Monthly Archives: April 2012

Why is wisdom difficult to apply?

It occurs to me that wisdom is not an easy thing.  I think that most of us know what is wise; the difficulty seems to be applying this knowledge.  For instance, our language is riddled with wise sayings.  Many of these have become quite hackneyed and certainly any trawl of facebook or the net provides plenty of wise messages for us.  One concept that everyone is aware of is the idea that if you love someone you have to love them exactly the way they are, you cannot change them.  Despite knowing this, most of us spend the majority of our time trying to change others, or at least wishing they would change.  I am going to take this as a theme to explore in terms of translating our knowledge into application.

When you look at what we control, I have always found Stephen Covey’s model of Circles of Influence and Concern valuable.  Covey represented this as two circles with our circle of influence embedded within our circle of concern.  His point was that it was valuable for us to differentiate between what concerns us and what we can actually influence.  Having worked with this a lot, I have tended to add a third circle that sits within the circle of influence and that is our circle of control.  Thus there are things that concern us that we control but we may or may not be able to influence.  My own experience tells me that all people sit outside my circle of control.  I cannot ultimately control anyone else.  They always have choice.  I might be able to influence them but ultimately that sits within their circle of control.  So if we all know that we do not control others and have to accept them and love them just as they are, why is it so difficult to do so?

The first argument that often comes up is that people confuse loving and accepting people with condoning or colluding with their actions.  At an extreme level, it is possible to accept human beings (and perhaps love them) like Sadam Hussein, Hitler etc.  People often get very angry and say that we must not accept them.  Yet really it is self-evident that we have no choice on this, we have to accept them.  We may choose not to condone what they do, but ultimately we do not have control or influence over them.  Our only choice, really relates to ourselves.  Do we want to love and accept others no matter how awful they might be?  Really this is a choice about our own heart: do we want it to be open or closed?  The irony here is that the subject appears to be other people but is really ourselves.  What sort of feelings do we want to experience?  A closed heart is a very uncomfortable place.

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

A Poison Tree – William Blake


The second issue here is responsibility.  When we see others acting in ways that we find frustrating or are even self-defeating for them, are we colluding with them failing to take responsibility for themselves if we accept them as they are?  Here we are also touching on what the Buddhists call Idiot compassion.  Again, what is confusing here (or perhaps I lack a sufficiently loving heart – you can judge!) is that accepting others as they are does not mean you cannot act to help them or even point things out to them.  It means that you are not attached to them changing.  Again, it comes back to ourselves.  If we act to help others or even to point out areas they do not see about themselves, perhaps strongly challenge them, all of this is really to do with us not them.  We can do all these things with an open heart as long as we are not attached to them changing.  So sometimes people think that just loving people as they are means not challenging them, not relating to them with the full spectrum of human responses but just being lovely to them.  This is dangerous mostly for us.  If we try to be loving towards someone when we don’t feel it, the dangerous is that we repress our real feelings and our resentment builds.  This can lead to us acting in very unloving ways!  The element we control here is our choice of how to relate to other people and our own responsibility for the consequences.  If we are attached to them liking us, or to them responding a certain way, then we are in trouble.  My children are very skilled at teaching me and keeping me on the money on this one.  If they ask me to do something for them or see me doing something for them, they ask me “Can you do it without resentment? We don’t want the consequences of you being in a bad mood later when you feel you’ve done too much.”  It’s a very good challenge for me and I really have to examine my heart and be honest and even say no at times.

The third issue is being able to differentiate what others can and cannot change.  We all have wonderful abilities and skills but they are different.  This came out recently when I was in France coaching.  The person I was coaching had a chart with the most planets in Scorpio that you could possibly imagine.  Their energy was like nothing I have experienced.  They can (and do) regularly work non-stop with perhaps two to three hours sleep.  They are capable of quite extraordinary levels of competence and work.  The difficulty is that others around them cannot match this.  This person was coming to terms with the fact that others simply cannot and do not work like them.  This was very hard for this person as it seems to them like a lack of effort or simply being poor at their job.  This has always been a work in progress for me.  I am still, as I go along, working out and differentiating, where people simply cannot do things and where it is irresponsibility and sometimes just to confuse me, the two combine, so that sometimes the thing people cannot do is take responsibility for themselves!  What I seem to notice on this one, is that all of us seem to have fatal flaws that appear to be soluble so that for others relating to us, it seems self-evident that we should be able to address them yet we do not.  So thin people think that fat people just lack will power and should be able to diet, organised people thinking messy people should get to grips, active people think less active people should stop being lazy etc.  Personally, I have found astrology to be of enormous value here, because it provides a map of our own and other people’s personalities so it gives us much clearer indications of what people can change and what they can’t.  In our minds, it is analytically very clear what others should do to sort themselves out and make themselves more palatable to us, but what if, horror of horrors, they feel the same about us?

