Comfort Zone

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Comfort Zone
Apr 202018

You can find the idea of a comfort zone in such expressions as “that is outside my comfort zone” – but what a comfort zone is in general, or what yours is in particular, is not all that easy to define. Overall, we feel safe in listing what is outside our comfort zone, but have a hard job describing what is inside it. The task is more a matter of empirical pragmatism than rigid definition. You know when you are not comfortable with something, or when you suspect you will not be comfortable with it (although you can be mistaken). Daily routines and habits are the bedrock of the comfort zone for most people.

My memes at the head of this post are certainly overgeneralized, and I don’t always practice what I preach. But I am trying to make a point – about myself more than about others. I find that being settled into a comfortable situation is often a trap for me. If I succumb to comfort because it is easy, I cease taking risks. Risks are important to me at this stage in my life. By “risk” I mean seizing an opportunity where the outcome could be gain or loss – and the loss is not something you can just shrug off. But the potential gain is worth the risk of the loss. Dangerous game, I know. But that is my life these days. Whenever I feel comfortable for too long, alarm bells go off in my head. Comfort makes me feel that I am merely existing, rather than truly living.

Habits have their place, of course, but they can be overdone. When I am working on a book I tend to get into a groove because it is efficient. If I were to throw all my writing habits to the winds and just sit down and write when I felt like it, I would get zero accomplished. I love writing once I get into it, but getting started is a challenge. So, I build a rigid timetable and stick to it. In most other spheres of my life I have few habits. I get up when I wake up and go to sleep when I am tired. I cook and eat what I want, when I want. “Breakfast food,” for example, is a completely alien concept to me. I don’t often eat what you might call breakfast anyway, but when I do make a morning meal, it is whatever I fancy. It could be soup or curry or macaroni – whatever.

I worked as a university professor in the same department in the same university for 35 years, which could have meant getting into routines, but I resisted. I did not always teach on the same days of the week, nor at the same times, and I varied my offerings (as much as possible) from year to year. What is more, I never gave the same lecture twice, even though many of my courses had the same syllabus (more or less) from year to year.

My lecturers at Oxford wrote their lectures and read them (without taking questions), so that once they had a set of lectures written, they read them year after year after year – maybe once in a while making minor changes or corrections. Needless to say, I stopped going to lectures after my first year. Sleeping at home in the mornings was simpler than sleeping through lectures. Some of my colleagues at my university read their lectures, but most used notes which they used year upon year. As a young professor I prepared notes because I was not confident in my ability to structure lectures. But once I was on solid ground I ditched the notes and spoke from memory. Things got a little convoluted once in a while because I tend to wander when I am lecturing, but I always had a firm idea of the points I wanted to get across, and some idea of how I wanted to illustrate them. I varied my illustrations as much as I could because I find repeating myself in lectures tedious. If I am bored by my own lectures, I can hardly expect my students to be interested.

Here is my paradox for you. Is risk taking my comfort zone? That question simply points out the complexity of the word “comfort.” My simple answer is, no, because risk taking is far from comfortable. Living for a year or two at a time in a different country is not comfortable. For five years I have lived in countries where I am not very good at the language, and, so, always have to think before I speak. The one big advantage is that I do not have to pay attention to the prattle that surrounds me when I walk on the streets. On the down side, I can rarely hold a decent conversation with a local. By the time I am halfway decent at the language I am packing my bags for my next move. This situation is the opposite of comfort.

Next month I have planned a trip to Nepal and Turkey en route to Italy where I have some business to conduct, and at the moment I am not thrilled by the prospect. Sure, I planned the trip because I want to see those places, but I am never especially comfortable dragging a suitcase around airports and hotels. I enjoy much of the experience once I am on the road, but I am not in any sense comfortable. To a degree, that’s the point – not to fester in one place, but to push myself to do things that do not make me comfortable, but which are worth doing anyway.

My next question should be obvious. What about you? Are you truly living or just existing? I am not claiming some kind of moral high ground here. Maybe you are happy existing in your comfort zone. Good for you. But maybe you feel trapped within your comfort zone, and don’t know how to escape. Well . . . there I have no answers for you, but even coming to the realization can be a start.


 Posted by at 2:36 pm

True Love

 Philosophy  Comments Off on True Love
Apr 182018

You can find a great deal of blather on social media and in self-help books these days about finding true love. One common theme is that you have to love yourself and have inner confidence in yourself before that magic moment arrives when you find THE ONE. Well, I am not a psychologist, self-help expert, nor especially knowledgeable about love and relationships either. My experience is really limited, and rather quirky. Furthermore, I don’t give advice, so don’t expect any. What I can do, as an anthropologist, is give you some historical and cultural perspective on the whole love thing and finding your one true love. To be clear – I am talking specifically about the love for a partner here, not all the other types like Christian love, brotherly love, love of ice cream etc. Those need other posts.

