Sunday, February 16, 2014

Your Friendly Neighborhood Psychopath

HAVE YOU EVER COME ACROSS A PERSON who exudes goodness at the first acquaintance, but turns out to be unbelievably the opposite later on? If so, chances are you had an encounter with a psychopath or an antisocial personality. Psychopaths comprise about 1% of human population so they are not so rare.

There is a higher proportion of psychopaths among criminal population so the US judicial system defines antisocial personality disorder in a person over the age of 15, as having three or more of the characteristics below:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Gospel of Thomas: A must-read for Christians
(Illustration sourced from the Net)
GOSPEL OF THOMAS, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus Christ, is well-known among theologians, historians and academics, but for most ordinary Christians it is news that such an important gospel even exists. This is understandable because these sayings are not for those who seek feel-good answers. Here Jesus' key theme is self awareness and expands on "Kingdom of God is within you." Jesus hints about absolute freedom --- freedom from everything, perhaps freedom even from Jesus himself. Jesus is asking us to look into ourselves -- the very last thing we want to do.

Here's an excellent video version of the gospel. 

As we listen to the startling message in Thomas, we begin to understand this is not the stuff that make organized religions, which was probably why it was not accepted part of the canon, though some historians argue that it nearly made it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Is Seeing Believing?

I had just been initiated into Transcendental Meditation and was very enthusiastic about it. So when during a train journey in India I found myself sitting beside a saffron-clad Hindu monk, i started a conversation with him hoping he would have some insights to share. The swami, who happened to be an ayurvedic physician too, instead began a lengthy discourse on the Indian system of medicine while I impatiently looked for a chance to interrupt. When he stopped for breath I pressed in my favorite topic.
   "Swamiji, what do you think of Transcendental Meditation?" 

He replied gravely, "It is a serious disease but ayurveda has very good medicines for it." Then he continued about the cases of tuberculosis he had treated.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Persistence of Idols: A lesson from the Book of Exodus

Destruction of statues in a Dutch church
during the Protestant Reformation
of 16th century
(Illustration sourced from the Net) 
"I Am That I Am" (Don't label me!) God admonished Moses who had dared to ask the name of this new deity.

But that did not work. It never does. Israelites could not resist their labeling urge so they made an abbreviation of the original no-name status of God, which itself became the name. Thus the name Yahweh eventually struck so much fear and awe in those ignorant people,  they trembled to utter it. This shows how the harder we try to discard the  image in our minds, the stronger it becomes.

This is the problem with iconoclasm. Iconoclasts (idol breakers Christian, Islamic, Jewish...) fiercely propagate their "no-image" version of God, as the real idol grows diabolically stronger in their minds, consuming them, inflaming them. This equally applies to the  newest brand of iconoclasts, the"militant atheists."

Crowd frenzy = Turnaround

 EMOTIONAL REACTIONS FROM SOCIETY --- especially when they reach frenzied levels --- is almost always disproportionate to the actual problem. I would even claim that the greater the popular frenzy, the lesser the actual problem.

In the early 1980s the biggest fear among people in the Western world was about Soviet communist annexation and bombing of the "free world". But the reality was that communism was crumbling and the physical threats were receding.

Islamic fundamentalism started in the 1970s and grew to frightening levels for about a quarter century but the world never paid attention. The 9/11 attack probably marked its peak. Islamism, in my view, started to flatten out since then and now it is actually receding. But the community at large is most frightened of Muslims now than ever before! I consider this as a sign that Islamic fundamentalism is on the wane and no longer needed to be frightened about.

Homophobia was rife throughout the world. It peaked, fell drastically, and is moving towards the other extreme -- it has become fashionable to to accept any sexual behavior that used to be considered abnormal earlier. So homophobia has turned the bend and is becoming a fashion of homophilia. Perhaps one day the pendulum could swing back and the crowd could become anti gay again.

Pedophilia was seldom a headline issue till a decade or two ago. Now it the biggest target of witchhunt. And Catholic Church is the favorite target because the Church is huge and institutionalized. It is already weakening due to spread of secularism. Going by the other examples I cited, I would expect that the pedophilia issue in Catholic Church has peaked and is receding.

(Illustration sourced from the Net)
In short, crowd frenzy is usually an indicator that the problem has passed its worst stage. We can compare these to stock market bubbles. The legendary banker JP Morgan is reputed to have sold entire his stock holdings in 1929 when a shoeshine boy gave him market advice, and thus escaped the October 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed.

Crowd frenzy is a good rule of the thumb to start going in the opposite direction. If everyone seems obsessed about something, turn away from it. Easier said than done. We are social animals!

Have Spiritual Masters and Sages Helped Humanity?

The highest level of all spiritual quests is considered to be emptying the mind of thoughts without losing alertness of the mind. Seers with no political or social agenda have tended to  point to that simple fact and little else. Even when we examine the writings of some masters who were constrained by their religious persuasions, if we look below their theological talk their message had this one common thread -- Observe yourself. Empty your mind. We’ve had millions of holy sayings, saints and holy books, all pointing to the same singularity. But I doubt whether the Masters could change anyone by their writings or talks. If any change occurred to anyone, my hypothesis is that it would have due to that person’s existing readiness. The best a master can do is to encourage that existing spark, which may be exceptions, not the rule.

