Saturday, January 29, 2011

Passages to Truth: An Investigation of I Ching and Tarot Card Fortune-Telling

High Priestess Tarot Card from the Rider-Waite Deck
Many people wonder these days what help “psychics” can really offer, how apt and precise the fortuneteller can be in predicting future events and how much influence this precognition might have on decision-making. Unfortunately, there have been many cases of misuse and misguidance in the field of fortunetelling. In today's world, everything that raises interest becomes prey to business people who develop their own marketing strategies around it. 

As a result, we get offers such as the “psychic hotline” or “Special Tarot Card readings with Madame X”, which all contribute to the loss of credibility in fortune-telling. The more the offers increase, the more people turn away from them because the only thing that seems to matter is to trick people with the aim of gaining money.
Those psychics claim to have extra-sensory perception (ESP), but they fail to validate scientific experiments, thus raising doubts in scientific minds. On the other hand, people who actually might have these special abilities remain silent since fortunetelling to them is a more personal experience tied with values and significance that simply cannot - or rather should not - be “marketed.” I regret that these abilities have been undermined throughout time. In the past, even kings and nobility used to turn to oracles because they really believed in them. But does fortune-telling as such really exist, or is it just meant to be entertainment?
In order to be able to understand these processes, which paradoxically appear to be beyond comprehension, one must be open-minded and unprejudiced. Myers (1995) has defined the scientific approach as "undergirded by curious skepticism and openminded humility" (p.11), which would mean that if any matter were argued well enough and put to a test with distinguishable results, then scientists would agree that precognition indeed does exist.
To start off, I will base my knowledge on my own experiences with Tarot cards and the I Ching - The Book of Changes, both of which I have been practicing for several years and will draw parallels of thought with some great philosophers, as well as psychologists, of our time, such as Alan Watts and Carl Gustav Jung. In describing the oracle, the knowledge of the German Tarot expert Hajo Banzhaf, and of the sinologue and translator of the I Ching, Richard Wilhelm are equally significant for this text. They have uncovered many hidden truths, one of them being the question and practice of soothsaying, which I will illustrate further and attempt to explain to the best of my knowledge.
The first step in approaching this unique phenomenon of fortunetelling is to understand what it signifies and to learn about its methods and functions. For this purpose, we have to initially ask ourselves what Tarot and I Ching actually represent. As a result, it is necessary to know about their background history and structure before we move towards the way they operate.
The origin of Tarot cards is unknown, but they were rediscovered in the 18th century by Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725-1784). It is said that Tarot might have come form Old Egypt and then imported to the West by the Jews. The theorists claim that the 22 special cards of Tarot represent the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. However, there is another theory that the cards might have come from India, since some of them show the attributes given to the God of Shiva (Hajo Banzhaf, 1993, p.8). These questions open up many suggestions and theories which only add to the mysteriousness of these cards that have been in use since ancient times.
There are various sets of cards but I will focus on the Rider Tarot set by the American occultist Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1941). The cards have been designed by the artist Pamela Colman Smith, whose initials "PCS" are in the corner of every card. This set contains 78 cards, which are divided into two "arkanas": The Great Arkana, consisting paradoxically of only 22 cards, and the Small Arkana of 56 cards.
The background history and structure of the I Ching are better known since it had been intertwined with Chinese cultural history. According to Richard Wilhelm (1923), “four holy men are cited as the authors of the Book of Changes, namely, Fu Hsi, King Wen, the Duke of Chou, and Confucius” (p.lviii). The I Ching dates back to the Book of Changes of the Hsia dynasty (2205-1766 BC), called “Lien Shan”, followed by the Shang dynasty (1766-1150 BC), entitled “Kuei Ts'ang.”
Nonetheless, those editions had not been complete yet. The first complete book originated with King Wen, and his son the Duke of Chou. According to Wilhelm, “this form of the book, entitled the Changes of Chou (Chou I), was in use as an oracle throughout the Chou period” (p.lix). The Chou dynasty is dated from 1150-249 BC. Confucius probably added the “Commentary on The Decision” to the I Ching, which completes the book as we know it today (Wilhelm, 1923, p.lviii).
The I Ching dates from 3000 years ago and has been inspired by the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. The I Ching has had a great influence on traditions and cultures since it has even inspired science and politics in China (Wilhelm, 1923, p.xlvii). Such a historical background shows how rich and enlightening the texts are and for how many different purposes they can serve.
The book consists of eight trigrams that are symbols for changing states. There are 64 signs, with each containing 6 lines, called hexagrams that are either positive or negative. The positive lines are called yang, to which brightness is attributed, and the negative lines are called yin, which represents darkness. Both yang and yin are unified in a circle as the contradicting “light and shadow” called TAO, which could be phrased as the universal law of everything and the solution to all contradictions.
After these previews it is important now to distinguish these oracles from other types they are commonly associated with. For example, if asked how people imagined a session with a fortuneteller, they are inclined to describe a crystal ball in a dark room with a mysterious speaker who predicts that two years from now you will receive a letter that changes your life. Now the listener has not a clue whether the information given is true or not, and he or she will have to wait the predicted amount of time to prove the fortuneteller either right or wrong.
Not so in Tarot nor I Ching. They do not merely predict fate or something that is going to happen some day in the future. The answer they provide you with are precise and begin with the immediate past or present and indicate what could happen in the future. The word could perfectly proves that it does not have to be so. As a result, it is not surprising that the I Ching is called the Book of Changes, for it is meant for the one who acts and shapes his fate rather than for passive people who sit and wait for the event to arrive. According to Wilhelm (1923), the “book of divination had to become a book of wisdom” (p.liii), when the first person did not consent to mere (passive) predictions but asked what ought to be done actively in the particular case or matter.
In fact, fortunetelling put this way expects us to go ahead and shape our destiny, meaning that actions lie in our own hands; we are responsible for the results we attain in life. Tarot cards and I Ching, which are both used as oracles, have a particular need for action. Without the following and impending act that is suggested to the reader, most of the predictions cannot and will not come true.
Thus, the oracles do not provide you with mere statements but with predictions that are dependent on and an incentive for action. To give an ordinary common place example, students terrified before an oncoming exam will not get the answer that they will obtain a good mark in the future. The predictions would be very realistic, such as, you will receive a good mark but you need to do the following to achieve it. There would be points such as studying hard, dedicating oneself, not going out etc. This example may seem banal but it simply proves the way the oracle operates.
The oracle is used to illuminate a matter. It is more a problem-solving tool and therefore should feel at home in the field of psychology. The way I associate with my oracle is perceiving it as a means of obtaining the perfect advice from the most exalted sage. The sage is not to be viewed as a real person but rather as the spirit of the book that communicates with us through the I Ching. 

