Wake up! Again! From your self!
Ian McDonald’s science fiction novel River of Gods takes place in India on the Ganges in 2046. There are two interesting features of the novel pertaining to religion and ethics with which i would like to deal. The first is has to do with emotions and controlling them. In the novel a new genre of human beings appears called nutes, people who have undergone extensive plastic surgery to remake them into asexual beings of immense beauty and accordingly short lifespans. (Btw, the idea seems most appropriate for a futuristic India inasmuch as there currently are scores of males castrated at birth running around dressed like women forcing money out of people for all sorts of reasons – though they usually leave westerners alone, especially if they are pretending to sleep in a third class sleeper train.)
What is interesting about these nutes is that the emotions associated with sexuality among others have been rerouted from their now nonexistent sexual organs to a set of controls on their arm. They can thus program in whatever emotions they would like to feel at any given moment.
This reminds me of both stoicism among other greek philosophies as well as hindu and buddhist meditation techniques. Stoicism wanted us to gain control of our emotions, though in order to eventually get rid of them. This meets half of what a nute can do (control yts emotions). Meditation, however, as far as i have understood it so far, actually seeks (among many other things, of course) to do exactly what these nutes have been fixed to do: a buddhist is supposed to learn through meditation to distance him or herself from his or her thoughts and emotions, though not in order to destroy them; rather in order to gain control over them. The point of meditation is to create a self that is no longer lost in its emotions and thoughts, but can view and thus direct them from a higher vantage point.
McDonald does not portray his nutes as superior versions of a human being, but just different types of people. Nor does he ever compare a nutes relation to yts emotions to how a woman or a man relates to emotion. I cannot however but help thinking that these nutes are somehow “more adapted” humans, something that some humans at least have aspired to becoming. I still think though that the meditation route is far superior to the plastic surgery route, if only for pecuniary reasons.
from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (p. 35):
Looking deeply requires courage. You can use a pencil and paper if you like. During sitting meditation, if you see clearly a symptom of your suffering, write it down. Then ask yourself, “What kinds of nutriments have I been ingesting that have fed and sustained this suffering?” When you begin to realize the kinds of nutriments you have been ingesting, you may cry. Use the energy of mindfulness all day long to be truly present, to embrace your suffering like a mother holding her baby. As long as mindfulness is there, you can stay with the difficulty. Practice does not mean using only your own mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. You also have to benefit from the mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom of friends on the path and your teacher. There are things that even a child can see but we ourselves cannot see because we are imprisoned by our notions. Bring what you have written to a friend and ask him or her for their observations and insights.
The text points to at least three things: (a) always trying to improve, (b) monitoring your progress, (c) communicating and getting help from others.
so i’ve been doing my little ‘experiment‘ with yoga for a week now (well, more or less…). And though i don’t have any yogic substance to contribute to the blogosphere* (yet?) i would nevertheless like to make a remark about the practice of experimental ethics itself:
Despite the fact that i might never come to any solid conclusions regarding my yoga practice, i nevertheless feel that there could be a great value to people discussing their moral/ethical/religious practices out in the open and with one another. By nature, ethics is normative and not descriptive so that we shouldn’t expect to hit upon any experimentally verifiable ‘laws’. Nor will we necessarily be able to formulate any new and interesting ‘ought’ ideas. However, we might well manage to help each other along a bit more quickly than were we only randomly hitting upon better ways on our own.
The ‘moral sciences’ might not be quite able to take over a full-fledged experimental apparatus from the harder, natural and social sciences, but they certainly should be able to adopt some version of the ‘scientific community’ – the one that discusses and discusses. And i do not think this is already happening:
True, philosophers and ethicists have academic communities and journals that enable them to discuss, but they are trying to come up with theories of what we ought to do, i.e. their output is not ‘good practices’ but ‘true sentences’. I am looking for the former. Moreover, with the advent of internet, scientific journals are a most outdated and inadequate form of communication, when we have blogs and social websites that are much, much quicker at disseminating and discussing information and ideas.
