Are We Humans Better Liars than Thinkers or Sages?

I am all but certain that, somewhere lying around in the minds of certain scientists today, is an hypothesis that accurately describes the origins of language.  That is, I’m nearly sure the origins have already been largely figured out by now.

I am also all but certain that, unless we invent time travel, or the gods both exist and decide to reveal their knowledge of its origins, or a genius quite improbably comes up with a mathematical proof of its origins,  or — most likely these days —  a FOX News personality stumbles across its origins while searching for ancient dirt on Barrack Obama’s alleged War on Adam and Eve,  it will never be much more than an astute guess whether the correct hypothesis of language’s origins is truly correct.

Yet, despite the improbability of actually discovering the origins of language,  various things about the fundamental nature of language and its uses suggest to insightful and very learned guess-a-tators such as myself that language might — or might not — have evolved from mating calls, that it might — or might not — have been preceded by singing, that it might — or might not — have evolved faster in women than in men, that it might — or might not — have had multiple causes for its development from mating calls (such as its use in promoting group cohesion and cooperation), and that it surely, certainly, and absolutely was used almost from “the very moment it was invented” to tell lies.

There are a variety of reasons to tentatively think that particular use for language developed early on.   Of all those various reasons, the only ones that interest me here are these two:  Humans lie with ease and great frequency, and they begin playing around with telling lies at tender ages. If lying didn’t develop early on, then why is it so behaviorally advanced in us?  Why are we so good at it?

It seems obvious to me that our brains are more advanced at lying than they are at many other things — such as doing math or science, for nearly everyone of us lies with ease when he or she wants to, but so many of us struggle with critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.

It also seems obvious to me that our brains are even less developed for wisdom than they are for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.  There are whole, vast areas of life in which, at most, only about one in ten or one in twenty of us frequently behave in ways that consistently show great wisdom.  That is, I’ve observed that even the village idiot now and then acts wisely, but I’ve also observed that the large majority of us have blind spots — whole areas of our lives — in which we are inconsistently wise, or even frequently fools.

Human relationships are usually a person’s most easily noticed blind spot.  Indeed, relationships are an area of life in which even those folks who most consistently behave towards others with great wisdom often stumble or fall, and if someone has learned to dance among us like a sage, you can be sure it took her an age of clumsy mistakes to learn her grace.

It seems likely that many people believe on some level that popularity is a sure sign of wisdom in dealing with others, and — if that were indeed the case — there would be a lot more people in this world who are wise about relationships than there really are, for there are certainly a lot of popular people.  Indeed, I myself can believe there is some small link between wisdom in relationships and popularity, but I cannot believe that link is more than a small one, if only because I’ve known too many fools who were popular, and too many comparably wise people who were not.

So I think the human brain is least of all evolved for wisdom, somewhat more evolved for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking, and most of all of these evolved for lying.  And, likewise, it seems to me that language is best suited to lying, less suited to the sort of precision and exactness that one so often needs to communicate critical, mathematical, or scientific ideas, and least of all suited to communicate wisdom.  In fact, I’m pretty certain wisdom is not merely difficult, but extraordinarily difficult, to communicate, if it can be communicated at all.

For instance, this morning I came across a meme post to a website that stated, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship”.  The first thing I thought was, “That’s true for a number of reasons”, and the second thing I thought was, “Among those reasons, it is better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship because, ironically, we are more likely to suffer from intense loneliness when we are in a bad or abusive relationship than when we are by ourselves and alone.”  But the third thing I thought was, “If one does not already know the truth of these things, then one is unlikely to learn the truth from either the meme or from any other words spoken about it.   How often have I seen people plunge themselves into bad or abusive relationships, or refuse to leave one, primarily out of fear of being lonely?  At least a third or half of the people I’ve known well in life have had at least one story of getting into a bad or abusive relationship and then delaying or even failing to leave it largely out of fear of being lonely.  Yet, nearly everyone who actually left such a relationship has looked back and said to me, ‘I only wish I left sooner, or not gotten into that relationship at all.’ Not a single person has yet told me that being alone has turned out to be lonelier than was being in the relationship.”

Now, I have heard people say that wisdom is “subjective” because there are no objective means for determining what is “right or wrong”.  But I think that might be a half-truth, and perhaps only a quarter-truth.  In many cases, all we need for wisdom to become objective is pick a goal.  Once we have picked a goal, it so often becomes possible to know with a fair amount of assurance which actions will bring us to our goal, which actions will not, and even which actions will be more efficient or effective than others in doing so.

For instance, if our goal is to avoid for ourselves the worst of loneliness, then it is obvious that choosing to get into a bad or abusive relationship is not the wisest decision we can make, while remaining alone or getting into a healthy relationship is a wiser choice.  Of course, this assumes that it is true for us, even if for no one else, that we will feel lonelier in a bad or abusive relationship than we’d otherwise feel.  But that question can be answered objectively.

The choice of goal is ultimately subjective (but that should not distract us from the fact that we can many times objectively determine the wisest means to that goal).  And yet, it is only ultimately subjective, for goals themselves can be arranged in hierarchies so that a higher goal might determine whether or not one expresses or attempts to actualize a lower goal.

In this blog post, I have been using the word “wisdom” as nearly synonymous with the phrase “most effective”.  Which, if I am being logically consistent, means that I harbor the somewhat dismal notion that our species of super-sized chimpanzees relatively excel at lying; perform mediocre at critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking; and suck the big potato at assessing the comparative effectiveness of various relevant behaviors, and then acting in accordance with those assessments, in order to bring about the most desired outcome.  If all of that is substantially true, then it naturally raises the question:  Why is it that we’re better liars than “thinkers” or sages?

The Incompetence of Elite Classes

An argument made against democracy is that the people are incompetent to govern themselves.  That may be true.  But history shows the same is most likely true of the elites.

The Soviet Union certainly wasn’t a well run country.  Nor was Mussolini’s Italy — it was a lie the trains ran on time.  It took the Third Reich’s elites about ten years to reduce their nation to rubble.  And we’ve just been offered evidence that government by elite Wall Street insiders does not work all that well in the US.

One could go on and on: Elites down through history seem to be no wiser than anyone else when it comes to government.  The notion that a privileged class is better at governing a people than the people themselves does not seem to have rational support.