This sage, however, knows perfectly well the human mind, nature, the course of time with its unforeseen incidents, and the mechanism of the universe itself. As Jung (1949) states about this process, the “method of I Ching does indeed take into account the hidden individual quality in things and men, and in one's own unconscious self as well” (p.xxviii). The sage, then, becomes the undefined and mysterious TAO.
In defining the oracles, one must inevitably ask oneself whether everyone can make use of these oracles or whether one has to be chosen for this task. In fact, the oracles place themselves above the level of ordinary sooth-saying for it is meant for the “unconscious in man to become active. All individuals are not equally fitted to consult the oracle. It requires a clear and tranquil mind, receptive to the cosmos influences hidden” (Wilhelm, 1923, p.liv).
People who consult the oracle must be in the TAO, which means that they ought to be in a relaxed, calm state of mind. As a matter of fact, a certain, fixed concentration on the oracle precedes in order to achieve harmony with the universe and then to be able to obtain a reliable answer on the subject, regardless of whether it is through pulling random cards or throwing coins. It becomes more than the action itself might suggest, for now we enter a new field that speaks to us in the form of our unconscious mind. The cards that the individual chooses in a specific moment become the means of revelation of the unconscious self in that precise momentarily state.
There is an obvious cultural discrepancy in the perception of time. The Western way of thinking is critical and analytical, divided into cause and effect. The causes of an action lead to a certain result. However, there is no possible explanation of unforeseen incidents that could occur on their own, without being caused by someone.
The Eastern culture comprehends time differently and does not proceed with a scientific, mathematical approach. The Eastern mind perceives time in a rather curious, irrational way. Time is seen as a long, endless-seeming stream of conscious awareness. Therefore, the present state of the being is the most valid state, for it is only the present on which we have influence and which we actually perceive.