Ancient Yogis Didn't know They Had Brains!

(Illustration sourced from the Net)

1. Yogis could not "feel" their central nervous system

a) Much of eastern philosophy is based on direct observation of the philosopher-mystic's own body.

b) But No yogi/mystic/seer has ever been able to directly observe/feel his own brain in action.

c) This is because brain is impervious to sensations and so the yogi's observation of his mind is indirect. Only indirectly can he sense the functions of his own brain (thought, emotions etc.) He does that by observing the rest of his body, and all his observations are limited to the endings of sensory nerves.

d) Therefore ancient seers confidently claimed that the mind is physically located in throat/mouth/heart/belly etc. (If you ask modern spiritualists --- who are very much aware of the functions of the brain  --- they would say, "No, yogic experiences are ethereal, spiritual, aural etc. But I don't buy that view because ancient texts are very physical and precise in their descriptions --  Uttara Gita is a good example.)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Descarte's error -- a different take

Was Rene Descartes' real realization of the self "When I do not think, I am not?"
Why should someone like me be rash enough to try to invert the most famous statement of the most respected philosopher in this manner? In my defense I plead thus:

If I don't think, I am not. (Illustration sourced from the Net)
Descartes sat  in meditation in his dutch stove for three days. Anyone who does that will observe that his thought processes slowly stop. Then to most people something else happens, rather predictably, if the enquirer is serious and composed. He loses his identity, as well as the identity of his surroundings [the separation of the self is an illusion created by our brain to keep ourselves out of harm from the environment.] When the inquirer returns to normal "reality" he may  not be able to give meaningful verbal interpretations of his state when his thoughts had stopped.

What One Is Not . . .

By Sajjeev X. Antony
During philosophy debates I am often asked what "camp" I am in. When my interlocutors learn that  I don't belong to any camp or philosophy, they don't know what to do with me -- whether to love me, hate me, avoid me. This is an attempt to answer them.

I started off as a Roman Catholic, later became a Born Again Christian full of zeal to save souls, and even led our parish Charismatic choir. But as I read the Bible -- in detail, not merely the parts preachers asked me to -- followed by inquiry into other faiths and philosophies, I realized that the wonderful experience and gifts of Holy Spirit were not uniquely Christian. These were part of  humanity, irrespective of faith or philosophy. It became slowly (and painfully) clear that all our quests, spiritual or otherwise boil down to our seeking happiness. Religion had miserably failed in providing the succor that humanity is searching despite thousands of years of refinement. This is not a fault of religions or philosophies, but that of human mind.

Science is likely to ultimately crack the mystery of religion and mysticism and absorb their roles. Meanwhile one respects and enjoys the historical, cultural, social and spiritual anchorage these ancient faiths provide to the society --- so they cannot be discarded. They represent our ancestors' attempts to make sense of their world and themselves. These  are in our genes. They are us. So we can't throw them away (in my case the ceremonies of the Catholic Church). I love Pope Francis for his abundant, natural love. People like him who wield tremendous power over the minds of billions of people could accelerate the changes towards ecumenism beyond Christianity and ultimately encompassing all humanity. These changes are already in motion. It is understandable that the tradition-ridden Catholic Church is still far behind "scientific" religions such as Buddhism in embracing the change. Dalai Lama says, "If science is to prove any of Buddhism's tenets wrong, Buddhism will have to change." Only such humility and acceptance of truth will enable any religion to survive 21st century.

NOR need one buy into the other side -- the fire-and-brimstone tactics of certain scientists and philosophers like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. One abhors their call for "militant atheism," and (In Hitchen's case) trying to propagate a dangerous "hatred of religions," which are likely to be misunderstood by the masses and misused by politicians. Even though Hitchens keep warning his readers not to equate ideologies with people, that won't work in practice. Mobs ALWAYS end up destroying human beings rather than philosophies. Already there are stray reports of violent atheists beating up clergymen. And that may only be a starter. Such physical violence and exchanging bad words will only cause both sides to harden their hearts further.

Shades of truth are everywhere -- whether in Pope Francis, Dalai Lama, meditation, experience of the Holy Spirit, in  clouds, in a leaf, in the rain, in Qur'an, Bible, Gita, Origin of Species, Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. . . . When we typecast ourselves into a label, we tend to attract "believers" in that label and repel those who are "disbelievers" (which is also belief in another name).

So why do we want to label or pigeonhole people? To  know whether to love, hate, admire or ignore a person -- so that our brain relapses into a stupor because it doesn't have to grapple with the changing reality.

This persistence of this image-making in our minds shows the inherent human urge to label everything and attach emotions to it. No one is free from its grip. There may be a way out of its death-grip -- clearly understanding both intellectually and experientially, that such image/idol making is our weakness and not our strength. Tragically, that path appears to be  so counter-intuitive and non-commonsensical that it is the one path that is always ignored.

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This work (text only) by Sajjeev Antony is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.