Accepting Ourselves, Accepting Our Lives

Our entire life — consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are.

— Jean Anouilh

The Death of Self-Esteem

Helen’s face launched 1000 ships, and I used to think that was impressive.

But that was before I heard that a single bad idea — just one bad idea — had launched 15,000 scientific and scholarly studies.   Fifteen thousand?  According to some quick calculations, it would take over seven years to read a stack of 15,000  studies — assuming you could read one each standard business hour.

In 1969, Nathaniel Brandon published a paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.”  He argued that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.”  His ideas soon became the hot new thing in education, and they launched the self-esteem movement.

The now dead self-esteem movement.

Killed by 15,000 arrowsThose 15,000 studies show that high self-esteem (.pdf):

  • Doesn’t improve grades,
  • Doesn’t reduce ­anti-social behavior, and may even facilitate bullying,
  • Doesn’t deter alcohol drinking or drug abuse, and may even encourage it,
  • Doesn’t reduce unwanted teen pregnancies, and
  • Doesn’t make a person more likeable or attractive to others.

“In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly (source).”

The Most Significant Difference Between Self-Esteem and Self-Acceptance

If the reports are true that the self-esteem movement is dead — and I am only repeating here what I’ve read — then it will be interesting to see whether folks also reject a closely related concept.  The concept of self-acceptance.

Although self-esteem and self-acceptance are by no means the same thing, they seem to be closely entwined in a lot of people’s minds.  So if one of them gets thrown out, maybe the other one will too.   And that would be folly.

The biggest difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance is that, while self-esteem is not necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal, self-acceptance is necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal.  It’s possible for self-esteem to be out of whack with reality.  There is no rule that says you must be highly intelligent to possess wonderfully high esteem for your intelligence.

On the other hand, you can truly accept yourself only to the extent you are realistic about yourself.  If I accept that I’m a genius, but I’m actually the village idiot, then I am not truly accepting myself.  To genuinely accept myself, my acceptance must correspond to the facts.

That is quite a significant difference between the two things.

Who Are Your Friends?

If you want to know who your truest friends are, you should ask yourself who encourages you to accept yourself as you are.  For it is all but the very mark of true friend that he or she encourages that in you.   Yet,  most of us have few friends of that caliber.

We seem to need them, though.

One Reason Why We Do Not Accept Ourselves

There appear to be several reasons why we do not always accept ourselves as we are, but I will only discuss one here.

The single most forceful reason seems to be the one noted by Jung: Accepting ourselves can be terrifying.

Perhaps we now and then try to take advantage of those we love, or who love us.  Maybe we are arrogant, or maybe we are more foolish than we wish to be. Sometimes it is nothing others think we should worry about, but which disturbs us.  And sometimes it is something that would destroy our social standing with everyone but our truest friends — if it got out.  How often in our lives have we wanted to kill someone?  How often have we wanted someone’s possessions?

To completely accept oneself is like completely accepting nature.  You do not accept nature when you accept only the beauty and not the stench.  Nor when you take sides with the fly against the spider, or the spider against the fly.

A while back, my friend Don was on his way to work when he noticed a commotion in the timber beside the road.  He pulled over and watched as a doe frantically tried to distract a black bear from killing her fawn.  The bear had two cubs to feed, and the doe was unsuccessful — her fawn’s life ended that day.

When I asked Don what he thought of it, he didn’t say it was right.  He didn’t say it was wrong.  He said he felt awe, humility, and an acceptance of his own mortality.  To accept yourself is sometimes more difficult than watching a bear tear apart a fawn to feed her cubs, but the principle of refusing to condemn remains the same.

A Persistent Myth About Accepting Yourself

It is a myth that accepting yourself — even your so called darkest side — leads to acting on your every impulse.  We are taught that we must condemn certain feelings or impulses or we will end up acting on them.  But that appears to be nonsense, and we would see it as nonsense if we were not too afraid to look.

Humans sometimes use condemnation to control themselves — even though it is a relatively ineffective means of self-control (e.g. why are we so hypocritical?).   But more often we use condemnation to control others.  It’s one of our ways of manipulating people.

You’ll find it easier to accept yourself if you do not condemn others.  And easier to accept others if your do not condemn yourself.

Yet, it is possible that no one but your truest friends will accept that you do not condemn your “darkest impulses”.  The rest of the world is reluctant to give up that means of manipulating you.  Yet, if you are a healthy person, you will discover you have plenty of reasons not to act on that impulse to steal money from your aunt’s purse — even without condemning your desire to do so.  You will feel empathy for your aunt.  You will have compassion for her.  You will not wish to do an unkind thing to her.  And so forth.

Liberation

There can be a remarkable feeling of liberation that comes with simply accepting yourself.  It is not the liberation of one who has decided he or she is free to pillage, but the liberation of one who is no longer wrestling with him- or herself, who is no longer wasting energy on internal feuds.

I doubt self-acceptance ever catches on as a movement in the way that self-esteem did.  And if it ever were to become popular, then it would quickly be made into a slogan for why you should join the Army, buy this or that car, or vote for a scoundrel.

All the same, it seems to me that when someone says they don’t like life, then about half the time, the root cause of their dissatisfaction is an unwillingness or an inability to accept themselves as they are.

What Do You Tell Your Children About Believing in God?

My mother, who turned 94 this year, was in some ways open to negotiation in how my two brothers and I were to be raised.  For instance, it took a mere twelve years of sustained and passionate begging before she allowed a TV in the house.   A black and white TV fully capable of pulling in one channel, and only one channel — a station twenty miles down the road.

To give her credit, her opposition to television was not based on a whim.  She believed a TV might distract us from learning to read. Consequently, we did not get our TV until my youngest brother had finished his first novel.  And mom really did compromise in a way.  She had planned for us to go without a TV until he had finished his sixth novel.

Yet, despite her remarkable willingness to negotiate on such things as our learning to read, on one issue she was absolutely fixed and could not be moved: Mom was set against our deciding whether or not to believe in god.

You see, she believed the god issue was simply beyond the scope of a child’s intelligence, his emotions, and his wisdom.  At the same time, she was just as opposed to making that decision for us.  Hence, she insisted we were to decide the issue for ourselves — but not until we had “reached an age at which we could reason well enough about it.”

Naturally, I went through a period when I wanted her to tell me what to believe.  But I never succeeded in getting her to do that. “Why won’t you tell me what you believe?”, I’d ask.