As Jung states, "whatever happens in a given moment possesses inevitably the quality peculiar to that moment" (1949, p.xxiii). A moment is peculiar to itself and cannot possibly be repeated twice. There is something relatively unique in a moment that carries its own characteristics. Jung calls this peculiarity "synchronicity" (1949, p.xxiv), which means that all actions that take place in a single instant are combined simultaneously.
However, I think it better to describe it as a moment's momentum. Every moment has its own momentum since how hard you may try to repeat the moment, it becomes distorted, for not all the conditions can be consciously taken into account. For example, the same event, such as a birthday party each year might have similarities but can never be the same. You may invite the same people all over again, play the same games, yet you will never really achieve the identical momentum

There is no way that a moment can be stopped nor be prevented. The moment is a point of a river that flows towards its next momentum, and this continuing process adds on to the long stream of the river as a whole. Put another way, each moment with its inevitable character of the momentum is like a dot, and all these dots finally end up in a perceived line.
That special perception of time gives insight into the process of the oracle. The oracle perceives this momentum and traces it forth in time, showing what is necessary to be done in order to get where one eventually plans to be. The oracle delivers a map that is designed for the one who consults it, who then becomes the captain. It is the captain who makes the final decision on which path to take.
As I noted earlier, the oracle reveals the way our unconsciousness works. Up to this point, I referred to the TAO as an unknown, mysterious “tool,” being the universal law with which the phenomenon of precognition works. But now let us ignore the TAO for a moment and look at the process from a different angle, from the angle of the pure unconscious mind of the captain

Watts compares the interpretation of an oracle with the Rohrschach tests, where complex ink-blots form spontaneous images in the patient's head. Watts surmises that if the patient could “interpret his own projections upon the ink-blot, he would have some useful information about himself for the guidance of his future conduct. In view of this, we cannot dismiss the divinatory art of the I Ching as mere superstition” (1957, p.14). 

Basically, the unconscious has controlled which cards to choose, and it was the unconscious that controlled the throw of coins in a specific way to obtain the appropriate sign. It is therefore the individual mind that draws upon his or her own experiences to interpret the given answer. It is the captain's personality that determines the information given by the oracle. The map becomes useless to those who do not know how to read it.
Nevertheless, it is possible that the individual distorts the given answer in order to get the wished-for answer, for one finds it hard to accept the truth sometimes. To find the evidence for my own belief I have put the oracle to test on several occasions, and they have not disappointed me in their predictions. My trust and confidence have grown in the course of more than two decades of studying the oracle. It needs a lot of time and appreciation to find firm, solid results; they cannot be achieved by quick experiments. Since the momentum cannot be repeated twice, consulting the oracle twice about corresponding matters is not really possible. There is a saying that the master speaks only once.
The main thing is to first appreciate the oracle as an actual way of expanding one's horizons, and then, after being convinced, to accept it, not as mere superstition nor as a special kind of ESP, but as helpful, true advice that comes from the heart and contains thousands of years of wisdom and experience.


Banzhaf, Hajo (1993). Das Arbeitsbuch zum Tarot. Munich: Hugendubel.
Myers, David G. (1995). Psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth.
Watts, Alan W. (1957). The Way of Zen. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wilhelm, Richard, & Baynes, Cary F. (1967). The I Ching or Book of Changes. New Jersey: Bollingen Foundation.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ethical Complications of Sperm Donation in the Movie "The Kids Are All Right"

Family scene of "The kids are all right" with sperm donor and biological father

The American comedy-drama, or dramedy, The Kids Are All Right, is about a lesbian couple raising a teenage boy and girl. One day, driven by curiosity, the kids decide to meet their biological father, their sperm donor. When the family comes face to face with him, the complications arise, as he, an aimless, lonely, and moderately successful entrepreneur wants to live his dream of becoming a family man.