When you look at one simple phrase like “if you love someone you have to love them exactly as they are” you realise that it is a lifetime’s work and riddled with intricate wisdom.  We are often impatient and we feel that because we know this concept we must be able to apply it.  At twenty-six or twenty-seven I was confident that I had a good grip on black holes and wisdom.  It was a shock to discover that knowledge and experience were two different things and it took a nice juicy black hole to illustrate that while I did “know” a number of wise things, I would have to experience them to truly begin to fully understand them.  “yes, yes we say, I know all that” but do we fully understand it?  I think I am beginning to recognise that I am going to carry on learning about the simplest wisdoms for the rest of my life and still die with much to learn.



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The nature of morality

A recent New Scientist special was examining the role of religion in human evolution.  The research that had been undertaken demonstrated that the search for what they described as “super agents” (those factors which influence the environment in ways that we cannot immediately see) was innate.  It suggested that children at pre-language ages were able to differentiate between inanimate objects that were moving through time and space and animals and humans who moved for particular purposes.  It also suggested that children naturally look for super-agents – ie. those elements within their environment that are causing particular effects.  They posited the notion of a “natural religion” in all children; a drive to find purpose or meaning and to ascribe cause and effect to larger events and, interestingly, the idea that these super agents have greater knowledge or awareness than the humans around them.  The article focused on the difference between this faculty, which appears to be innate, and the belief in notions like Santa Claus.  The authors’ response to the notion that religion is a child like superstition that we should grow out of in a similar way to the belief in Santa Claus (as many scientists/atheists believe) , was that there are no examples of adults who previously did not believe in Santa Claus reasoning their way into an adult decision to believe in him, yet there are plenty of examples of adults who previously did not believe in religion reasoning their way in later life into a belief.  Thus, belief in intelligent purpose or design does not appear to be an evolutionary regression.  Further articles highlighted the fundamental role that religion has played in the evolution of society, in allowing groups of individuals to come together for a greater purpose than individual self-interest and to co-operate on collective enterprises.

Thinking about this, it is easy to forget how much of our society is constructed on trust and reciprocity.  Indeed our whole financial system operates on this basis.  We can travel all round the world, produce pieces of paper and based on a system of trust, people give us items and services in return.  They have no way of knowing individually whether we are trustworthy but collectively they trust.  When you consider the role that this trust and reciprocity play in our lives it is quite astonishing how much co-operation and trust exists.

One interesting mini-article also looked at atheism.  It pointed out research showing that atheists are the least trusted among religious people, more so than advocates of a different religion.  It quoted John Locke, the seventeenth century philosopher, who suggested that atheists could not be trusted because their lack of belief in god rendered them incapable of having their word or promise believed in, in short, they because they could not be trusted.  What seemed clear from the research and articles was that the belief in a natural religion preceded indoctrination in any particular religion; that the religion that individuals then adopted was simply the framework that fitted their predilection for a belief in a greater purpose.

In reading the article about atheism, I was curious to understand why atheists should be so universally mistrusted and certainly why the concern was that atheists threatened morality and co-operation.  Most religious viewpoints and certainly the “natural religion” that the scientists noted was based on a notion of a power which sees all our actions no matter whether they might be visible to others or the external world.  Jonathan Haidt makes the point in his excellent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, that all social animals rely on the concept of reciprocity.  You act to help others because it is in your interests to do so because then others (not necessarily those directly affected) will reciprocate by helping you.  He demonstrated this through the example of vampire bats who, after hunting, share the blood they have accumulated with bats who have not left the cave.  The difficulty, he suggested, is how to deal with those who freeload or take advantage of the system because of personal physical power or as away of avoiding work.  In human terms, Haidt suggested that this was dealt with by reputation.  By this he meant that if someone is physically more powerful or cannot be held to account directly for not reciprocating, we regulate them by telling others about their behaviour and influencing their reputation so that others cease to co-operate with them or allow them to be part of the collective reciprocity.