“Because you would ape me.”

“No I won’t, mom. I promise.”

“I’m glad to hear that”, she’d say, “All the same, my beliefs are my business and not yours.”

“But when can I know?” I’d whine.

“When you have reached an age of reason, and no sooner.”

I thought at times I would never live long enough, for even as a kid I sensed that for an American, the age of reason comes no sooner than 40 or so.

Like all parents, mom had her paradoxes.  No matter how much she insisted on doing things her way when it came to certain things, her policies on other things were models of laissez-faire.   For instance:  We were free range kids.  On weekends and during the months we were not in school, we could roam anywhere in the town or countryside so long as we pedaled back in time for supper.   She guarded which programs we were allowed to watch on television, but I don’t recall her even once opposing my choice in books.

Mom was criticized in the community for her manner of raising us.  People accused her of not being able to control her son when I grew my hair long.  After she allowed me, at 16, to hitchhike for the summer around the United States, her decision became for a week or ten days the talk of the town.  Yet, her most controversial decision was the god one.  Plenty of folks objected to our being raised that way.

The criticisms often enough worried her, but they never altered her course.  She refused to “take counsel of her fears”.  For mom was — and still is — a conservative in the genuinely traditional sense of “conservative”.  A sense that is all but gone out of fashion today.  That is, she is set against her or anyone else messing in other people’s affairs.  And few things are to her more a person’s own business than what he or she believes about god.

Nikita and Makita (The Wild One: Part Five)

Religious experiences are like those induced by drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and sleep deprivation: They tell no uniform or coherent story, and there is no plausible theory to account for discrepancies among them.

Michael Martin

Despite being an artist, a creative genius, a madman, and a visionary, William Blake had his limits: He was also a poet.  Perhaps for that reason alone, Blake tragically failed to leave us with a decently well-formulated epistemology.  Hence, precisely what he meant by, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”, has ever since his death been scandalously open to promiscuous interpretation.

Ask a dozen people to detail the meaning of Blake’s proposition and you might get a dozen and one answers.  But that is not at all strange.  Police officers, for instance, tell us that 20 witnesses to an automobile accident routinely produce 21 accounts of what happened.  Psychologists tell us much the same thing as police officers, and offer us the 21 known cognitive causes for such differences of opinion.  Hence, the sundry ways in which Blake has been interpreted is unlikely to surprise the Reader. If anything is likely to surprise the Reader — especially long time Readers — it’s that I have discovered all by myself a seemingly plausible interpretation of Blake’s proposition.

Previously in this series of posts, I’ve stated my opinion that our species of super-ape has two distinctive religiosities, and that each religiosity originates in different sets of brain processes and events.  Assuming I’m right about that — and especially right to think those brain processes and events are deeply inherent or genetically based — then the processes and events are more or less the same for everyone.

More or less.

We would naturally expect to find both similarities and differences between Stacey’s and Richard’s brains, and so it seems reasonable to suppose there would be both similarities and differences in their respective religiosities.  Thus, the two might agree in some ways about the nature of their “religious” experiences, while disagreeing in other ways.

In what ways might Stacey and Richard be likely to agree, and in what ways might they be likely to disagree?   As it happens, that can largely depend on which one of the two religiosities is to blame for their experiences.  If both Stacey’s and Richard’s experiences reflect what I’ve been calling  “domestic” religiosity, then the two might agree the spirits, ancestors, dead saints, and gods (or at least one god) have individual personalities and wills, can alter the course of nature and human lives, and can at least at times be moved by prayers, sacrifices, and rituals to do Stacey’s and Richard’s bidding.

At the same time, Stacey and Richard might disagree about all sorts of things, such as which gods are real, what their names are, what kind of personalities they have, what realms they govern, how best to appease them, what they want of us, whether they love us, and, of course, which one it is best to pray to the morning after prom night in order to avert an unwanted pregnancy.

On the other hand, if both Stacey’s and Richard’s experiences reflect what I’ve been calling “wild” religiosity, then Stacey and Richard might agree the world is a unity; that common notions of time and space are illusions; that reality is ultimately ineffable; and that not even the most heart-pounding events of prom night match the bliss of a mystical experience.

At the same time, Stacey and Richard might disagree about such things as whether the world is One, or is merely suffused with Oneness; whether an experience of that One or Oneness can be brought about by this or that means — or by any means; how that One or Oneness relates (or fails to relate) to consciousness; and which foolish descriptions of the ineffable are the most annoying.

In some basic ways, Stacy and Richard are most likely to agree with each other if they are approaching  a subject from the same religiosity, and they are least likely to agree if they are approaching that subject from different religiosities. As Blake might have it, if they are both “fools“, or they are both “wise“, then they will “see the same tree”.  But if their religiosities are different, then they will “see not the same tree“.  Naturally, when they are looking at the same tree, they will tend towards more agreement than when not.

“But What’s the Difference?”

Differences challenge assumptions.

Anne Wilson Schaef

Most of us, perhaps, see religion and mysticism as deeply entwined, and it may be just as difficult for us at times to distinguish between the two phenomena as it would be for us to distinguish between Blake‘s “two trees“.   Nevertheless, the distinction appears to be physiologically based, and is thus in some sense necessary.

At least, it appears so to me.  I’m only guessing the distinction is physiologically based, and I might be very wrong.  It is entirely possible that mystical and non-mystical religiosity originate in the same brain farts. Yet, even if no one else doubts that, I myself do.  For one thing, it seems to me there are not only differences between the two religiosities, but the differences are often enough radical.

If the two religiosities were merely opposed to each other, then we might see them as having a common origin in somewhat the same way that a single switch will turn a light both on and off.  But the religiosities are not merely opposed to each other.  Instead, their differences are at times radical, as if one religiosity were a book, and the other were a puma.

When I hear an unexpected noise, see a movement out of the corner of my eye, or otherwise sense a sudden disturbance in my immediate environment, I have a tendency to startle a bit, as if the disturbance was caused by something with a malevolent will.  That tendency or predilection is sometimes called “Agent Detection”, and it appears to be inherent or genetically based.  When combined with my equally inherent or genetically based notion that other people and at least some things have minds more or less like my own mind, it’s easy to see how I might arrive at a sense or feeling the world is inhabited by spirits.