Most so-called experts (probably self-named) tend to agree that the whole Jerry McGuire, “You complete me” thing is tosh, and dangerous tosh at that. If you are not complete in yourself, you need help from a therapist, not a partner. But I want to dig deeper than that. I want to look at the whole soulmate idea: the idea that there is someone, somewhere who is just right for you. This idea, like romantic love, is really old, but has a checkered history.

In the Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes tell a story about humans as they originally were and what happened to them. They originally were double what humans are today with double of everything – legs, arms, heads, bodies. But the gods were angry with them because they were so self-satisfied, so they cut them in half down the middle. In consequence, humans now spend their time going around trying to find their “other half” – the half that they were cut apart from. In this fantastical scenario there is only one other person in the world who is the correct matching half. It’s meant to be an amusing fable but it gets at an important idea – there is one, and only one, person who is our perfect matching partner. This is a variant on the Jerry McGuire piece, and is not particularly useful for obvious reasons. God, or gods, or the spirit realm, have not hatched a devious plot/puzzle to keep us wandering around and guessing all of our lives until we find that one perfect match. That’s idiocy. In fact, the idea of a partner being ideally a romantic fit is not in any sense – historical or cultural – universal.

The norm historically and cross-culturally is for couples to marry because it is convenient to do so, and because they want sex and children who will carry on for them when they get old and die. It’s as much biological as psychological. When I taught this stuff in Italy I used to say to my classes, “Look around you and imagine you are living in a village 500 years ago. The boys and girls in this classroom are going to be your husbands and wives in a few years.” That is how it worked. Common people were not mobile, so they rarely met strangers outside their everyday orbit. They married the people they knew, and love was not necessarily an issue. You wouldn’t marry someone who outright repelled you, but otherwise you settled for what was available. Some cultures had matchmakers who could spread their nets a bit wider than the local village, but romantic love was still not the issue. Matchmakers were looking for compatibility at best – age, social status etc. – and that was supposed to be enough. If all was well, as suggested in Fiddler on the Roof, love might develop over time, but it was not guaranteed.

Arranged marriages are still quite widespread, in one fashion or another, around the world, and were absolutely the norm for European aristocracy for 100s of years. Marriages in noble households were about alliances, money, and power. Love was not an issue. But within this milieu there was also the idea of romantic love – often running counter to the necessities of pragmatic partnering. The Arthurian Cycle spread across France, Germany, and Britain at a time when gallant swordplay, honor on the battlefield, and knightly chivalry were dead (if they ever existed at all in the first place), and were looked back on as a Golden Age. Pure romantic love was held up as an ideal – often running counter to the realities of life. Thus, Lancelot burned with passion for Guinevere, even though she was Arthur’s wife. Tristan and Isolde were doomed lovers, and so on. The ideal of romantic love was held up as an impossible reality.

This ideal of the one true love lingered on in countless folk tales that most of us are familiar with via the Grimms – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and the like. These tales have been aided and abetted by novels in the vein of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, endlessly transmuted into modern movies and TV shows. “Happily ever after” is the bedrock of the contemporary rom com. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, if you have not figured it out already, but the idea of true love – the ONE true love – is made up.

OK – at this point you may decide I am just a cynical old git who lives alone because women cannot stand me, and stop reading. Bear with me. Just because the idea (or ideal) of true love is made up, does not mean it is worthless or pointless. In the modern world we have choices that people in previous centuries never had. That in itself creates a problem. Whereas 15th century villagers settled down with a partner they grew up with, had a family, and were content, we can cross continents, surf the internet, and generally spread our nets far and wide. In that context, the ideal of romantic love is both a blessing and a curse. We have so many choices that we can afford to be picky, and to hold out for just the right one – our one true love. The ideal becomes our target, because without it we would be lost. Unfortunately, with it we can also get lost.

Think of a restaurant menu. If you have a choice of 10 main dishes you can make up your mind fairly easily. But what if there are 10,000 dishes on the menu? In that case you have to have some fairly fixed principles to be able to zero in on a dish you will savor, otherwise you will just be selecting at random, and who knows what you might get? Dating in the modern world is analogous to that giant menu. Romantic love is the fixed principle that helps people sort out what they want to order. Unfortunately, it is not a particularly helpful principle.

I’d say, based on divorce statistics, that we are not very good at finding that one true love using the ideals of romantic love. It’s not just that the idea is made up – it’s really vague. “You will know it when you find it” is a common aphorism. Fat help. Care to be more specific than that?

I have known what I like to think of as true love twice in my life. But I have to be honest looking back. I framed the relationships in that way from the start. I was looking for true love and I found it. BUT . . . the relationships were not Snow White and Prince Charming (or Cathy and Heathcliff as we jointly called the second one). We put them in those terms to make sense of what we felt. They both fell apart because of the realities of life. We all need narratives to make sense of the vagaries of life. As long as we understand that they are narratives and not reality, we are on firm ground. Unfortunately, too many people in the modern world cannot tell the difference.