In what way is this connected to atheism?  Well, it is clear that the fear with atheism is that atheists will break the bonds of reciprocity on which society relies.  Yet there is also a moral dimension to this.  In a New Scientist article last year there was information on research into a part of the brain thought to be involved in moral judgements.  When subjects who had damage to this part of the brain were asked to give scores out of 5 to acts in terms of how immoral they were, they scored differently to those with normal function in this part.  The scenarios were of someone who had accidentally poisoned another person and someone who had attempted to kill someone but had failed and the subject was not affected.  For those with normal functioning in this part of the brain, they scored the accidental killing as low on the scale of immorality and the latter high.  For those with damage to this part of the brain they scored the accidental killing higher than the failed intent to kill.  When normally functioning individuals had this part of the brain targeted with magnetic interference their scores, while not reversing, move a point on the scale towards those with damage to this part of the brain.  What was clear from the research is that intention is critical to morality.  The difficulty with intention is that it is not visible.  This is what causes many of the problems with our system of justice is that it is very hard to judge something which is invisible through only visible means (evidence).  Where does this leave atheists?  It is clear that the concept of a super agent who can see the invisible in terms of intention is a powerful deterrent morally.  If we feel someone or something is seeing our internal workings then we cannot evade justice.  Similarly, if the world is only material (ie. it is not alive above and beyond it’s constituent components (animals, plants etc)) and random then there is no consequence to our actions so no deterrent to acting on purely selfish motives to the extent of killing others if achieves our personal aims.

Whilst much of science is tending towards the view of life as essentially random and material and scientists are increasingly mistrustful of religion, what can hold the moral fabric of society together?  Why should we not cheat, lie, manipulate others if it is to our advantage to do so?  Here we come across a curious phenomenon.  Whilst much of the reductionist viewpoint sees only a material world which is not “alive” in any sense, most of our language, sayings and intuitions contradict this.  The phrase “what goes around, comes around” is ubiquitous these days and all our film and literature reflects a desire for symmetry of moral cause and effect – unselfishness or altruism is in the long term rewarded and those who act selfishly get their comeuppance.  Why is the scientific-material world view so out of alignment with the intuitive response of individuals?  It is because the scientific-material world view fails to take account of the emotional and intuitive part of our natures.  This is what is referred to as “the heart”, the seat of our intuition and emotions.  What we think of as the “rational mind” is the rational and material (sensing) function of the mind.  It is clear that, did we not have hearts (emotions and intuition), we could act in a callous and selfish way without morality.  Indeed, anyone who acts without heart or tries to avoid the heart is instinctively mistrusted.  Science has long posited the subjective, feeling experience of the heart as the obstacle to objectivity and clarity in the world, the thing we are moving away from, yet it is clear that the heart is intimately bound up with morality.  On Chrissy Philp’s model of the brain (cf. linked to the I-Ching the rational mind (Gemini) is part of a complimentary connection with Virgo which sits at the heart of the senses, while the heart (Leo) is part of a complimentary connection with Cancer which sits at the heart of the emotions.  Thus we cannot consider morality without considering the heart because transgressions are transgressions of the heart, they cause suffering or hurt (all emotional experiences) and furthermore usually cause suffering and hurt to those perpetrating the immoral acts in the form of guilt, remorse, self loathing etc.  So what if the heart is not the source of subjectivity which interferes with a wider perspective but rather a super agent which connects us to everyone through the emotional experience of being human?  If science (and the rational mind it represents) can respect and value the heart then it has the means of unlocking the universal super agent that could create individual accountability and responsibility without the need for an external super agent.  Perhaps the heart is a super agent which can see all our actions without the need for the intervention of an deus ex machina?