There has been a string of Hollywood movies recently on the once-taboo topic of sperm donation. For some reason, Hollywood considers this issue both modern and funny. I must admit that I have not seen other “sperm” movies, such as The Back-up Plan and The Switch. But strangely enough, this particular movie is, despite all its twists and turns (lesbian moms, sperm donation, gay sex), an All-American movie reaffirming general family values.

Yet, most importantly, the movie takes a realistic look at sperm donation and its effects on the family. The issues are not trivialized and there are no cheap laughs. Although certain entanglements may be reminiscent of sitcoms, the acting and script elevate the movie above and beyond television shows.

The movie speculates about a complicated issue that arises out of sperm donation: Should it remain an anonymous procedure or should the parties involved have the opportunity - at their request and with permission - to contact each other?

First, from the sperm donor's point of view, it must be certainly bizarre. In the movie, the character Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo) “donated” in his youth and did it simply for money without fully considering its ethical consequences. It is more fun than donating blood, he chuckles about his decision to his biological son! Now that's funny.

The movie also muses ironically on the question about who in their "right mind" would actually donate sperm and that sperm donors must be ipso facto “weird.” Not a comforting thought for people who might be seriously considering this option.

If I had “donated” myself in the past, I would be paranoid and constantly on the lookout. Any kid who even remotely resembled me and my features would give me the creeps. What if I was facing my son or daughter right there on the street without knowing it?

There would be a strange appealing aspect to it though. I would take comfort in the idea that somehow or other my genes were "preserved" and continued in the world “out there.” It was having a kid without needing to raise them, something that Paul, the male character in the movie must have cherished too: A ready-made packaged family without having to spend years of turmoil and hardship – not to mention money - to raise them.

On the other hand, it must be an odd situation on the “receiving end,” in particular the kids that are involved. It is a natural curiosity to want to meet one's biological father. Who is he and how is he and what do we have in common? It goes back to the mythical questions of where we come from. The result may be shocking in some cases, just ask Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader of Star Wars!

The parents, whether hetero- or homosexual, must also feel strange and uncomfortable about it, something the movie explores to a certain extent. There you are, face to face with the “father” of your children. There are undoubtedly similarities both physically and mentally between them. There are even gestures of your children that are reflected on this stranger's face. It raises the intricate and complex question about who this man is and how a “handful” of sperm can weave and connect the lives of so many people. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Stability and Comfort of Routine in Jobs and Relationships

Shot of flowing water from a fountain

Routine is shunned by many people, especially those who thrive on thrills and adventure. They may complain that routine is a cousin of boredom, while life should be exciting. They find that life is dulled with the sharp poison of dreary routine. Although I understand their point of view, I do not think they are doing routine justice.

Everyday life does not need to be boring. When you have routine you have structure and when you have structure your life is given stability. And most people prefer order over chaos; order is grasped more easily, and it creates a zone of comfort because of its predictability. A business organization without structure, for example, would not provide many benefits and for your business to succeed, you would have to cross the hills and valleys of routine first.

The same applies to jobs in general. Most jobs are exciting at first, but lose their glamor after a while. When your job has become routine, it also means that you have probably become comfortable in and with it. You have learned the ropes and believe that you have enough experience to get the job done. At the same time, provided your job is worthwhile, you will be given an opportunity of stable income and possibly pension and so on. In other words, it would be a job with a future.

When it comes to relationships, routine happens when you have been and lived together for a sustained period of time. Then the “magic” of love gives way to the comfort of routine. You know your partner well enough, know what ticks them off, what pleases them most and how they react under certain circumstances. You lose out on the excitement of figuring it all out because you have already been together for enough time to know each other really, almost too, well. Of course, you will still be occasionally taken aback by an unexpected action or reaction, but, all in all, your partner becomes predictable like an open book.