To be continued. . .




You Should Write a Book

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on You Should Write a Book
Apr 132018

Occasionally I will see a friend of mine regaled with the deathless statement “You should write a book” when that person has told the umpteenth story online about travel, misadventures, strange encounters and the like. I always have an immediate impulse to retch when I hear or see that phrase. No one ever says that to me, gracias a dios, because I do write books. Telling someone they should write a book displays a level of ignorance about the process, which is mind numbing enough, but it also undervalues the effort involved. In this respect writing can be compared to teaching as a profession that is undervalued.

Not everyone can teach. You should know that if you have ever been a student and had a bad teacher – which I am sure you have. As in most endeavors we have a bell curve. The majority of people who become teachers are fair to adequate at it (and can improve in time if they work at it), a small number are disastrous, and an equally small number are exceptional. That’s how the world works. The same is true of writing. I consider myself to be in that middle, average lump, but I work at it – every single day. I can’t imagine that I will ever be an exceptional writer – although one never knows. I am not now. Writing is a craft like any other. You have to keep doing it, and keep refining as you go. Getting help from critics and editors is an enormous help as you hone your skills.

Step one is, therefore, being a competent writer. But that is the beginning of the journey, only. Being confident that what you have in mind to write about is worth reading is step two. Here narcissism can raise its pretty head. I am prey to this impulse all the time – “I think my writing is important, so, it must be important.” Wrong !! This mistake can be compounded by friends who like your writing (and want you to write a book). Your friends are not likely to be helpful in judging whether a book is good or not. They are your friends. They like you. Of course they will like your stories. But what about total strangers? Can you captivate them? Therein you may learn a hard lesson.

This realization leads to step three: finding a publisher. You can go the self-publishing route, of course, but this means that you are really just writing for your friends, and you will find no end of vanity presses willing to take your money while they heap lavish praise on your work. That’s a fool’s game. Getting a genuine press interested in your book is HARD WORK. Here the issue is plain and simple – the same in every profession: MONEY. Publishers can certainly agree that your book is “interesting” or whatever, and they may really mean it. That is beside the point. Publishers have to spend a great deal of money in producing a book and they need to know that they are going to get it back with profit. This is always a bit of a guessing game, but it is the reality. Publishers do not like to take risks with their money. They need to have a reasonable expectation that there is an audience for your book, which means that they are much more likely to go with something that is part of a tried and true market, than something brand new. Originality is not valued. Ask J.K. Rowling. She had to traipse around scores of publishers because none of them could see who would be interested in a book about a boy who was a magician. Now magic is all the rage because Rowling did all the leg work in proving it would sell.

I am on step three right now, and I can tell you that it is a tough, depressing slog. The mantra has to be NEVER GIVE UP. It’s all you have to go on. At the moment my writing is treading a fine line between original and conventional. Should I ever secure a publisher who is interested in more than one book (as has been the case in the past), it will be a giant breakthrough which could lead on to me being less middle-of-the-road. Right now I have a publisher reviewing one MS and was quite happy to see a second proposal with the first still in review. A good sign. No champagne yet – but I have hopes. Any kind thoughts you want to spread out into the universe will be appreciated.

 Posted by at 3:52 am


 Philosophy  Comments Off on Flexibility
Apr 122018

There are countless examples of the advantages of flexibility throughout history, in science, etc., and equally countless ways that people choose to be inflexible, to their detriment. Things change. Your body changes, culture changes, the world changes – all the time. You have a simple choice: (a) Refuse to be flexible, and hunker down, moaning about the changes. (b) Adapt to change. You are getting older. Care to moan about it to me? I’m listening. How do you think I should respond to your moaning?

The whole Conservative movement in politics is built on the assumption that change is bad and must be resisted. I understand the impulse – after a fashion. My childhood in Australia in the 1950s had a lot going for it (not least being that I had zero responsibility). We had no television, internet, mobile phones, video games, or the like. On Saturday mornings, all the kids in the neighborhood wandered outside and we messed about for hours. We played games, climbed trees, got into mischief – the usual (for us). At lunch time our mothers would yell our names out the back door and we would trot home to eat, then back out until dusk. A simple life – and it is all gone. I could have wished the same for my son, but it was not going to happen. He was born when the internet was already well established, he had his own television and video games in his room, and there were precious few kids around in our neck of the woods. Still, we had a gigantic garden with a trout stream nearby, and he messed around outside when he wasn’t on his computer or reading a book. He will no doubt look back on it with nostalgia in time. Things are changing for him too.