Yet, is there anything in all that which would cause me, on very rare occasions, to suddenly perceive the world suffused with an ineffable Oneness?  Some might see a connection.  I don’t. Or rather, whatever connection there might be seems to me at best superficial, like saying that a book and a puma are quite similar because both make very little noise.

On the other hand, people often use very similar terms and expressions for their experiences of the two religiosities.  For instance, people who have had a spontaneous mystical perception of Oneness suffusing all things sometimes say they have “felt or experienced God’s presence”.  But people who, instead of actually perceiving a Oneness, have felt exceptionally strong emotions, say, during a religious service, or when looking up at the stars at night, sometimes use the same or almost the same words to describe their experiences as mystics might use.

In practice, there are many clues that sometimes — but by no means always — allow us to make reasonable guesses about whether a particular experience is derived from the domestic or the wild religiosity.  Those clues are far too numerous to list in a blog post. But they include such things as to what extent, if any, a person vividly recalls an experience years or decades later.  Religious experiences tend to be forgotten relatively soon after they occur. Mystical experiences tend to remain vivid for much longer times. That, however, is not necessarily beneficial to the person who had the mystical experience.  As Jiddu Krishnamurti pointed out, the memory of a mystical experience has a way of interfering with someone’s ability to have a subsequent experience.  (Hence, if one wishes to have another experience, it might be best to dismiss the first.) In contrast, the memory of a religious experience does not seem to at all interfere with one’s having another religious experience.

Again, a mystical experience tends to change a person’s attitude or outlook on life even if and when it has been forgotten.   In a way, then, it might for many of us be a little bit like sex.  Once some of us have had sex, our idea of what is the most pleasurable thing in life changes — even if we can no longer recall precisely what the sex felt like. Whereas we once thought the day our team won a basketball tournament was the best day of our lives, we now have a sense or feeling there are greater things in life.  And we might feel that way even when we can’t quite put our finger on why we feel that way.

On the other hand, a religious experience seems often enough to be a little bit like reading a blog post.  Once we’ve forgotten the post, we no longer tend to see the world through its lens.  The Reader might think that merciful.

Last, people who’ve had religious experiences seem significantly more ready to talk about them than people who’ve had mystical experiences.

According to several of the people who’ve studied these things, it is a reasonable guess that most folks who’ve had a mystical experience keep it to themselves, and that those who talk about them are decisively in the minority.  There seem to be at least two reasons for that guess.  First, those who talk about mystical experiences often enough appear reluctant to do so, sometimes waiting twenty or more years before talking about their experience.  Second, if and when they do talk about their experience, they often enough emphasize how difficult or rare it is for them to talk about it.

There are exceptions, however.

In an important sense, everyone who talks about a mystical experience does so in terms of a culture — usually the culture they were born into. (Of course, many contemporary folks might or might not be aware of concepts derived from other cultures besides their own.  Thus an English woman might be found talking about kensho and satori, while a Japanese man might be found talking about amazing grace.)  And there seems to be a curious relationship between the sooner one talks about a mystical experience, and (1) the more likely one is to use terms borrowed from one’s locally dominant culture, and (2) the more likely one is to arrive at firm conclusions about the experience or its meaning.

As a rough rule, the sooner a man living in, say,  Alabama talks about his experience, the more likely he is to be firmly convince he had an experience of the Southern Baptist version of the Holy Spirit.  While the longer he remains mute about it, the more likely he is — if he ever does speak about it — to couch his experience in less local terms, and to emphasize that his notions of it are uncertain, tentative, or provisional.

I think it’s possible the internet is changing some of that.  I’m never sure, but I sometimes get the impression that someone on the net is more willing to chat about their experience over the net than they would be in person.

While it can be very difficult at times to make a reasonable guess about the psychological origins of someone else’s experiences, it does not always seem impossible.  Ultimately, though, the distinction between the domestic and wild religiosities does not rest on subjective accounts of religious and mystical experiences.  If I am anywhere near right, the distinction is ultimately grounded in two separate neurologies.

May we have the names, please?

Names are an important key to what a society values.  Anthropologists recognize naming as ‘one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.’

David S. Slawson

Confucius, whose name really wasn’t “Confucius“, thought names quite important, for he said, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”  There seems to be a qualified manner in which he was right.

Some years ago, I spent a few pleasant hours jotting down on a set of blue-lined index cards as many new ways as I could to map the terrain between Denver and San Francisco.  As long time readers of this blog might expect, I had been invited to a party that evening and so I wanted to prepare a fun conversational topic, because much like fun people the world over, I take partying seriously. I might admittedly be a fool at times, but at least I know fun.  On that I may pride myself.

It turned out, however, that at the party I never got even a bit beyond properly fleshing out my description of map number twelve, a hypothetical map of the distribution of plant species whose Linnaean names begin E through H, before I discovered that by sheer bad luck everyone else, including the hostess herself, had suddenly remembered prior commitments: I was alone. Again.

I say, “Again”, because it seems to me the phenomenon I’m talking about here is both extraordinarily widespread and on the rise.  Indeed, it is almost universal these days, although I myself am old enough to recall a time some decades ago before when it was not as prevalent.  I dare say I was a shy wallflower back then, so maybe it was around and I just didn’t notice it.  Yet — and here comes the exciting party (pun intended!) — so far as I can discover, I am one of the few to talk about the phenomenon. In fact, I cannot at the moment think of anyone else who quite does.  And I believe the phenomenon goes largely unnoticed precisely [emphasis mine] because it has not been named!

You see, as Slawson, and perhaps K’ung Tzu before him, suggested, we so often fail to notice things for which we have no names.  [Time for a shameless plug: For ways in which Slawson’s assertion may be reasonably qualified, please refer to footnote 137 in my life’s finest work, Firebrands on the Frontiers of Thought: The Men and Women Revolutionizing the Epistemology of Plausible Being, by Paul Sunstone, (Bust, Colorado: Charging Boar Books, 2009) pp. 296-298.] To be sure, names can obscure as much or even more than they reveal; but names in a way are tools, and like any tool when properly used, they may be a boon.