So all in all, even if i don’t come to any conclusions regarding my yoga practices, i hope that discussing them might encourage others to do likewise so that we might learn and improve together. Here’s to hoping!
Just finished my first pre-lunch meditation. I spent the whole time thinking about the writing of this post 😦 but managed to keep the thinking “light and superficial” 🙂
In practice, “10 minutes” turned out to be “until i felt done” which is probably fine. “Feeling done” consisted mostly in realizing that i wouldn’t manage not think anymore, while also feeling rested.
End result: mind is “cleared”, chest is “lighter” and mood is “higher”. On the whole a good day 1.
Searching for a new way of “doing” ethics and religion, i’ve decided to try some experimenting. So here goes my first “ethical experiement”:
For the next two weeks (9.11.2007 – 23.11.2007) i will be conducting the first stage of an experiment on meditation. The first stage will be exploratory and therefore very simple (which simplicity is probably also important just to keep me going at it): i will be meditating in half-lotus position, eyes closed and thinking about nothing in particular/nothing for about 10 minutes every morning (i.e. sometime before lunch).
The goal is to determine (1) if this generally helps (i.e. is my life generally ‘better’ than it was in the previous weeks during which i did not meditate?) and if so (2) what specific aspects seems to help / hinder most.
This experiment will then (inshallah) be followed by others that will attempt to tweak it for the better. I will be updating this blog over the weeks to keep track of my impressions and progress. wish me luck.
Yoga places at its base the fundamental requirement that one be good before one can even begin the process of renunciation and acquire knowledge of Brahman. According to Patanjali, the first limb of yoga is “abstention from evil-doing”. Further, “undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
It is interesting how ethics, individuality and practice are here combined – in a very un-Modern fashion.
In the West, since the begining of modernity, ethics is usually thought of as the end of a human being’s activities, not the beginning. We see ethics as the goal towards which we strive, and we acquire knowledge in order to better define that goal. Ethics in indian philosophy seems to be a tool used for the furthering of (one’s) salvation. You do good to others because that is a necessary prequel to liberation.
Furthermore, ethics in the West usually adpots a communal perspective: it is defined with respect to Humanity (Kant) or to the whole of human beings (utilitarianism) or with respect to a community (communitarian virtue ethics). In the Upanishads and other attendant texts, however, ethics seems to be a purely individual practice. The goal of your ethical behaviour is not so much doing good to others as becoming a good person yourself. Doing good to others is the means to becoming perfect – ie the means to achieving that state in which you can begin to do yoga.
Also, in indian philosophy you do good because it is in your interest to do so, not because some abstract universal law requires it of you. That does not mean that the goal is crude happiness – it is in fact liberation (from happiness and everything else) – but the goal is intrinsic to the practitioner, whereas in the west the goal is usually defined as extrinsic (Kant doesn’t care if you are happy, so long as you do your duty; the utilitarians don’t care if you are happy, so long as lots of other people are happy. Patanjali thinks you cannot be happy unless you begin to practice ethics).
So indian ethics does not differ in what it tells us is good, but it differs in how it explains why we are to be good. Europeans are to do good because that is what the fundamental structure of the world requires of them; indians are to do good because that will make them good people.
p.s. it might have occurred to some that this difference probably flows from the christian insistence that salvation does not come through works. But that is a musing for another post.
UPDATE: thanks to S. for pointing out in the comments that i got a bit carried away with my generalisations. Of course, the west i had in mind was that of the Renaissance and after. The Greeks as S. points out, but also early christianity (think of John’s Jesus “if you hold to my teachings … you will know the truth” or Origenes) was very much concerned with becoming good in order to attain to knowledge, just as Patanjali is.
Corrected the first instance of “western” into “Modern”.
From The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, translated from the Sanskrit by S. Prabhavananda and C. Isherwood. The sutras date from between the fourth century B.C and the fourth century A.D. This is the earliest extant text we have about the practice of yoga.
