Archive for ‘Moral Practices’

October 2, 2016

What i’ve learned about ethics from trimming my plant

When my father gave me a few  new plants last year as I moved into my new apartment, he told me to water them in proportion to their leaf surface, since it is the leaves that breathe, and hence exhale water. I’ve stuck to that bit of advice and it has served me, or rather the plants, well.

One of the plants, however, grew quickly and I soon needed to trim it. At first I simply cut off entire branches that stuck out too far, or trimmed their tops if they had grown too tall. But the branches never grew back, leaving gaping bare sections, and each trimmed top grew two new sprouts, weighing the branch down even further until it broke under its own weight. So I attempted a new strategy: i began to cut the branches off mid-way. Now the plant looks less bare, and instead of doubling the tips, new leaves grow along the full length of the shorter branches.

The traditional moral of this story might be that in practical matters, since we cannot understand every element of complex systems, we must resort to rules-of-thumb, and tinker at the edges. However, i whish to suggest another conclusion: in horticulture as in ethics — or politics, or economics — we must not define rules or laws, however approximate; instead, we should develop principles, which need only be adequate and exact, not approximate and true. And since such principles are not hazy laws, which must be applied with art and guesswork, they can be followed exactly, and steadily improved through experimentation.

August 8, 2016

Yoga as laboratory

In what follows i would like to suggest that the practice of yoga bears a strong resemblance to the modern idea of a scientific laboratory setting, and hence that certain aspects of yoga might be relevant to a broader set of moral practices.

The idea of a laboratory in the natural sciences encompasses a number of features. (1) a laboratory is a dedicated space that is (2) insulated as much as possible from outside influences. In a laboratory (3) various experiments are performed and reproduced usually by (4) a team of senior and junior researchers. The purpose (5) of such a laboratory is to produce new knowledge in a specific scientific discipline. Hence a laboratory is also (6)generally equipped with reliable instruments specific to the discipline which enable the scientists to easily construct and measure new experiments.

If we follow Patañjali’s classic exposition of yoga, we can locate, at least in nuce, all of the above six features of a laboratory. One important difference should be noted from the outset. Whereas the natural sciences are a theoretical endeavor looking for truth, yoga is a practical endeavor, which does not produce true statements but good practices. This one translation will inform how each of the above features is reinterpreted when applied to yoga.

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February 21, 2015

The fickle mountain

When Master Chuang was young, he fluttered back and forth on every decision, exhausting himself. One day, after mounting frustration at his own fickleness, he sat pouting by the roadside as a portly old monk passed by.
— Why are you crying, child, asked the expansive holy man.
— I am a butterfly in the wind. The minute i want something, i begin to want something else, replied the sad, precocious child.
The monk plopped his massive frame on a nearby rock and thought in silence for a good long while.
— You must pray to the God of Stubbornness, he finally declared, and waddled away.
Young Master Chuang had never heard of such a silly god, but wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so on the spot he began pestering the makeshift deity for just a little more stubbornness. Lo and behold, the butterfly was soon pinned down! In time it completely petrified, then morphed into a stone, a hill, and finally became an infinitely large mountain. Even now old Master Chuang will say a little prayer on windy mornings, lest he forget to be stubborn that day.

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November 22, 2014

La future monnaie

Perhaps, when Elijah returns as promised, he will stand outside our stores with a handful of pebbles and pay us to buy nothing. When we object that a pebble is worthless, he might well answer: “I brought them from the future. Each one will buy you a little bit of time.” Would that be just enough to save us?

November 15, 2014

From my readings this morning I learned that one should not love people for who they are (for their characteristics), but only in order to be loved in return.

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May 25, 2014

Step away from your anger,
do not waste it:
use it some other day.

March 21, 2014

From the TV show House of Cards i learned: “Tomorrow you will still feel that anger. And you will use it. But you will not use it against X (the original source of the anger).”

November 24, 2012

From Freud and his uncountable children i learned the abiding power of myths and just-so stories: how their newfangled tales have transformed our souls just as profoundly as their more primitive forerunners once coaxed our ur-parents out of less human natures!

November 11, 2012

A parable of talents

A young couple had joined an early pollykaryote*, but wanting no children though fearing for their investment, they convinced their fellow members to adopt talented orphans and pay for their education in the hope they would in time strengthen the polity.

The first studied sociology and over the years proposed changes to the pollykaryote’s code that increased its cohesiveness and economic defenses to the point that its wealth grew ten-fold. The second studied engineering and then business, returning well over five times what es schools had cost.

The last had wanted to become a doctor, but gradually became lazy and eventually failed es final examinations. The couple summoned the orphan and berated e: “We paid for your entire education and you couldn’t even graduate. What ever happened?” The youth answered through clenched teeth: “I knew you were selfish and only funded my studies to ensure your own financial success, so i became resentful and lost heart.” The couple replied: “If you knew we were selfish, you should at least have worked to pass your exams and repay your debt. Now you will never be received into the safety of our polity, but will instead be cast out with nothing at all into the uncaring world where we found you.”

October 7, 2012

Tricky operations

A despondent prince stumbled into Tchouang Tseu’s hut early one morning, complaining of an inexplicable anguish he felt in his chest. The old man rummaged through his toolbox and brought out a large pair of rusty pincers, saying, lie down on the floor and i will rip this crooked emotion straight out of your heart! The prince was so startled, he forgot his troubles and dashed back into the street.

A few months later the prince’s mother died, and the despair which overtook him grew so great he again resorted to the unsettling philosopher. Upon hearing him out, Tchouang Tseu opened a cupboard and brought out a dusty vial, saying, drink this potion and you will forget you ever had a mother. No! cried the young man as he once more sprung for the door, i love my mother!

Later that year Tchouang Tseu heard this same prince had been passed over for a high position at court, so he set out to visit his acquaintance and offer condolences. On being shown into his chambers, the philosopher was shocked to see his host beaming with joy. Noticing his guest’s puzzled look, the prince laughed: My dear friend, this time i used my own knife and extracted my disappointment on the spot!