Near the start of this series, I named the two religiosities: “the domestic god” and “the wild god”.  It turns out, that was reckless of me.  I should have more safely named the two religiosities, “the domestic religiosity” and “the wild religiosity”, for it now strikes me that calling the religiosities, “gods”,  is in a hundred ways confusing.  At least to me.  Among other things, when we talk of the domestic religiosity, we are sometimes talking, not of gods, but of, say, dead ancestors or ghosts.  And when we talk of the wild religiosity, we are sometimes talking not of a god, but of, say, the Tao.

Last, it would be handy if I had names for the causes of the domestic and the wild religiosities.  So, I will, if only for this series of posts, name the neurological processes and events that cause the domestic religiosity, “Nikita”, and the neurological processes and events that cause the wild religiosity, “Makita”. The “N” in Nikita is the clue I am talking about the causes of the non-mystical religiosity, just as the “M” in Makita is the clue I am talking about the causes of the mystical religiosity.

To be painfully precise, when you think of Nikita and Makita, please think of neurons firing in a bath of neurochemicals, rather than think even one level up from that.  Thus, think physiological processes and events, rather than, say, Agent Detection.

I’ll thank you for doing that, even if no one else gets excited enough to thank you for doing that.

The Relationship of Nikita and Makita to Subject/Object Perception

Our understanding is correlative to our perception.

Robert Delaunay

It strikes me that the domestic religiosity is often enough about objects.  For instance, one thing that spirits, ghosts, demons, devils, dead ancestors, dead saints, and even the domestic gods themselves have in common is that they are all distinct from us.  They are “out there”, beyond us: They are not us, and we are not them.  That makes them objects.

Again, the agent in Agent Detection, as well as the mind in Theory of Mind, are also separate from us.  When I think someone has a mind, I don’t think they have my mind, but merely a mind like mine.  Consequently, I think it’s safe to say that domestic religiosity is rooted not only in the neurological processes and events that bring about such things as Agent Detection and Causal Reasoning, but also in the neurological processes and events that brink about subject/object perception.  In other words, the mother of domestic religiosity, Nikita, seems to include both the former and the latter neurological processes and events.

It equally strikes me that the wild religiosity transcends subject/object perception. A mystical experience is simply pure awareness — an awareness without an “I” that is aware of an “it” that is being observed.  Consequently, the mother of wild religiosity, Makita, seems to include the neurological processes and events that result in the abrupt cessation of subject/object perception while some kind of awareness or experiencing yet continues.

A Teaser for the Next Post

I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.

John Paul Jones

Readers who have happily sailed with me through this exciting series of posts might be surprised to learn my next post is even more of a rip-roaring adventure than all the previous posts combined.  In that post, I will take a look at love.  The topic itself is all but necessarily fascinating, and I am confident that I have enhanced my treatment of love with adventuresome plot twists and intellectual surprises for you. Hence, you can easily expect fun galore.

At the very least, I triumphantly promise that you will discover the precise extent to which my critics are fools to allege I am routinely observed to fire shattering broadsides of boredom into the most festive occasions with nothing more menacing for cannon than a stack of blue-lined index cards.  But my critics have underestimated me: I’ll wager even they will be astounded by what I can do when set lose upon the high seas of love.

Born Wild (The Wild One: Part Four)

By a single such experience of only a few moments’ duration a man’s life may be revolutionized. He may previously have found life meaningless and worthless, whereas now he feels that it has acquired meaning, value, and direction, or his attitude to life may sometimes be radically and permanently changed.

W. T. Stace

One summer’s morning, around the age of 13, I was biking down a leafy tree-lined street in my hometown when I happened upon someone I had not seen in awhile. He was a boy a year younger than me, and he had a reputation for being wild.  I suspect his reputation was owed more to his frank honesty, though, than to his actual wildness.  In that small town, you tended to collect all sorts of reputation  — if you were honest.

He and I entwined the handlebars of our bikes — a trick that stabilized the bikes nicely, allowing us to sit them without needing to put our feet down to stay upright.  Then we were off telling each other all the news fit to forget.  And I have indeed forgotten most of it, but the one thing I still vividly recall came towards the end of our conversation when my friend confided that he’d recently had an experience of indescribable bliss. I had never heard of the word, “bliss”, and had to ask what it was.

As he spoke, his face took on a radiance somewhere between happiness and joy.  He told me he didn’t know the right words to describe his experience, but it had to be what adult‘s meant when they talked of being “seized by the Holy Spirit“.  Though only twelve, he was completely serious.  And he was certain — absolutely certain — he’d discovered life’s greatest and most precious gift.

While I was skeptical of his claims to being seized by the supernatural, I could not ignore his sincerity. Consequently, I hung on every word until the very moment I suddenly recognized he was talking about his having discovered masturbation.

That was the first time in my life I heard someone insist that a non-mystical experience was actually mystical.  Of course, it has not been the last. It’s a curious fact that many of us who have not yet had a mystical experience are nevertheless inclined to think our biggest, most moving experiences to date must be — absolutely must be — what the mystics are talking about.  I suppose there is something very human in that.

Of course, some of us take it a step further.  For political, social, or other reasons, we try to reduce mystical experiences to the absurd or trivial.  Jerry Falwell once stated, “I feel most ministers who claim they’ve heard God’s voice are eating too much pizza before they go to bed at night, and it’s really an intestinal disorder, not a revelation.”  I presume Reverend Falwell had “important political reasons” for his statement.  Or, maybe the churning of intestinal gas was the biggest, most moving life experience he could imagine for himself and others.

Most informed folks say mystical experiences are both far more fun than masturbation and even somewhat more impressive than intestinal gas.  If that is indeed the case, then is it any wonder our species of super-ape typically finds them ineffable?

Let’s briefly consider the doggie beyond my window who at the moment is galloping about his grassy yard with a pure, unfettered joy, such as what one might understandably feel when attending a convention of epistemologists.  For all his apparent wildness, he is a thoroughly domesticated animal.  He is, some field biologists tell us, only about one-third as intelligent as his wild cousins, the wolves.  His bite is weaker than theirs, and perhaps even his senses are not as sharp.  Though he shares many traits with them, he is by no means a member of their nation.

Yet, it’s conceivable that we might confuse that doggie with a wolf.  If we had never seen a wolf, and all we had to go on to identify a wolf were a vague, verbal description of one, then we might think that doggie in the yard was a wolf.  Indeed, we might even name him, “Wolf”.  “Come here, Wolfie! Come here! People say ‘wolves are wild‘, but mine comes right to me. Silly people.”