Change is our ever-present reality, and if we resist, we will break. This idea is enshrined in many fables, including the classic, “The reed and the oak tree.” You know it, I expect. The oak tree mocks the reed because it bends, even in the slightest wind. “Look at me,” says the oak, “I am strong and do not bend in the wind.” One day a mighty wind arises, and the oak is uprooted, while the reed carries on. Flexibility equals survival, resistance means disaster.

Darwin’s evolution enshrines the principle of flexibility as well. Most people think that “evolution” means “progress.” This is a gigantic mistake. Darwin’s whole point is that the species that survive are the ones that can adapt to changing circumstances. Those that cannot adapt, die out. “Evolution” means “adaptation to circumstances” not “progress.”

I hear people telling me all the time that they are not adaptable, or that they cannot change. Of course they can change. The fact is that they don’t want to. I understand that. With personal change comes loss, and loss is rarely, if ever, easy. But loss is as much a fact of life as change. For me, flexibility is the bulwark against change and loss, because resistance does not work. But here’s the catch. Flexibility works for me. Whether it will work for you is not for me to say. Remember – this is not an advice column. I am saying how things are as I see them, not how you should act.

Many people can see the advantages of being adaptable in the abstract, but have no idea how to become adaptable in the concrete if they are not. There I cannot help. Simply wanting to be different, or looking with envy at other people’s lives is scarcely enough. I suspect that I am flexible because I was brought up that way. By 6 years old I had lived on 3 continents – and it got worse from there (or better, if you like). I know how to adapt because I have had to in order to survive. Now that I am an old git wandering the world, it does not bother me to have to adjust to a new language, a new living situation, new food, etc. etc. In fact, I revel in it (except when I don’t!). But that’s me. Maybe you have lived in the same general neighborhood all your life, and have friends and family all around you. Leaving that behind would be an enormous wrench. Not territory I know or understand.

My last genuine girlfriend was 50 when I met her, and she had lived her entire life within 15 miles of where she was born in New Jersey. She had only once in her life strayed outside of New Jersey for more than one night, and hated it. All her family, and everything she knew and held dear was on her doorstep. You might call her and me an odd pairing: it was. I think we were both fascinated with what the other had. After we had been dating for a while I started taking her on trips – first within New Jersey, then to other states, and eventually on a cruise to Bermuda. She loved it all, but her dream was to settle down in a house in her town, which we would make our special home. Eventually I balked and moved to Argentina, and have been wandering ever since.

For many years we talked off and on, with her maintaining a dream of relocating away from New Jersey (having experienced, and enjoyed, something else), but, when push came to shove, she could not budge. Rigid inflexibility can seem comforting, and I expect for many people it feels that way. It certainly was to my girlfriend. Just remember the mighty oak with deep, deep roots and strong bark. It can withstand a lot, yet, a chance storm can topple it. I’ll settle for being a frail reed, tossed by storms, but still standing.


 Posted by at 12:09 pm

Marriage Vows

 Religion, Ritual  Comments Off on Marriage Vows
Apr 082018

For some reason I feel an urge to dribble on for a while about marriage and the vows we make. Let’s start with the word “vow.” A vow is a solemn promise. Many couples feel the need to write their own vows, and, in my oh-so-humble opinion, this is a mistake for several reasons. First, many couples write “vows” that are not vows at all – they are just some sort of rambling sentiment about love and whatnot. A vow is a commitment: this is what I promise you. Second, the congregation at a wedding (in church), are also participants. They are listening to the vows perhaps for the umpteenth time, and assenting to them as well. The married couples in the congregation are reliving their own vows as they hear them – again. They do this only if they are traditional vows. If the “vows” are of the order of, “You are my friend and companion. We met on a beach at sunset . . . blah, blah, blah,” they are not inclusive. If they are “I promise to love and honor etc. . . . until death parts us,” they enfold every married couple listening. They also act as beacons (perhaps warning beacons) for couples (or individuals) contemplating marriage – at some point. WARNING – don’t make these vows until you are sure: really sure.

When I was a parish pastor I was required by the Presbyterian church to meet couples who wished to be married at least three times. There was the usual stuff of figuring out the precise order of service, readings, and so forth, but there was also my solemn duty to interview the couple and decide whether I would marry them or not. It was my prerogative as a pastor to refuse to marry a couple if I felt that their decision was hasty or ill advised. I never did refuse, but I had the right to do so. Couples frequently did not realize this fact. They had to convince me that they were in it for the long haul. Vows matter to me. When you say “For richer or for poorer . . . In sickness and in health etc.,” I need to be convinced that, (a) you know what those vows actually entail, and (b) you are up to the task.

I also had to be a suitable role model. It’s no use getting all high and mighty about the vows if, as a pastor, you cannot live up to them yourself. They are far from easy. If you want your marriage to be a simple contract (that can be broken at will), don’t get married in a church. A civil ceremony is fine for that sort of deal. A church wedding is not just about nice surroundings, it is about serious vows (that go well beyond what the law requires).