So coming back to super agents through the lens of the heart, what are they, since from the research they seem to be an a priori part of our nature?  When Chrissy Philp was first discovering her pattern of the elments she presented the framework of the astrological symbolism to a scientist through a scientific lens.  His comment was that she had found the perfect description of an artificial intelligence system rather than having discovered anything, not realising that this was the discovery!  According to her work, Cancer or the Moon represented the Read only Memory function – all those processes that still continue or remain embedded even when consciousness (or a computer) is switched off.  Leo is the monitor which allows visual information to be displayed and also the on-off button which switches consciousness on and off and so on.  On this model, Virgo was the ability to discriminate discrete details as in the ability to identify different types of tree.  However it needed a different function – Sagittarius to able to identify and “pattern match” to be able to recognise that the collection of individual trees was a wood.  I can’t help feeling that super-agents might well be connected to this function of Sagittarius or Jupiter since it is connected to the the ability to see larger variables which might be affecting discrete individual actions. Also, critically, Sagittarius is concerned with religion, not the spiritual oneness of Neptune but rather with universal laws and morality.  If Chrissy’s pattern is correct it is also represented by the first line of the Creative in the I-Ching which says “Hidden Dragon do not act”.  The previous points I have been making have all been concerned with the intangible elements of the heart (Sagittarius is a fire sign and on Chrissy’s model the closest to the the emotions – which puts it firmly in the realm of the heart) so this line fits perfectly.  Sagittarius or Jupiter is what gives us our thirst for meaning and purpose and to see the big picture, being fire it is connected to the intuition.  To perpetuate a view of the world as essentially random and only composed of discrete physical phenomenon is to deny the experience of our intuition and to fail to see the big picture.  For anyone arguing from this reductionist viewpoint they would have to conclude that there is no such thing as a wood because it does not exist – at a material reductionist level there are only individual trees.  Science itself is actually a function of this super-agent facility in the human brain – it is the search to see a bigger picture and to link events in a grander theory, pattern or framework; a set of variables which influence or link all the discrete data.  I think for Science to achieve this it will have to widen it’s search to include the very things that it sees as the obstacles – the subjective experience of being human and to be open to different ways of knowing and understanding the world.  In the same way that morality breaks down without the heart, a grand unifying theory of everything cannot be understood or contemplated unless it includes the heart as well as the mind.

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Virtual reality game

In reading an article in the New Scientist recently about gaming I was led to wonder about the role of gaming at the moment.  It is a very widespread phenomenon at the moment with millions of people spending large chunks of their time playing virtual games.  It is easy to be judgmental about this and many of the parents and adults that I speak to are very concerned about it, feeling it is a dangerous and debilitating trend robbing children and adults of taking responsibility for their lives.  In much the same way, people are very judgmental about facebook and social networking feeling it is a dangerous medium that is detrimental to children and their evolution.  I know it is easy for each generation to condemn the activities of the next generation, feeling they are the seeds of decadence and decline.  The general consensus is that we are departing further and further from the source of nature.  But what if we are not?  What if we are evolving ever closer to the source of things?

The article prompted me to think: why are so many humans devoted to playing virtual games?  As I did this (I have a fondness for such inversions which makes me poor at the day to day detail of life but then I am a Sagittarian so I plead mitigating circumstances!), I began to think about the role playing in life.  Most animals, particularly mammals seem to indulge in play.  Yet it is clear that their play has a very real purpose – they are learning skills important to their future evolution.  What if this is true at a collective level too?  Perhaps through gaming we are playing in order to evolve something collectively.  Our children play with virtual reality but I wonder if they are evolving a world where our collective brain evolves, where our day to day reality becomes closer and closer to the virtual reality that we actually inhabit.  Ram Dass describes us as taking on a spacesuit when we are born.  This is his metaphor for describing the experience of being human, the fact that we are kitted out with a body (our spacesuit) and a personality in order to play the game of life.  The consciousness that inhabits it, he points out, does not need to identify with the body or the personality; indeed if we can be both in the world (or our spacesuit) but not of it then we can take the curriculum of being incarnated without getting lost in it and forgetting that we are all one.  My friend Chrissy spent time understanding the role of the imagination and through this came to the discovery that the role of the imagination was as our re-programming tool.  It is our imagination which means that we are not caught in the endless cycle of our acting on our instincts and being trapped.  We can change our reality by imagining a different way of approaching things – by changing the way we see things.  This is our ability to self-programme, to change the original design of the instincts.  Indeed if you think about it, we are already a long way down the road of living in a “virtual reality”.  As I look around, it occurs to me that almost everywhere I look I am confronted not by nature but by products of our imagination.  The houses we live in are constructs of imagination translated into form, the chairs, tables, desks, phones pretty much the whole lot is a construct of human imagination.  Ah yes, I here you say, but what about nature – the trees and fields etc.  Yet even here these have all been shaped by human imagination directly or indirectly – how we farm, the animals we keep and promote, the areas we designate as wilderness etc.  We have already shaped a virtual reality.