Here are some excerpts from the first two chapters. The last two chapters fall into somewhat less useful considerations about the powers attained by the yogi (walking on water, levitation, etc.) and the laws of karma.
Chapter 1: Yoga and its Aims
2. Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.
4. At other times, when he is not in the state of yoga, man remains identified with the thought-waves in the mind.
15. Non-attachment is self-mastery; it is freedom from desire for what is seen or heard.
16. When, through knowledge of the Atman, one ceases to desire any manifestation of Nature, then that is the highest kind of non-attachment.
17. Concentration upon a single object may reach four stages: examination, discrimination, joyful peace and simple awareness of individuality.
18. The other kind of consciousness is that in which the consciousness contains no object – only subconscious impressions, which are like burnt seeds. It is attained by constantly checking the thought-waves through the practice of non-attachment.
19. When such concentration is not accompanied by non-attachment, and ignorance therefore remains, the aspirant will reach the state of the disincarnate gods or become merged in the forces of Nature.
23. Concentration may also be attained through devotion to Ishwara [the creator god].
27. The word which expresses Him is OM.
28. This word must be repeated with meditation upon its meaning.
33. Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.
34. The mind may also be calmed by expulsion and retention of the breath.
Chapter 2: Yoga and its Practice
1. Austerity, study, and the dedication of the fruits of one’s work to God: these are the preliminary steps toward yoga.
2. Thus we may cultivate the power of concentration and remove the obstacles to enlightenment which cause all our sufferings.
7. Attachment is that which dwells upon pleasure.
8. Aversion is that which dwells upon pain.
29. The eight limbs of yoga are: the various forms of abstention from evil-doing (yama), the various observances (niyamas), posture (asana), control of the breath (pranayama), withdrawal of the mind from sense objects (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption in the Atman (samadhi).
33. To be free from thoughts that distract from yoga, thoughts of an opposite kind must be cultivated.
46. Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.
49. After mastering posture, one must practice control of the prana by stopping the motions of inhalation and exhalation.
52. As a result of this, the covering of the Inner Light is removed.
53. The mind gains the power of concentration (dharana).
54. When the mind is withdrawn from sense-objects, the sense-organs also withdraw themselves from their respective objects and thus are said to imitate the mind. This is known as pratyahara.
55. Thence arises complete mastery over the senses.
Here is a list of my current post-religious practices (ie rationalized forms of religious rituals that work just as well, if not better, than the originals):
- (Yoga) breathing exercises every morning and sometimes during the day or at night. This clears the head, allows the brain to work its way through what it thinks is important and then realise it isn’t that important after all. The exercises, by forcing you to concentrate upon one single, simple thing (breathing), help you to slowly extricate your consciousness from direct involvement in your thought processes and rise above the tumult of your jumbled thoughts. This brings on the realization that none of it matters so much that you can’t calmly deal with it: it calms both body and mind. Related Religious Practice: prayer. In prayer, you also work through your current worries, commit them to God and trust that he will take care of things, leaving you with a sense of peace.
- Taking a bath early every morning without fail. (Here in india ‘bath’ means scooping water out of a large orange bucket with a smallish measuring cup and pouring it onto your head.) This is, for the most part, a necessary attendant practice to (1.) as you must be well awake for the early morning meditation, lest you fall back asleep… Related Religious Practice: ablutions. They are a ritual that provides structure to one’s life as well as preventing olfactory sins against one’s (close) neighbors.
- Blogging (about religion and ethics). It keeps me thinking, writing and accountable. Moreover, i gain a teeny tiny feeling of community. Related Religious Practice: bible study.
- Keeping the sabbath, on sundays. This requires a lot of discipline and careful a priori definitions of what you want to consider work. But when enforced, it becomes a powerful encouragement to work hard during the week and force your way through all manner of difficulties because you know for certain that you will be able to rest and forget it all on sunday. Related Religious Practice: Keeping the sabbath, on sundays.