Jesus was totally opposed to divorce and so is the Catholic church. This is one of the rare cases where I agree with the Catholic church. The problem is that way too many couples get married for all the wrong reasons, and, therefore, end up divorced. If you are not in it through thick and thin, what are you in it for? If it’s purely (or mostly) for sex, you are doomed from the start. I’m not going to go into a whole song and dance about love, what it is, how to see it, and how to achieve it. But without it, a marriage will fail.

The Greeks knew there were different kinds of love, and they had different words for the different kinds. There’s erotic love, charitable love, family love etc. etc. The thing about finding someone to marry is that your feelings for that person should contain ALL those kinds of love. Those feelings are laid down in the vows – all of them – and that is why the vows are so important and need to be considered carefully and seriously. Without committing to ALL of them, you are not ready to be married.





 Posted by at 3:40 am

More Is Better

 Philosophy  Comments Off on More Is Better
Mar 182018

This post is the twin to “Enough is Enough” which you will find here: This is an excerpt from the opening paragraph of that post:

Max Weber put economic systems into two broad categories which he called “modern economics” and “traditional economics.” Modern economics, by Weber’s standards, is roughly akin to capitalism, a system in which accumulating more and more wealth is everyone’s goal. I use the phrase, “more is better” to describe this system. A general way to put it is to say that if you like something, more is usually better. In particular, if you enjoy what money can do for you, the more, the better. Westerners tend to think this way as if it were an obvious dictum. I certainly thought that way, most of my life. I was always trying to earn a little more so that I could buy a better car, improve my house, go on trips abroad, and whatnot. It seems natural, doesn’t it? But not all cultures think this way.

I’m currently working on a chapter in a new book I’m writing that deals with life changes in general. The chapter is examining what happened to me as a teenager when I got my first job in a factory during my holidays. The bit I am wrestling with right now has to do with why I worked at the job at all since I had no need of money. My parents gave me what I needed – as long as I was frugal. I first took the job in 1968 over the Easter holidays for 2 weeks because it dropped in my lap, and it paid enough for me to buy a stereo radio/record player, which was an extravagant luxury back then. That’s fair enough – but it was a decided luxury. I continued to work at the factory for 2 summers, the second being the summer before I went to university, meaning I could work from the end of my A-level public exams in June until I went to Oxford in October. I was also offered overtime during weekdays and on Saturday mornings. I did it all. I worked like a dog – at one point putting in 11-hour days and 4 hours on Saturdays. For what?????????? I had absolutely no need for money. I was, however, caught up in the “more is better” philosophy. I earned a ton of money that summer, and there was absolutely nothing I wanted to buy with it. Sounds a bit mental, I know.

From that point in my life until I retired 8 years ago I was caught up in “more is better.” It’s an unthinking philosophy, really — one we rarely, if ever, question. I ended up with a 4-bedroom house in the Catskills, choked with possessions, on an acre of land beside a trout stream. I had three family cars (one for each family member), plus a 1976 Alfa Romeo Spider convertible for fun. All idyllic, of course. My garden was magnificent, with 2 koi ponds, several rockeries, a wood lot, gorgeous trees and fruiting brambles, a wildflower spot etc. etc. My books lined my study, plus the porch, and most of the living room. I had about 3,000 in total. I had thousands of slides (mostly for my anthropological work), and thousands of print photos. My clothes filled 3 closets, I had rooms full of antiques, . . . you get the picture.

Eight years ago, I packed a small suitcase, locked the door of my house, and took a plane to Argentina. Four years ago, I sold the house and contents, and never looked back. My life of “more is better” was finished. I now have two suitcases that hold everything I own. I live in rented apartments where I end up. So far it has been Argentina, England, China, Italy, Myanmar, and, now, Cambodia. Not sure where next.

I am not going to condemn “more is better.” That was how I lived for most of my life, and I managed fine with that way of thinking. I got immense pleasure out of working in my garden and then sitting in the cool of the evening surveying my work. I loved tootling around in the narrow country lanes in my Spider, or buying new kitchen gadgets. I always bought new books for pleasure or for my research. I had a special bow tie collection that grew and grew via eBay. All of it brought me happiness – and I am not going to be an annoying old git and say it was “fake happiness.” It was real enough. There were two negatives, however.

  1. My stuff tied me to one place.
  2. I had to work hard to maintain my stuff.

For most of my life I was OK with my stuff owning me as much as I owned it. Then I walked away from it all, and a huge burden was lifted. Sure, I left behind many things that had deep sentimental value, and for a while I was grieved at the loss. But the fact is that when I owned them and could take them out and look at them or use them, I rarely did. They were (and are) lodged in memory: their physical presence is unimportant. Everything of true value to me is within me. That realization brings me freedom.