On the other hand, a real wolf might be hard to mistake for a dog.  I was at a coffee shop, sitting at a sidewalk table one evening shortly after dusk when a young couple with a strange animal on a very long leash rounded the corner.

I’d never before seen a wolf — not even in a zoo — but I did not for even an instant mistake that animal for a dog.  It had a demeanor about it that I find very difficult to describe, much beyond saying that it embodied wildness.  And by that I do not mean that it was exuberant.  Instead, it was behaving as if its senses were overwhelmed, far too sharp for a noisy city; more attuned to the rustle of a field mouse than to the roar of a passing car.

I asked, and the couple told me it was a hybrid — half wolf and half dog.  But, if that was a hybrid, then how much more difficult might it be to mistake a full wolf for a dog?

The Fun Side of Subject/Object Perception

I love mysticism — it’s such fun.

Jerry Hall

Genuine mystical experiences¹, though relatively rare, are at least wild enough that they are not confined to people living in any particular culture, nor to people living at any particular time.  Nor are they confined to people professing any particular religion, philosophy, ideology or set of beliefs.  The people who have had mystical experiences come from a thousand backgrounds.  The only relevant thing they all — or almost all — have in common is that, once they have had a mystical experience, they tend to agree on certain key points.

By almost all accounts I know of, mystics agree mystical experiences are ineffable.  For many of us, ineffability is counter-intuitive.  We simply assume anything that is real and worth describing can be described.  Or, at least, like the wildness of a hybrid dog/wolf, roughly described.  But mystics insist otherwise.

They make other counter-intuitive claims as well.  For instance: Many of them agree that discrete, separate objects or “things” don’t actually exist on the most fundamental level.  Instead, they say things are ultimately an illusion, and the world is really an undifferentiated unity — a Oneness — into which all things are dissolved.  Again, many mystics say our commonplace understandings of time and space are illusions.  That ultimately, there is no near or far distance, no non-existent past or future time.  All exists in the here and now.  You don’t often get much more counter-intuitive than that.  But what is there about the mystical experience that leads so many mystics to say such horrible things?

To get at that, we should first recall that our normal perception involves our perceiving a subject and an object.

In other words, when I am consciously aware of something, I invariably experience a division between me and it.  By “me” I mean the observer (the subject), and by “it”, I mean the thing observed (the object).  And that division between me and it can be simply illustrated: Normally, I am not the notebook on my desk that I am looking at.  Normally, I don’t perceive that I and the notebook are one.  That’s a lot of fun to think about, isn’t it?

But it gets even more fun than that for, apparently, the division of reality into me and it is rooted in neurological processes and events taking place in my brain. Yet, such processes can be interrupted. And, indeed, they sometimes are.  When those processes are interrupted, I no longer perceive a difference between me and it.  Instead, I experience a Oneness or undifferentiated unity.  The notebook and I become one.

My Exciting Bug-Tussle with W. T. Stace

A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.

—  Miguel de Unamuno

W. T. Stace, who was a pioneer in the study of mystical experiences, thought that Oneness was their very core. That is, he adamantly rejected the notion that every out of the ordinary, or paranormal, experience was genuinely mystical.  To be mystical, it had to involve that Oneness. Thus, he went on to conclude there were two basic kinds of mystical experiences:

One may be called extrovertive mystical experience, the other introvertive mystical experience. Both are apprehensions of the One, but they reach it in different ways. The extrovertive way looks outward and through the physical senses into the external world and finds the One there. The introvertive way turns inward, introspectively, and finds the One at the bottom of the self, at the bottom of human personality. The latter far outweighs the former in importance both in the history of mysticism and in the history of human thought generally. The introvertive way is the major strand in the history of mysticism, the extrovertive way a minor strand.

Moreover, so far as Stace was concerned, the introvertive experience was more complete than the extrovertive experience.  Put differently, if during your experience, you were still experiencing nature in all its glory — say, seeing lovely trees, flowers, butterflies, and bear shit — then your experience was a less complete experience than the mystic next to you who was herself experiencing only a pure, undifferentiated Oneness.  Stace was something of a hard case, you see.

Frankly — and this is the sort of thrilling confession that many of my long-term readers have come to expect of me — I myself have yet to accept all of Stace‘s views.

To me, the very core of the mystical experience is the as yet unconfirmed — and perhaps even as yet undiscovered — neurological processes and events that somehow result in an abrupt end to subject/object perception while some form of awareness or experiencing still continues.²

Thus, I think the difference between Stace and I might trace back to the fact Stace sees the very core of the mystical experience as an experience of complete unity, while I see the very core of the mystical experience as a brain fart.  Stace is focused on symptoms.  I am focused on causes.  Stace knows what he’s talking about.  I am wildly speculating.  But I’m sticking to my brain farts opinions.  Hence, I prefer not to call the extrovertive experience less completely mystical than the introvertive experience.

As an aside, I think any rational person must now quite agreeably conclude that I am significantly more likely than Stace ever was to tell chucklesome jokes about the myriad ways in which Sweeney illogically combines an epistemic correlation with an operational definition. Readers who ever even once doubted the kind of party animal I am should perhaps take that fact into due consideration before finalizing their opinion of my fun side.

There might be another reason to avoid calling the extroversive experience less mystical than the introversive.  That is, the introversive experience seems often enough artificially induced.  As Stace notes:

Spontaneous experiences are usually of the extrovertive type, though not invariably. Those which are acquired are usually introvertive, because there are special techniques of introversion – which differ only slightly and superficially in different cultures. So far as I know there are no corresponding techniques of extroversion. The man to whom a brief spontaneous extrovertive experience comes may never have such an experience again. Or he may have a series of such experiences. But he can as a rule neither induce nor control them.

It seems to me that extrovertive experiences should not be ruled less completely mystical than introvertive experiences to whatever extent introvertive experiences are artificially induced.  It may be, as Jiddu Krishnamurti so often suggested, that when we induce or seek a mystical experience we at best get back the experience that we sought — an experience that is in some way merely our expectation of what a mystical experience should be.

Raising the Stakes

The desire for excitement is very deep-seated in human beings. I was a solitary, shy, priggish youth. I had no experience of the social pleasures of boyhood and did not miss them. But I liked mathematics, and mathematics was suspect because it has n.

