back to a gate and allowed us off to use restrooms and eat, and it was a much cheerier crowd that got on board once the plane was fixed. I made it home fine, fell asleep for 20 hours, and now feel almost human.

Perhaps I'll next be able to describe a bit about China. For the moment, though, I'm simply to have survived the whole thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Theory

There is a rather simple model for understanding the human experience.

In our experience of the world and its phenomenon, there are are always two strains or flavors evident to us. Every "object" that enters the field of our awareness carries a kind of positive or negative magnetic charge that creates either a feeling of pleasantness in some degree, or a feeling of pain and unpleasantness in an opposite degree.

These positive and negative lenses, through which we perceive the world of the mind, pretty much inform everything we do, everything we aspire to. Virtually all of human behavior can be understood in terms of pursuing pleasantness and avoiding unpleasantness. At the end of the day, it is the basis of all science, all religion, all culture, all instinct.

In this, at least, Freud was correct when he suggested a pleasure principle as the driving motivation for human experience.

Pleasantness and unpleasantness——happiness and unhappiness---come in a thousand different degrees and flavors, and are described by thousands of different names. The experience of unpleasantness, for example, can be described as mildly as "restlessness," or as boldly as "loathing." Pleasantness can be simple "satisfaction," or as all-consuming as "bliss."

Close examination of our experience will reveal that every phenomenon born into our awareness carries some portion of a positive or negative emotional charge. The Buddhists will say that there is also feeling that is entirely neutral, but I'm not sure about this. It's true that some experiences don't really elicit much in the way of either longing or aversion, but looking closely at these moments it seems to me that the positive and negative are more or less balanced at these times——not missing altogether.

There is, I suppose, some scientific support for this, as modern physics describes negative and positive charges to the basic workings of matter & energy. Perhaps our subjective sensation of pleasantness and aversion is really nothing more than a manifestation of that truth of physics.

In any case, I think that when cavemen first recognized that faculty of awareness in themselves, it was the awareness of pleasantness vs. unpleasantness that was the primary mystery, and was probably more mysterious than life and death itself. The experience of pleasure and pain, after all, usually seems connected to our actions, at least in part, while life and death are largely outside our control altogether.

So I suggest that religion, science, culture, etc,, aren't about understanding the mystery of life, but rather the mystery of happiness and unhappiness.

All the mythologies of religion, for example, seem to me to be stories and characterizations revolving around the dance between positive and negative, happiness and unhappiness. To "God," we attribute the causes and origination of happiness, while "Evil" is the king of all that seems to be the source of unhappiness. This explains why evil is different for every person. In the experience of war, for example, nobody in the conflict ever cheerfully admits that they are serving the cause of evil. Evil always lurks in the other fellow, they guy who is compromising my happiness.

Religion is ultimately an effort to understand happiness and unhappiness, to court one and escape the other. Buddhism states this quite boldly as its intent; other religions dramatize it through elaborate mythologies.

Similarly, the working of science, government, art & culture, seems to be mostly driven by the mystery of happiness and unhappiness. Many governments, for example, use the idea of "the greatest good for the greatest number" as their driving principle. Science, at the end of the day, is about improving our health and comfort, and eliminating discomfort. Art seeks to articulate the drama of happiness and unhappiness, and ultimating to foster happiness through the creation of beauty.

Happiness and unhappiness exist nowhere but in our selves, our subjective experience. No outer physical event in the world is inherently good or bad. A terrible thunderstorm may be bad to a person caught out in the rain without any shelter, but it is good to the farmer longing for rain to quench his parched fields. It is entirely relative and subjective.

Good and bad, happy and unhappy are also slippery qualities. It's very common, for example, to pursue some activity that ostensibly seems to be happy-making, only to find that it's long-term effect is to create unhappiness. LIkewise, it's common for experiences of present unhappiness to prove to be long-term causes of greater happiness. So a well-lived life is very much about studying and evaluating the causes of genuine a happiness, nurturing those causes and weeding out the obstructions. It is a life of intelligent experimentation and observation. Hence, a man given to hedonism early in life may realize that a more genuine happiness comes about through a somewhat more ascetic approach to life.

Good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, happy and unhappy exist only in the matrix of our awareness. If a phenomenon is extricated from the context of our awareness of it, it is entirely empty of such judgments. So it is the field of awareness itself where the science and study should be aimed. God is not in his heaven, nor the devil in Hell. Neither do they exist in other people. Only within.