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Mr. g is God, but small g god. Probably not the one you were taught about. He is the protagonist of a novel carrying his name written by Alan Lightman.

Right off, I’ll say that Mr. g, the book, worked for me because he is the god I have come to believe exists. If I had to explain him to you or hang a label on this god, I would say look up “Deism.”

Deism is something I have so far only touched lightly on here in the past. It is the belief in a supreme being,  a creator, who could but chooses not to intervene in the universe.

It is not a new belief. It was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that took in a number of the founding fathers of the United States. They accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.

This “fictional God” (we could have a discussion about that term) exists in a Void before any creation along with his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva. I cannot explain who they represent or even why they exist. I understand why the Creator couldn’t have creator parents but…

Mr g is omnipotent but not omniscient. He creates universes. He put creatures into one. And then he lets it go on its own. (I was going to say he lets it evolve but that is a troublesome word.) It is trial and error. Though he has created rules/laws for these universes, he is surprised by what occurs.

There is also Belhor and his toadies living in the Void. Is B the Devil or just a way to question and challenge him and allow him to explain things.

The book actually avoids outright talk of religion, though the idea of a soul or something that lives on beyond the mortal life is brought up by Uncle Deva. But, like Deism, if a religion, it is one whose followers believe in a God who “created the universe, established its rules of behavior, set it going, left, and
hasn’t been seen since.”

I depart from that description in that I believe that his God can and may occasionally interfere with the course of human events, as Mr. g does once in the book.

A creator God as all-powerful but not all-knowing is probably not a comfortable fit for most readers.

Lightman also wrote Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of stories that are dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as he ponders in his waking life time, relativity and physics.

Each dream/story explores another possibility. In one dream, time is circular and we are fated to repeat the good and bad over and over. But in another one, time stands still and people cling desperately to what they have in fear of it going away.

Lightman teaches in the humanities at MIT and his books span science, theology, and philosophy. Sometimes, as with Mr. g,  he both ignores and observes the questions that arise when those three things cross paths.

Albert Einstein once said “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

http://www.deism.com/

http://www.religioustolerance.org/deism.htm

https://cmsw.mit.edu/alan-lightman/

 

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I’m not a star seed. I didn’t even know there was the possibility that I could be until this week. I’m still not so sure that anyone might be one.

I am sure that we are made of stardust, just as Joni Mitchell sang in “Woodstock.”

Science bears this idea out – “Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.”

But Star Seeds are way beyond that. Star Seeds are defined as beings that have experienced life elsewhere in the Universe on other planets and in non-physical dimensions other than on Earth. They may also have had previous life times on earth.

Also known as Star People, this New Age belief seems to have been introduced by Brad Steiger, a very prolific writer of oddities, in his book Gods of Aquarius. He posited that people originated as extraterrestrials and arrived on Earth through birth or as a walk-in to an existing human body.

Alien-human hybrids sends my mind right to some X-Files episodes and more than a few science-fiction tales. Going back further, there are “star people” in some Native American spiritual mythologies.

Steiger said that one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Philip K. Dick, had written to him in the late 1970s to say he thought he might be one of the star people, and that his novel VALIS contained related themes.

There are several websites listing characteristics of a Star Seed – and I definitely have a few of them – but I don’t think I am one of them.

But humans are made of stardust, in that humans and their galaxy have about 97 percent of the same kind of atoms. The building blocks of life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur and fairly recently astronomers have cataloged the abundance of these elements in a huge sample of stars.

A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. If you can still find a local bookstore, there is a good chance that a shelf or wall is devoted to books of this genre.

These books take their name from a book actually titled Self-Help. It was a 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles. That name and author is for real. Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), was a Scottish author and government reformer, and his book promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits. The book has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism” and made him quite a celebrity.

Well before that, a book of manners published in 1558 suggests: ‘It is also an unpleasant habit to lift another person’s wine or his food to your nose and smell it’.”  I agree.

But guides to how to live your life are even older. It could be argued that the ancient Egyptian “Codes” of conduct and the Bible were self-help or at least partially intended for self-improvement.

I have very strong memories of Charles Atlas who ran ads in almost every comic book I read as a kid. As a weakling 12-year-old reading a Superman comic, the idea of using  “dynamic tension”  to become really strong and avoid bullies “kicking sand in your face” was very appealing. Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder who came up with a system of physical exercise back in the 1920s, but the ads were running strong in the 1960s. (“Dynamic Tension” is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd and their website still looks a lot like those ads from almost a 100 years ago.)

The Charles Atlas method was all about putting muscle against muscle. No weights or equipment needed. That was very appealing to a kid with only a weekly allowance. We even did a variation of this in our school gym classes that the teachers called “isometrics.” I recall a gym teacher telling us, “Look at lions and tigers. They don’t use any equipment. they stretch and push muscle against muscle.” it made sense to me.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was probably the first book I ever encountered on a bookshelf that was clearly “self-help.” It is one of the first best-selling self-help books and was first published in 1936. It is also still around. (Self-help books have legs!) It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books.

Like Charles Atlas, Carnegie’s self-help promises sound really tempting: make people like you; win people to your way of thinking; change people without arousing resentment.

One topic that has perennial appeal is love. In the Middle Ages, there were “Conduir-amour” – guides in love matters – published.  In classical Rome, Cicero’s On Friendship and On Duties and Ovid’s Art of Love even produced a sequel – Remedy of Love. They are the forerunners of the many volumes published about where to go to meet mates (most of them are intended for male readers), how to start a conversation, keep them interested, and ultimately how to have the best sex.