This is the time when many of us – men - may get cold feet and run away. It is the fear of commitment because with it come not only stability but also routine. Many fear that routine in a relationship will kill love and drown excitement. But I think all that happens is that your relationship reaches the next level. It becomes companionship.

Other dimensions are added to love; in other words, you are moving across stages. It does not necessary mean that one is better than another, but it is a period of growth, the same way we move from adolescence to adulthood. Getting stuck or choosing to remain in one stage does nobody a service, and it is self-deceptive.

Despite its obvious disadvantages, routine has important things to offer in life. Comfort and stability are only two aspects, and it may be time for those who dread their routine to “give routine a chance” and change their mind and opinion about it and embrace it as a necessary, perhaps even unexpectedly pleasant, part of life.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Divine Grace of God versus Spiritual Effort and Discipline

Crucial moment of inspiration and change for philosopher St. Augustine

St. Augustine claims that one is saved not through one's actions but through the Grace of God. No matter how much you may repent or how many good deeds you can claim to your name, it will be ultimately God's own personal decision to save you from eternal damnation.

Throughout religious history in the Western world this has been an important factor. Martin Luther picked up that idea and gave faith more importance than before. It became essentially your faith that saved you.

Therefore, many believed that if you have faith in Jesus before you die, you will have the opportunity to gain entrance to heaven because Jesus represented God's Grace directly. The last rites became a grave matter of (eternal) life and death. It was seen as the soul's ultimate struggle.

How convenient, many may say. You lead a life of sin, pleasure, corruption, violence, and at the final moment before death, you suddenly have faith, accept Christ and all's well that ends well. This, by the way, applies to dear St. Augustine himself. It is only after a life of impulsive sexual escapades that he decided to embrace religion, and then he claims that sex is actually bad for the spiritual path. It is all in hindsight, but let us please at least have the same type of experience / fun before we learn from our erroneous ways and turn passionately to religion.

There is a touch of dishonesty or affectation at work here. Although faith is both relevant and important, it cannot or should not be the determining factor. In the Catholic doctrine there is the belief of acts of charity and generosity asking people to act out of the goodness of their hearts but at the same time the Catholic religion still insists on the sacraments. The Muslims make sure they help the poor and needy by contributing a certain percentage of their earnings to them although likewise in their doctrine God's Grace overrides any amount of good deeds.

And the Protestant or Puritan Work Ethic, reshaping and reworking the Lutheran philosophy, placed importance on work. Work hard on this Earth and you will have riches in heaven. The property and money you have down here will be transferred to your “bank account” in heaven.

Although the latter has a strong capitalistic flair to it, it was still more focused on actions and deeds than merely having faith and hoping God will interfere and make all well. At the same time, there was an implicit clause of divine grace, the fine print so-to-speak: Only those predetermined and designated by God, the so-called Elect, had a chance of making it to heaven (but you generally had no way of knowing beforehand).

Contrary to our Western concept of “divine grace,” the Eastern tradition has focused more on spiritual practice and discipline. Following the concept of karma, we are living in a world of give and take, a world of our own making. The Buddhists claim that if you put a lot of effort in our endeavors and you live and practice the Eightfold Path, you will be rewarded with spiritual insight. Furthermore, the practice of meditation is used as a tool toward reaching understanding, self-awareness, and - perhaps eventually – spiritual enlightenment.

It will “cost” us, in the sense of having to work hard for it, but it will be ultimately rewarding. Our daily life is based on that premise, whereas strangely enough most of our religious beliefs are not. Many still hold onto the un-existential belief that faith can at anytime overpower one's lifetime of acts and that faith is the miracle wonder drug that makes you immune against all accusations of wrongdoing.