To be clear – I am talking about me, not anyone else. If “more is better” works for you – have at it. All I can talk about is what works for me. “More is better” worked for a long time; now “enough is enough” is my watchword. The most I can hope for is that you consider your life from the outside for a moment.

Politically Correct

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Politically Correct
Mar 162018

The phrase, or accusation, “politically correct” is one of the few phrases that sets my teeth on edge. It is an insult, usually cast on people with left-wing leanings, that on the surface makes no sense. Supposedly “politically correct” actions include saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” working for equality for ethnic minorities and women, avoiding certain verbal slurs when describing people, seeking gun control measures, and the like. When people say that you do these things out of “political correctness” they are suggesting that you do them, not because you think they are the morally right things to do, but because you are going along with a partisan political herd. I repeat – that makes zero sense to me. The implication is that you do not want to do them, but feel you have to because others think they are correct. Here I believe we have a case of classic projection.

Plenty of bigots chafe at having to avoid certain terms for gays, African-Americans, Muslims, women, Jews, etc. etc. They want to use them, but feel they can’t because to do so would not be “politically correct.” Sorry – if you want to use those terms you are a miserable human being, and I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I avoid them, not because of my politics, but because I think they are objectionable terms. They are explicitly saying “I don’t like ‘those people’ and I am going to use a term that indicates my (negative) feelings.”

On FB I have friends who use certain terms once in a while that I find deeply offensive – in particular a four-letter word for a woman. If anyone who is a FB friend of mine uses that term they get a warning that if they use it again I will unfriend them without warning. So far I have lost 3 friends that way. Good riddance as far as I am concerned. Am I being “politically correct”? I don’t think so. I am working against two evils: (1) Stereotyping whole classes of people, and (2) Treating whole classes of people negatively.

Recently on my other blog a guy decided to leave a comment on a post about the hula hoop, telling me that WHAM-O (who patented the hula hoop) used to manufacture .22 rifles, but stopped “because of political correctness.” Where did that come from? I am leaving aside the fact that the post had zero to do with guns. Occasionally I get gun freaks barging in and spouting off about the 2nd Amendment etc. etc. If the comments are not too hateful, I let them stand, but I do not get into a big debate. The problem is that certain people see an attack where none exists. If a person wishes me Happy Holidays at Christmas, I take it as a nice gesture. Some people wish me happiness over Rosh Hashanah or at the end of Ramadan or for the birth of the Buddha. Why would I take offense?

There is no war on Christmas. How ludicrous can you be? It is no more than a sign of insecurity. I do not know of any Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist who would be offended if I wished them Happy Easter in a couple of weeks. Let me repeat: these perceived “attacks” on Christmas, guns, or whatever, are desperate signs of insecurity – projections of feeble minds. They are also rampantly bigoted and xenophobic. If someone wishes me Happy Holidays, the world is not going to fall apart. Why are people so insecure? If I had to be definitive I would say that insecurity is the single biggest problem in the world today. Insecurity stemming from the fact that there is a creeping acceptance of – EQUALITY – would be laughable if it were not all too real, and generates terrible actions.

The term “politically correct” is simply dog whistle for “I hate this behavior.” When I challenge people who use the term on my blog to define it for me they cannot. Usually they ignore the question. By examining their own language they are forced to state their own bigotry openly, and they don’t want to. That is no more than cowardice. Insecurity and cowardice are a toxic mix.







 Posted by at 2:09 am

Enough is Enough

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Enough is Enough
Mar 032018

My title today is deliberately misleading. I am not going to launch into a rant about things I have had enough of. I will save that rant for another day. This post is about economics: personal and social. Max Weber put economic systems into two broad categories which he called “modern economics” and “traditional economics.” Modern economics, by Weber’s standards, is roughly akin to capitalism, a system in which accumulating more and more wealth is everyone’s goal. I use the phrase, “more is better” to describe this system. A general way to put it is to say that if you like something, more is usually better. In particular, if you enjoy what money can do for you, the more, the better. Westerners tend to think this way as if it were an obvious dictum. I certainly thought that way, most of my life. I was always trying to earn a little more so that I could buy a better car, improve my house, go on trips abroad, and whatnot. It seems natural, doesn’t it? But not all cultures think this way.

I use the phrase “enough is enough” to describe Weber’s alternative, traditional economics. I am not convinced that the term “traditional” is quite apt, but it certainly seems to be the case that “enough is enough” came earlier historically than “more is better.” When you work on the principle of “enough is enough” you have to first decide what you need (not what you desire), calculate how much money you have to have to pay for what you need, and then work only as long as it takes to earn that amount – then quit working.

When you work on the principle of “more is better” the sky’s the limit. Even after you have earned enough to satisfy your needs, you keep working because desires take over. If you are on an hourly wage and you are offered overtime, you take it even if your basic wage is sufficient for all your expenses. Having a little extra is always a good thing. You’ll take a promotion or change jobs if they pay more. More money means more stuff – clothes, cars, furniture . . . etc. Let’s leave aside complexities such as inflation for the moment, and just focus on the big picture.