So what are we doing now with our imaginations?  Now, we seem to be moving to a world where the constructs of our imaginations are taking shape in a less physically tangible way.  Interestingly, this fits perfectly to a move to the Age of Aquarius (and its opposite Leo).  Many people associate new age with a return to nature, alternative therapies, hippies, love, living off the land, mysticism.  Yet really these seem to the evolution of the old physical (yin) age of Pisces (and its opposition Virgo) rather than the new software (yang) age of ideas and imagination embodied in Leo and Aquarius.

Taking the notion of game-playing further and its connection to evolution, I am aware that game playing appears to be harmless yet really plays a role in dealing with our strongest and most dangerous instincts and finding a way to hone and transform or control them.  Sport is embodiment of our aggressive and competitive natures.  It dominates much of the media and internet.  What is it’s evolutionary purpose?  I wonder if it might be as a substitute for instincts that would have been expressed in the past through war and fighting.  Nations now play each other at sport rather than go to war; I think I prefer this outlet for these instincts.  At the same time, those playing sport learn to control their aggressive instincts, how to cope with losing etc.  Plenty of rich learning.  We watch horror movies, films of killing people, most of the computer games involve killing others or fighting.  Could it be that initial evolutions express themselves through play first?  I am not in favour of the internet being filled with pornography personally but I have to keep an open mind, perhaps we are evolving an outlet for people to come to terms with their sexual nature now matter how dangerous – perhaps we will learn to understand and tame these aspects of our nature individually and collectively through using our imagination in this virtual world without having to translate it into physical reality.  It gives us a whole new dimension through which to explore and learn.

If there are masses of people playing games on the internet, it is almost as if our collective consciousness must be evolving at some speed.  Douglas Adams’ prophetic series The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy included a story line that he first dreamt up as a young adult for a Dr Who episode.  It was the story of a race from a world called Krikkit (cricket).  The people of Krikkit were unaware that their ridiculously fast evolution was being masterminded and provoked by a huge computer called Hactar.  This was a computer with a guilt complex for having betrayed his original creators who wanted to destroy the world.  Krikkit was subtly manipulated by Hactar to want to destroy the Universe but after a war lasting millions of years Krikitt was defeated and the inhabitants returned to their world and sealed from the rest of the Universe but one battleship survived and over billions of years re-built the wicket gate (key) to the sealed Krikkit empire. However, the protagonists of the Hitchiker’s Guide managed to release the Krikkiters from the influence of Hactar and they instead promote sporting links with the rest of the universe.  Looking at this story as the product of the human imaination – which was certainly very fertile in Douglas Adams, it is interesting to see that it the themes of transforming powerful instincts and emotions into sport comes through very clearly, as it does in his theme of the Planet Earth being a huge computer called Deep Earth which was designed to find the question to the answer to Life the Universe and Everything – 42.  42 is the I-Ching hexagram Increase, which is very much about evolution.