Albeit important, faith should not be used as an excuse for lack of integrity; in the meantime, one's beliefs should be directly reflected in and embedded within one's life. And no matter what belief system you follow, the good and honest people of any denomination should have an equal chance of getting to heaven - that is, if there is such a place.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dexter and Pinocchio: What it Means for Serial Killers and Marionettes to Become Human

Wooden puppet Pinocchio walking around in town among people

The acclaimed series Dexter is about a forensic blood spatter pattern expert working closely with the Miami-Dade Homicide Department while battling with his own homicidal impulses. As a young child, he had witnessed the bloody and gruesome murder of his mother and it is said that this experience has turned him into the monster he is.

The young boy Dexter is adopted by a police officer called Harry Morgan. Harry becomes aware of the serial killer impulses of his adopted son and tries his best to help him manage those homicidal tendencies. As a result, his father comes up with a “code of ethics,” called simply “Harry's code.”

Apart from the obvious rule of not getting caught, there are others, such as killing only those who are bad guys, criminals who have escaped through the loopholes and meshes of the law, and who have caused and - continue to cause - harm and damage to people and society. Dexter is a serial killer turned into a Batman-like hero and vigilante. The series claims that even serial killers could be useful to society if only they channeled their energies toward killing people who are similar to them!

The series is a psychological portrayal of a serial killer fighting with his own impulses. He knows that killing is bad, but at the same time, he is addicted to it like a gambler to his game or an alcoholic to her booze. He needs that rush and release of pent-up energy and gets this satisfaction by “removing” evil people from the face of the earth. His code states that he should never kill an innocent person, and he tries religiously to abide by that rule. (The emphasis lies on tries because inevitably even a disciplined killer like Dexter may have a slip-up). In other words, Dexter's serial killer instincts and tendencies define him as the person, or rather the monster, he is in reality.

So what do Pinocchio and Dexter have in common? It is the quest for becoming human. Both are different in the eyes of the world. Pinocchio is a pine-eyed wooden marionette; he is a lifeless creature different from all the other boys out there. No matter how hard he tries he can never fit in. What he wants most is to be like the others, but perhaps even more importantly, to have a heart, the feature that figuratively gives us our humanity.

The same applies to Dexter. The show is based on a series of novels starting with the 2004 book Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. Incidentally, the author had originally planned to call his book Pinocchio bleeds. Dexter, like Pinocchio, is trying to become human, yet he is forced to hide himself and his secret; only occasionally when he is able to release that “burden” and when he discloses his predicament, he gets a glimpse and sense of what true companionship would be like. Unfortunately, it is not the type of secret that you can open up to those close to you, since the other person's first impulse would be to call the police. Dexter's own sister, on the other hand, would not even have to call anybody being a cop herself.

So who could Dexter possibly open up to? The answer: Like-minded serial killers. Those with whom he shares the same struggles. In fact, he feels admiration for some who are really good at their “craft” and wishes to find out and learn how they do it. Life is difficult for serial killers as they can get lonely and there is no official club or member meeting to deal with those issues (jail does not count).

As Dexter is confronting life, he also has to deal with all that goes with it. So he experiences different roles. He is a co-worker, a brother, a friend, but more importantly also a husband and a father. As he is going through his journey, he is under the impression that he lacks any real emotion or feeling, since like Pinocchio he has no heart (but unlike Pinocchio his nose does not grow when he lies, otherwise the series would not have lasted that long).

It raises an interesting question, namely that if people with no feelings can indeed acquire them. We read about horrible criminal acts and most of them reveal that the perpetrator, the cold-blooded serial killer, lacks any form of empathy or emotions. One needs cold blood to be able to act out those chilling deeds without any remorse or conscience. Does Dexter have remorse? The answer is yes, particularly because, Harry's code of ethics aside, he has an innate strong sense of justice.

What about Pinocchio? He acts like any normal boy would, getting into trouble and causing mischief. And he lies. But he realizes one major difference between him and the other boys: he is not human. This realization also occurs to David, the boy in Spielberg's A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) who as a “mecha” (mechanical being) - a human android programmed to love and created by Cybertronics - is “built” differently and is not "orga" (organic) like those of flesh and blood.