Bertrand Russell

Let’s ratchet up our fun another notch!  A more exciting way to describe the experience of an abrupt end to subject/object perception — more exciting, perhaps, than even to call it “Oneness” — is to call it “god”.  And people sometimes — but not always — do call it god.  They also call it many other exciting names, such as the Tao, Ultimate Reality, the All, and even Love.

Yet, as it happens, the mystical experience does not wear a name tag stating, “Hello! My name is Shiva.”  Or “Yahweh”, “Thor”,  “Allah“, “Xaun Wu”, or “Quetzalcoatl”.  (Nor does it carry a scroll laying out its theology, prescribing its rituals, or telling what practices, if any, will best lead to an experience of it.) It is not even the case that the mystical experience comes labeled as any god — let alone any particular god.  For instance: The Tao is typically conceived of as some kind of ultimate reality, but is not typically conceived of as being a god.

The names given the mystical experience, no matter how exciting they might be, typically don’t matter so much to mystics.  As Sixtus the Pythagorean said, “God is not the name of god, but an opinion of him.” Lao-Tzu famously anticipated Sixtus: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name.”  And many, many other mystics have scandalously agreed with those two.

I don’t know if he specifically had mystics in mind, but the brilliant and tragic mathematician and epistemologist, Frank P. Ramsey once stated, “What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”  There is a profound sense in which it is just as problematic to call the mystical experience the Tao, Ultimate Reality, the All, or even Love, as it is to call it Yahweh, Thor, or Allah.  What we can’t say, we can’t whistle either.

Now, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely nothing that can be sensibly said about mystical experiences.  But it does mean that we should be quite clear about what we can say and cannot say.  Let’s look then at the ways in which they can be talked about.

There are different levels on which we can approach mystical experiences.  I will mention here just four of those. First, we can talk about their neurological basis — their causal roots in the brain.  Another level is to describe them in cognitive psychological  terms, which is what we’re doing whenever we toss out thrilling concepts like “subject/object perception”.  A third way of approaching them is as an actual experience. Yet, when we talk of them as “a mystical experience“, we must be clear to distinguish the experience itself from our thoughts about it.  The experience itself is ineffable. But our mere thoughts about the experience are not ineffable.  And that brings up a fourth way of approaching mystical experiences: How we conceptualize them, such as when we think about them as “an experience of Oneness”, or as “an experience of Shiva”.

I’m not sure why, but our species seems to find it easy in practice to confuse our experience of something with what we say about our experience of something.  Small libraries have been published on that one subject alone.

Of course, the distinction is easily enough made on paper.  If we were talking about a map, the phrase “a mystical experience” would refer to the actual terrain, while the phrase, “Steve’s concepts of the mystical experience” would refer to the maps made of that terrain.  Again, if you yourself were a mystical experience, then the photograph I took of you would be analogous to how we conceptualize or think about the mystical experience. It’s downright easy to illustrate the distinction between, say, you and a photograph, but, strange as it might sound, it often proves difficult for our species of super-ape to avoid confusing the two things in practice.

My second wife, in an act admittedly beneficial to humanity (but which at the time was merely motivated by her being royally pissed at me) once dumped all my poems into the bathtub, then set fire to them.  She later confessed she felt she was burning me.  On some level, she was confusing  my poetry with me, the map with the terrain.  She was abusive, yet by no means stupid.  When bored, she would pleasantly while away the seconds by solving calculus problems in her head  — something I found much more attractive about her than her somewhat alarming opinion of my poems.

Now, I’ve primarily been using the phrase, “the wild god”, to refer to mystical experiences.  Secondarily, though, I’ve used it to refer to how we conceptualize mystical experiences.  From hereon, I will more clearly distinguish between those two meanings by using the wild god only as a synonym for mystical experiences themselves. When I want to refer to how we think about mystical experiences, I will use such necessary, albeit cumbersome, phrases as, “our concepts of the wild god”.

Since mystical experiences, by almost all accounts, are ineffable, it doesn’t matter what we name them.  Anything we call them, including, “the wild god”, or even, “mystical experiences”, should be taken with a decisive shrug.  The names we give them are no better, and occasionally no worse, than poetry.

Now, to stir in a dash of raw excitement — as if one is even needed at this point — I promise that in the next post I will propose a name for the neurological processes and events that manifest themselves in our mystical experiences.  I would find it quite understandable if you are now gripping your chair in anticipation of that post.
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1. I’m largely concerned with only one kind of mystical experience: The kind that involves an abrupt end to subject/object perception. Thus, by “mystical experience”, I do not mean in this series of posts any of the other experiences that are commonly called “mystical”.  Such as telepathy, telekinesis, most so-called “religious experiences”, clairvoyance, precognition, visions, voices, insights, powerful dreams, or that time I got lucky with Terri. None of those necessarily involve an abrupt end to subject/object perception.  So, nope, I don’t mean any of those.

2. A few days ago, I was told of Andrew Newberg’s and Eugene D’Aquili’s research into the causes of mystical experiences.  That is, I was told enough about their findings to get thoroughly excited. Long term readers of this blog can certainly appreciate what that means:  It means I dashed off at a stately pace to a quiet bookstore. Although, I have not yet had time to read, Why God Won’t Go Away, it is my understanding that Newberg and D’Aquili provide well-grounded evidence for the notion mystical experiences occur when certain brain processes cease while one is still in some sense aware or experiencing. Be still my beating heart!

Two Monks, Two Religions, and a Tale of White Lace Panties

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”.  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Mathew 5: 27-29, New International Version

It is all but certain that Mathew 5:27-29, with its strongly worded suggestion that hell awaits those of us who lust,  has both terrified and dismayed more than one newly post-pubic boy or girl.  At that age, one is scarcely in control of one’s lusty thoughts, let alone one’s lusty desires.

Even though I am now 54, I still have a distinct memory of a moment in middle school when I was absolutely seized by the entirely accidental, one-second-long, sight of a classmate’s white lace panties.  If at that instant a bolt of lightening had struck me, I would not have noticed the additional shock.

It seemed to me at the time that it took ten minutes before I could again think.  And my very first thought afterwards was embarrassingly geeky: I thought of Mathew and wondered how anyone — anyone! — could be expected to control their sexual feelings.

Although it was a trivial event, it played a large role in shaping what I thought of Christianity during middle school and high school.  I had until then fervently embraced Christian ideals — or, at least, what I understood at the time to be Christian ideals — even though I was most days an agnostic.