What if we need to be evolving virtual reality – what if we are designing a huge collective brain or computer.  It would need a lot of people to be involved in programming it.  Everyone seems to be on the internet now.  I think we are all programming it with our imaginations.  This new virtual reality also gives a more tangible form in which to play with and enhance our imagination.  It used to be stories that we used to develop and evolve collectively, we imagined changing our personalities or approaches to life through identification with heroes, monsters to overcome, etc.  Yet now, we can actually play with different realities and use our imagination in more complex ways.  We seem to be evolving at such a rate – and there are exponentially more and more of us.  We seem to be accelerating – like our universe – like the I-Ching hexagram 42 – constantly increasing.  We are now splurging everything in our rich, fertile minds, with no holds barred, into the collective brain of the internet.  To what end?  Two further articles from the New Scientist are revealing.  After reading the initial article and be struck by all these thoughts, I had a feeling of my thunder being stolen to read some days later the articles which followed the initial one about gaming.  They had come to a similar conclusion to me, in that they were describing how gaming is helping us to solve complex problems in new ways and even being used now to help people learn new skills and to re-programme their minds.  A second article in a later edition of the New Scientist explored what made us different from our closest relative the chimpanzee.  Interestingly it did not appear that between very young humans and chimpanzees there was a great difference in aptitude but rather what differentiated human children from as young as two years was their social brain – their ability to share and learn from each other.  This was what dramatically differentiated them from our nearest relative the chimpanzee.  Put that in the context of finding a way – through the internet and virtual reality – of allowing billions to connect together to share information and play together and you get some idea of the staggering power available to our evolution.  I wouldn’t bet against us finding the question to the answer 42.  Perhaps we are really heading towards the source through virtual reality not away from it.  Damn it, I guess we older models probably do have to die off after 80 odd years – we’ve probably become obsolete!

I’m stopping now, because I have important work to do for the universe – I’m off to have fun and play some games….!

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How we see things

I have written before about how we choose to see things or to frame them and the fact that I think this is perhaps one of the few things we actually control, or perhaps the most powerful thing we control.  I was reminded of this recently when skiing with my son and my wife.  We were coming down a difficult slope which, in the hot sun, had become very cut up and messy.  It was our last run and we were tired.  My wife in particular had very tired legs with her muscles burning at each turn.  She had stopped part way down the slope and I had continued and was waiting for her further down.  My son was with my wife.  As I was waiting a man skied past me.  He was striking in that he was perhaps in his fifties or sixties and had a huge white beard which was very striking.  He looked odd or out of place.  The next thing I knew my son was shouting.  I assumed he had dropped something over the side of the slope like his glove since he had stopped with my wife.  He then skied past me and I waited for my wife.  She explained that the man who had skied past her had aggressively shouted at her about stopping at an inconvenient  point.  My son was incensed by him being so rude and had skied down to remonstrate with him.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that I didn’t feel this man was real.  By this I mean that in terms of seeing life as a game, he was obviously planted by the game.  I notice on a regular basis that life makes things, if we are looking, stick out slightly – like a clue.  The ancient Greeks used to talk about the gods walking the earth and in this case, I could see this was the god Mars (or in Norse terms he looked more like Thor).  My son, by the time he caught up with the man, had lost some of his initial indignation and simply skied past him, at which point the man skied into him and knocked him flying.  For me, this had all the hallmarks of what Don Juan, in the Carlos Castaneda, books would call an ally, ie. someone who is their for a particular reason for us to learn something from and not just an ordinary human being.  In many ways, I see that all of life is an ally for us, but I see that in specific situations, there are particular allies.  It is almost as if we are being tested each day.  Now this may be complete illusion, a case of confirmation bias, where we fit the facts to our own pet theory.  However, it also occurs to me that it does not matter if this is illusory since it does transform the emotions we feel and the way we respond.  Once we see a person or a situation as a test, challenge or ally, we stop being offended and furious and start to think and feel differently.  A few years ago there was an article in the New Scientist talking about the work being done on identifying emotions and how we transform them and one of the emotions they listed was curiosity.  This was unusual as we do not normally describe curiosity as an emotion yet the more I thought about it the more valuable I saw this definition as being, in that once you have an emotion it is difficult wish it away, instead it is easier to transform it and I realised that transforming anger or indignation into curiosity does provide a very valuable way of shifting negative emotions.  My experience coaching people (and my own personal experience) is that the initial surge of frustration or hurt, does shift when we begin to question why the situation has occurred or what we might be learning from it, or being asked to address.  Having just spent a few days picking up manure to spread on my garden, I am struck by the fact that turning provocation and difficult emotions into a seed bed for creative learning, whilst never easy, is part of the work we are all doing to make the earth (pun intended!) more fertile!

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