Pinocchio's dream is rather unrealistic. But in the end, Pinocchio redeems himself. Through his good acts and honesty, the marionette turns into flesh and becomes human. (In terms of allegory, one could say he turns from the body of flesh to spirit, but that might be reading too much into the novel.) At the end anyhow, Pinocchio is then just like any other boy, of flesh and blood, thanks to the magical touch of the Blue-haired Fairy.

What about Dexter? This remains to be seen. But mainly, Dexter Morgan is willing to change and would like to become human just like Pinocchio. He knows that there is something wrong with him; at the same time, he is also aware that his traumatic experiences of the past have shaped him the way he is. He would need to heal those deep wounds, revive life and feelings within, and conquer the dark abyss inside himself.

Yet reality is not a fairy tale. Unless Dexter gets a night visit from the Blue Fairy, his future may be rather bleak. Serial killers suffer from an incurable disease, and there are, to my knowledge, no cured or reformed ex-serial killers living happily in society. In fact, by definition "once a serial killer, always a serial killer" since one of their characteristics is to continue killing until the very end. This is why when police are confronted with cases of serial killers, they hope for one of these options: either that the serial killer is caught, or that he or she dies or is killed.

So is there no hope for serial killers? I believe not. I doubt that even heavy medication and therapy could cure serial killers of their twisted sealed fate, from that “obscure passenger of darkness” within. But I cannot shake off the idealist within me that - despite evidence to the contrary - keeps on believing that humans are capable of becoming and being human.

The tales of Pinocchio and Dexter demonstrate that humanity is something that needs to be earned; it is not an automatic process. Likewise, you do not become a parent just by having children. Technically and on paper, yes, but in reality, there is more to it; one needs to open up and embrace life and, most of all, learn the ropes and challenges of what it actually means to be a true human being. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ennui, Boredom and Having Absolutely No Time to Waste

Painting of a bored queen

Here's an inspirational post about an un-inspirational topic: Boredom. Boredom seems to be part of life. It is everywhere you go. You get bored with your job, your relationship, your holidays, your life. There is no time limit to boredom either. It can last from a minute to a lifetime.

What is boredom really? There are different types of boredom. Some of it may be dissatisfaction. You may be dissatisfied with a certain situation or outcome. You wished your job were exciting, but all you do is twiddle your thumbs all day long. It can also be disappointment. You were expecting your partner to be a stand-up comedian and amazing in bed but after a while living together you realize he or she has nothing to say, nor anything interesting up their sleeves.

Boredom is also frustration. You would like to change a situation but feel incapable of doing so for whatever reason. Or you feel stuck in an uninteresting situation like an endless family dinner with pointless discussions and little to stimulate the imagination. Or you are trapped in an activity that is all but fun or interesting. Routine may be comforting for some but can be boring for many others. It lacks originality; it is predictable; it is, in other words, boring!

Yet the most famous and most symptomatic type of boredom has the fancy French term “ennui” and has been a trademark of the bourgeoisie. The higher classes have obviously less economic woes, not having to work for their lives and as a result, they tend to have too much extra time with too little to do. Kierkegaard complained about this kind of boredom which he considered a “disease” and the "root of all evil," whereas French writer Flaubert complained about this all-engulfing sense of restless boredom, yet somehow managed to turn it into an art form. 

So is boredom any good for you? I think not. Boredom is actually, to use a tautology, a waste of time. By this I mean you are letting precious time and energy go to waste; you are throwing it all away. It is like a poison that slowly fills you up and then anything you see, taste or touch becomes bitter.

In these moments, boredom is close kin to depression. You feel unfulfilled and nothing can really fill you up. There are so many things you do not acknowledge because of your obsession with boredom itself. All the while, precious time is ticking away continuously, soundlessly, and endlessly.

The problem with this is the fact that our “stay” in this life is generally limited. It is a big portion - add to it being stuck in traffic or elevators, waiting in line and sleeping – that we are throwing to the dogs; these are potentially wonderful moments we leave unused and unattended. We need to break out of this vicious cycle, the karma of boredom and being bored.