But I began to suspect the ideals might be hopelessly impractical, and I turned an increasingly skeptical eye towards them.  By the time I began reading Nietzsche at 15, I was pretty well prepared to accept the notion that Christian ideals were not the Alpha and the Omega of values.

Strange how so much seems in hindsight to have ridiculously depended upon the second-long sight of someone’s white lace panties.

Of course, there are varying interpretations of Mathew 5: 27-29.  A lot seems to depend on how you interpret the Greek,  epithumeo.  It is commonly translated along the lines of “to lust”, or “to lust after”, which seems to suggest to many of us that merely desiring to have sex with someone out of wedlock will land us in hellfire.  And those of us who think that way appear to be in good company.  John Calvin, for instance, wrote, “This teaches us also, that not only those who form a deliberate purpose of fornication, but those who admit any polluted thoughts, are reckoned adulterers before God.”

Other folks interpret the passage more kindly.  Some argue that epithumeo should be translated as “a strong desire”, “to desire greatly”, or “to long for”.   And a few go so far as to suggest that, taken in context, it means, “to covet”.  In both instances, the notion seems to be that only an unusally strong or covetous desire will land you in hell.

Yet, regardless of how the passage should be understood, it is a pretty safe bet the passage is quite often understood to condemn those of us who have any desire at all for sex with someone to whom we happen not to be married.  C. H. Spurgeon almost joyfully writes:

So that the unholy desire, the lascivious glance, everything that approximates towards licentiousness, is here condemned; and Christ is proved to be not the Abrogator of the law, but the Confirmer of it. See how he shows that the commandment is exceedingly broad, wide as the canopy of heaven, all-embracing. How sternly it condemns us all, and how well it becomes us to fall down at the feet of the God of infinite mercy, and seek his forgiveness.

On the surface, at least, Christianity seems to raise quite a racket over the notion that our thoughts are absolutely crucial to our moral standing.  Yet, the notion that thoughts — mere thoughts — can be of great consequence to us was not entirely new by the time of Jesus.

The author of Matthew might have been the first person to stir hell into the mix, but the Buddha is alleged to have said some similar things 500 years before him.  For instance:  “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” Again, “Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.”  And, last, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.  When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

To me, that last quote is the most significant of the three I’ve presented here because it tells us the benefit of guarding our minds against negative thoughts.  That is, a pure mind, free of negative thoughts, finds “joy”.  And, although I suspect that word “joy” is quite possibly a poor translation, the idea remains that some sort of happiness is to be had by cultivating a pure mind.

If we may now compare the Buddhist notion with the Christian one, we see certain similarities.  First, there is the idea that our thoughts are not merely idle, but have real consequences for us.  Both the Buddhists and the Christians seem to agree on that.

Yet, in the Christian case, as commonly understood, the consequences are potentially devastating: Eternal hell.  Naturally, I wish to say to Matthew, “Lighten up! Those were rather nice panties.  And besides, it was an even nicer person who was wearing them.  For that,  I’m going to hell?  Could you be any more absurd?”  Of course, the Christian emphasis on hellfire is distasteful, unless your aesthetic sense rivals that of a wolverine.

In the Buddhist case, the consequences are much less grim, if no less serious.  Instead of eternal hell, there is dukkhaDukkha is most often translated as “suffering”.   And, while it has that implication, I prefer to return to its original meanings.  There are three that I know of.

First, the word was once used to denote a lose fit between a chariot wheel and its axle, such that the wheel wobbled.  Second, the word was once used to denote a poor fit between a potter’s wheel and its stand, such that the wheel screeched when turned.  And, last, the term was used to denote a dislocated shoulder or hip.  The common meaning to all three cases is something like, “out-of-jointedness”.

Of course, there are many words to describe the consequences of that out-of-jointedness, “…including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.”  Or, perhaps, in other words, “hell on earth”.

If, when comparing the Buddhist and Christian notions of what negative thoughts lead to, you squint very long and very hard, the two notions can seem remarkably similar.  Especially, if you broaden the Christian concept out from its narrow reference to sexual desire, and instead think of the concept as encompassing any poorly managed desire, whether a poorly managed desire for sex, or money, or power, etc.   And after that,  you can take the Christian concept of hell and declare it is a mere metaphor for suffering on earth.   In the end, after all that intense squinting, the Buddhist and Christian notions might seem pretty much the same.

That’s a lot of squinting, though.

I have a little story that illustrates to me one of the most important differences between the Buddhist and Christian views of negative thinking.

Some long time ago, I came across an Evangelical Christian website that was busy conducting an informal survey on the subject of, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?”  The question brought to my mind a Zen tale of two monks:

[The monks] were travelling when they came to a swollen stream. Standing in the road beside the stream, wondering how she might cross, was a beautiful young woman. Without hesitation, the older monk picked up the woman and carried her across the stream. She thanked him and went on her separate way. The two monks then travelled on together for several hours, until the younger monk, deeply troubled, could no longer remain silent. “Brother, aren’t we forbidden to have any physical contact with women?”, he asked. Replied the older monk, “I put her down several hours ago, but you are still carrying her.”

Now, the word, dukkha, in addition to all the other many ways it can be translated, can also be translated as “clingingness”, or “emotional clingingness”.  And, when we hear the tale of the two monks in light of that fact, it might become apparent to us that the younger monk was clinging — emotionally clinging — to the young woman long after she was gone and out of his life.  While, of course, the older monk had both physically and emotionally let go of her several hours ago.

To my mind, that tale illustrates that, to the Buddhist, the real problem is not simple sexual desire, but rather, sexual desire that is clung to, that is nursed, that is dwelt on, that is cultivated, and thus sustained beyond its natural course.

Put differently, it is not, perhaps, the thought itself that makes it negative, but our all too human tendency to emotionally cling to the thought that makes it negative — a tendency that, unfortunately, can often lead to “… suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration“.

Last, it seems to me that the Christian concept of negative thoughts, understood in its broadest possible sense, all too often leads to the notion that others should take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings.  The Evangelical website phrased it as a question, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?”  But why should that even be a question?  From a Buddhist perspective, we — and we alone — are responsible for our emotional clingingness.

At any rate, it’s early in the morning, the birds are singing, and it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.