I think there is probably some good advice in all these self-help books. But I, like most of you, am lazy. We want really fast and easy ways to solve our problems.  10-Minute Mindfulness: 71 Habits for Living in the Present Moment sure sounds easier than easier than going away for a Zen retreat weekend and sitting uncomfortably for hours. Remember those 1-minute manager books? Yeah, I’ve got a minute. Change my life.

Sometimes we need help but part of the help we need is to be motivated to read a book that will help us.

By the BookAnd so, as I have posted a few times about podcasts I currently enjoy, I must recommend one for all of us lazy types that need help. It is By the Book, a self-help book podcast in which the hosts – comedian Jolenta Greenberg and serious skeptic Kristen Meinzer – test out self-help books for us.

In each episode, they live by the rules of a different self-help book for two weeks and report back on what worked and what didn’t. You can grab the nuggets of wisdom from each book without having to buy it or read it.

Of course, there is the possibility that a book might actually be life-changing.

I first knew of Kristen by going on many Movie Date[s] with her. She was the co-host of the much-missed Movie Date podcast where Rafer Guzman weekly pretended that he was on the date with Kristen. (She has since married and so our movie dates ended.) But now I have By the Book, which just finished its first season, and it is funny, irreverent, thoughtful, highly personal and a great listen. And it is free. You can’t lose. Money-back guarantee.

The show also has a nice community on Facebook where I seem to be one of the few (perhaps the only) male participant. What’s up with that? Are guys not even able to admit to needing help?

I got to thinking that maybe the ladies should test out a self-help book for guys (their husbands show up in the podcasts, so they might help). I did a search on self-help books for men about love and the  search results were frightening – almost all books for women about men. They ranged from how to get a guy – The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More! through How to Get & Keep The Man of Your Dreams: by Staying True to Your Core Self  – all the way to the land of F*CK Him! – Nice Girls Always Finish Single – “A guide for sassy women who want to get back in control of their love life” (The Truth about his weird behavior, … of commitment and sudden loss of interest). Long titles are clearly key to self-help success.

I did not buy any of those titles for my wife.  Instead, maybe I will read 100 Ways to Love Your Wife: A Life-long Journey of Learning to Love Each Other. It was written by a guy, but it probably would have been better if it was written by a woman. As a pre-teen, I used to read my sister’s copies of Seventeen, Teen, Cosmopolitan et al because I figured those articles on “5 Ways to Get That Guy” would give me tips on how to get a girl or at least warn me about what they were plotting.

I didn’t buy the 100 Ways book. Maybe Kristen and Jolenta will read it and pick out 7 ways that are really good and I can use them for the week before our anniversary.


Want to browse the many opportunities you have for helping improve yourself?  Try this link.

 

 

 

I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

bildungsroman shirt

Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

I went to a workshop recently on using the I ChingThe I Ching is also known as Classic of Changes or Book of Changes. It is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. There are more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretations. It is an influential text and it is read throughout the world. Besides its use for divining the future, it has provided inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art.

It is a complicated book to study. I had a copy from my college days that I had annotated with tips on how to the read the toss of coins and the resulting hexagrams. But that copy was loaned to a girlfriend many years ago and never returned. I bought a used copy from Amazon a few weeks before the workshop and tried to relearn what I had once known about using it.

I was intrigued by a series of Post-It notes that the previous owner had left inside the book. Reading those notes took me back to my earlier uses of the text.

The previous owner had written her questions on pages with the hexagrams she received.

“Hexagram 31  What is my true calling?
Hexagram 49  How can I regain my sparkle and preserve?
How can I go about enforcing myself to go in the right direction regarding work and happiness together?
Hexagram 47 In what ways can I go about healing myself that I have not yet covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?
How can I ensure that I will make the right decisions to go down the right path?”

Those are big questions.

Working with this 5,000-year-old Chinese book of wisdom, some people turn to workbooks that are designed to help novice truth-seekers find meaning.

But this is 2017 and so there is no need to have the Book-of-Changes and Chinese coins. You can ask your question online, click six virtual coins and get your hexagram. I just did that.

I asked about whether I should continue teaching this year, as opposed to fully retiring. My answer was Hexagram 27. Here is the virtual version of the answer or guidance. It is simplified but not simple.

Hexagram 27
Beneath the immobile Mountain the arousing Thunder stirs.
The Superior Person preserves his freedom under oppressive conditions by watching what comes out of his mouth, as well as what goes in.

Endure and good fortune will come.
Nurture others in need, as if you were feeding yourself.
Take care not to provide sustenance for those who feed off others.
Stay as high as possible on the food chain.

You are a conduit in this instance, able to provide the sustenance needed by others. Position yourself to nourish the truly needy and worthy. Avoid situations where you might be coerced into supporting the parasites and vermin who deprive your true charges.
Your own nourishment is an issue here, too.

Remember Lao Tzu’s three Great Treasures: Only the person possessed of Compassion, Modesty and Frugality can remain fit enough to stay free of desperation and keep control of the situation

That is very open to interpretation – as with a horoscope, runes or tarot cards. What is my answer? Not clear.

The I Ching was originally used for divination. But it is not simple prognostication. Any serious user will tell you that that you, as the diviner, cultivate an understanding of the world and the self. Without this understanding, the text is useless. That is why most version have the commentaries.

Tomorrow, the tarot cards…

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