Next time look around when you feel bored. Take a walk in the rain. Give someone close to you a hug. Stay away from boring people. Watch a movie that excites your imagination and fills you with laughter (just don't watch a boring movie!). In those moments you need to remind yourself most of what life has to offer if only you stripped yourself free from the impulse of boredom. And worse comes to worst you can always drop by and visit Arash's World to read articles that are exempt of boredom. Or so I hope!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Maya and the Illusion of Perception and Reality in the World

Lena Olin in Unbearable Lightness of Being
In the Hindu and Buddhist tradition there is the mention of Maya, which is generally defined as the illusion we face in our everyday lives. It is Maya (literally meaning “Not-That”) that blocks our true perception of Reality, Truth and the real meaning of life.

But where exactly does this illusion lie? In other words, what creates this illusion or gap between our perception of the world and its reality, the “such-ness” of the world. Is it inherent in the source itself; is the world itself not real but an illusion, or does the problem exist because of our “perception” of the world? Does it reside in our minds then?

It is a worthwhile question. If what looks like reality is indeed reality, if there is a “real” material world out there, then we would not have to doubt it anymore. Instead it would become a psychological matter of “cleansing” the mind, of attempting to see things as they really are.

I would spend less time philosophically and existentially on examining (the) matter, but will see and accept everything as truly and undoubtedly there. Seeing will be believing. And I would say, hey listen, Descartes, the world out there exists, I exist as well, now let us synchronize the two and achieve a vision of truth and reality. We do not look at the world existentially anymore, but rather psychologically.

This is not Plato's posture, however. To Plato the world is simply appearance. All things have a perfect eternal source, but the way they appear is only its copy, an imprint, an imitation. The Form is itself the true object while many diminutive forms exist in the world. It is like a fax; the imprint is the same, but it is only a copy of the original document. At its extreme, all things on Earth no matter how faithful they look are “forgeries” then.

What would such a worldview entail? This would mean that we need to “train” our mind to be able to see through things as they appear in order to get a glimpse of its real ultimate Source or Form. This is, in Platonic tradition, achieved through reason and deductive logic.

Still there would be a gap there that could be filled with the concept of God or a Supreme Being. The highest good there is would be perfect and eternal in nature, just as the monotheistic religious tradition claims. The world we see in our daily lives are only shadows on the wall compared to the true life and meaning in the other heavenly world. That was one of the reasons why Plato became a perfect mouthpiece for the Christian religion.

On the other hand, to return to our first argument, if the world is the Form itself – if the two of them are identical and match perfectly - then there would be nothing beyond our world; therefore, an idea about a Platonic Form as the real essence would be a case of faulty thinking or simply Maya. If the Reality is there, right in front of our noses, it is our own fault of being too blind or too confused to perceive it as it is.

Which one is it then? There is an example in Buddhist thought that may be reconciled with Plato's ideas. It goes with the saying that the map is not the territory or that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself. In my opinion, this is true.

The world as we see it is in fact a perfect case of illusion. With modern technology we have been able to delve deeper into the subatomic world and there is definitely more than meets the eye. These findings will have sooner or later repercussions on our religious and philosophical beliefs.

The world becomes then a veil created, sustained and incorporated by the Cosmos. Now the Cosmos could be the embodiment of Brahman in the Hindu tradition or God as defined in the Christian tradition. This view, however, would mean that God is the world and that has a mystic flavor to it (what some Christians would define as a "bitter taste"). It can be reconciled with Plato's views and is Spinozian in nature.

And at this point, we have suddenly turned full circle and combined what seemed like a gap between two perceptions. Perhaps the world is really one whole, both interacting and harmonious within its little parts or monads, as Leibniz would say. Maya may lie in the faulty assumption that there is indeed any gap between the two. One is the other the same way drops make up the ocean.

At best, this is a positive and comforting conclusion and may satisfy and embrace most religions. At its worst, it may add to the endless pathways of Maya. It would be then like looking from a mirror into a reflection in a mirror with absolutely no idea which the real source is or whether such a thing actually exists. We would be caught up in an indeterminate web of self-propagating lies and mirrored deception with nothing solid to fall back on. For better or worse, I prefer the previous option.