Some cultures follow traditional economics, some follow modern economics. I have lived under both systems and on the whole they both manage well enough. Each system has advantages and disadvantages. It is when they come in contact with one another that we have a problem. When people raised in a modern system encounter people working according to traditional economic values their routine assessment is that the traditional ones are “lazy.” This is exactly how British colonial administrators described African and Indian cultures in the 19th century. Let me give you a hypothetical example to illustrate my point.

Imagine there is a colonial officer working in a culture that works according to traditional economics, and he needs to hire some workers for a project that will take several months. He offers 10 men £2 per day for several weeks until the job is completed. On Monday and Tuesday the men show up on time, work a full day, get paid for their day’s work each day, and go home. On Wednesday no one shows up for work. The colonial officer goes to their homes and discovers that they do not want to work that day or the next (or the next). On Monday the workers all show up on the job again. The colonial officer’s judgment is that the locals are lazy. What is really going on?

By local standards, £4 per week is all the locals need to live on. So, when they have worked for 2 days at £2 per day they have met their weekly needs and they quit. They do not see any value in work for its own sake, nor do they see any need to accumulate more money than they need. You can call this “lazy” if you want, but a more neutral term would be to say that they are being pragmatic. Modern Westerners find in hard to get their minds around this idea because for them “more is (always) better.” The idea that “enough is enough” does not compute. For “enough is enough” to function you have to be content with your situation as long as your needs are taken care of. That also means that you have no desire to “improve” your situation, in whatever way you define “improve.”

For most of my life I lived according to modern economics and did not think too much about it. Now I live according to traditional economics and am content to do so. Let me flesh that out a bit, because my situation is not usual, and my understanding of what I need versus what I desire is also not straightforward (although not atypical). Like all humans I need food and shelter. Here in Cambodia that costs me about $600 per month. But I do not consider mere survival to be adequate. I am a committed anthropologist and writer. Without doing these things I am merely staying alive. In that sense, I need my camera, a computer to write on, and the ability to travel and meet people. In that sense I consider my work to be one of my needs. Different people will have different needs of this sort to feel alive. I need about $1,000 per month to do the things that make me feel alive.

Some people need other things to feel alive. Obviously, the line between what you need and what you desire can get a bit blurry. It takes really deep self analysis to get at the heart of the matter, and, furthermore, things can shift. There was a time in my life when having a partner was really important to my wellbeing; now it is not. In fact, I am really content to live alone these days. The opposite was true 20 years ago.

So . . . my question to you is: What do you truly need besides food and shelter? What makes you feel alive? Then I will ask the related question: How much of your life is spent in wasted effort? I ask these questions only if you would like to live according to the concept of “enough is enough.” If you are a “more is better” type, you are on a different path.

To be continued . . .


 Philosophy, Religion  Comments Off on Mindfulness
Feb 032018

The term “mindfulness” has a vogue these days both in clinical psychology and pop psychology. Supposedly “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term “sati” used in Theravada Buddhism. It may be in principle, but the reality is often quite different.

Critics call the popular (mis)conception of mindfulness McMindfulness. I like it. Putting “Mc” in front of a term, such as McMansion, makes it clear what is happening. Any McSomething, is taking that Something, whatever it is, and mass producing it for popular consumption. To be fair any McSomething is not necessarily intrinsically bad. A Big Mac is loaded with lots of stuff I don’t want to eat, but I am not going to criticize people who do. Neither am I going to criticize people for living in McMansions. That is their choice. But . . . we have to acknowledge that Big Macs, for example, are very different from hamburgers made from hand ground sirloin patties grilled over a wood charcoal fire. Big Macs are mass produced for a commercial market. Locally made and grilled hamburgers are not.

Thus, it is with McMindfulness. It gets characterized as “being present” or “living in the moment” or some such. Sometimes the practice of McMindfulness is linked to meditation technique, sometimes not. I am all in favor of being present in the moment; it is an intrinsic part of my life. My version of this philosophy is PAY ATTENTION. A great many people wall themselves off from their environment. When walking they have on earphones playing music; when driving they turn on the radio. They do not want the world they are traveling through to impact them. I am the opposite. I listen to music only when I want to REALLY LISTEN – to PAY ATTENTION. Otherwise I do not want pretty musical wallpaper cluttering up my life. I want to focus on ONE THING at a time. When walking, I want to take in what is around me.

When I lived in Buenos Aires I was fascinated by just about everything – fountains, statues, tops of buildings etc. I was especially fascinated by doors. Architects in Buenos Aires go to great trouble to design doors that are intricately carved, sometimes inlaid with bronze, sometimes with other metals. I took thousands of photos of doors when I first arrived. I even got in trouble with the police once who thought I was casing a residential neighborhood for a burglary because I was photographing so many doors. I had to talk fast to the cop who stopped me because he could not see that the doors were intriguing. When I showed my album to my friends, who had lived in Buenos Aires all their lives, they were amazed: “I never knew there were so many different doors in Buenos Aires, Juan.” Well, yes you did – you just weren’t paying attention.

Paying attention is one thing (and it is a good thing); mindfulness is quite another.

Mindfulness in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, that is, sati, involves much more than simply being in the moment. First of all, sati must be linked with meditation, and not just any old meditation. In the Theravāda tradition alone, there are over 50 methods for developing mindfulness and 40 for developing concentration, while in the Tibetan tradition there are thousands of visualization meditations. Most classical and contemporary Buddhist meditation guides are school-specific.

The Buddha is said to have identified two paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:

“serenity” or “tranquility” (Pali: samatha) which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind.

“insight” (Pali: vipassana) which enables one to see, explore and discern “formations” (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates – khandas in Pali).

The five khandas are form (or matter or body) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana).

Among other things, meditative practice is directed towards losing a sense of self, because self is an illusion. There is no self; it is a product of wrong thinking, and limits vision.

When we come back to McMindfulness we see that it has nothing whatever to do with sati, because McMindfulness is all about self-help or self-improvement, and sati is about getting rid of the self. THERE IS NO SELF. You cannot improve what does not exist.

Sati is also linked to an array of actions within Theravada Buddhism, such as lovingkindness, acts of merit, and the like. Practicing Theravada Buddhism entails a whole lifestyle. It is not something you can pick a few pieces from and discard the rest. Trying to practice mindfulness without adopting the whole philosophy of Theravada Buddhism might help you in some ways, but it is rather missing the point. Try being a hunter/gatherer on the weekends while commuting to an office job Monday to Friday. Will you take on a hunter/gatherer mindset that way? Of course not. You would not be nomadic; you would not be utterly reliant on the environment; you would not need to live with a foraging band in makeshift housing, etc. You would just be playing at foraging for fun. That is how it is with McMindfulness.

To be continued . . . (I promise)


 Philosophy  Comments Off on Listening
Jan 202018

Last post I talked about depression and the importance of listening – really listening – to a person who is depressed: If you read that post you will remember that my late wife’s mantra was, “I don’t want you to cure me, I just want you to listen.” Listening is not something many people are skilled at. Conversation is vital to our lives, of course, but many people have the bad habit of not listening when they engage in conversation. Often people want to respond or react to what you are saying instead of just listening. There are many problems with reacting instead of just listening, the chief of which I can put under the umbrella of narcissism. Reacting is a way of saying, “Here’s what I think.” Well, if you are really listening – really listening – what you think is not important. When my wife wanted me to listen, she wasn’t interested in what I thought; she wanted to know only that I had heard her and that I understood her. That’s a mighty hard lesson for many people to learn. It took me years to learn.

My wife belonged to a women’s group in Santa Fe when we lived in New Mexico. It met once a week to sit and just talk. Its purpose was to empower women to say what was on their minds. Topics varied enormously. Some had problems with their partners, some had personal fears, some were uncomfortable with the political situation . . . you name it. They were open to discussion within the group, but they had a rigid policy about speaking and discussing. One person, ONLY, could speak at a time, and she had the floor for as long as she wanted. No one could interrupt. When she was finished talking, she indicated that fact to the group, and others could then respond. BUT . . . no one could respond to the first speaker until she had paraphrased what the first speaker had said, and the first speaker had to acknowledge that the paraphrase was accurate. After the first speaker accepted the accuracy of the paraphrase, the second speaker could respond. This would be an enormous improvement on formal debates in place of Roberts Rules of Order.

Roberts rules govern most formal debates in the US. We used them at faculty and senate meetings at my university. I know them very well. They are designed to keep debate and voting orderly. They insist that, when possible, debate on a motion should alternate between speakers pro and speakers con. Speakers on one side don’t have to listen or pay attention to speakers on the other side. They can, and frequently do, speak past one another, not taking the other side’s points into account. They are also free to skew, misinterpret, or misrepresent the other side. There is little or no real listening. The rules of discussion for my wife’s group were meant to battle that system.

If you have to repeat back to someone something they have said, you have to really listen and really understand. In the process you may find yourself shifting your own opinion on the matter. Or, you may get some insight into why the speaker holds a particular point of view. Conversely, you may not change your opinion at all. At the very least, you have listened.

Eugene Gendlin in his book Focusing, talks about a specific way of listening, that is specifically designed to help the speaker, and is not about responding at all. Read the book for more details. The basic idea is that when someone wants to talk, and their purpose is primarily is to be understood, often they are as much interested in understanding what they themselves want, as in explaining what they want (or mean) to others. Focusing, in a nutshell, involves paraphrasing back to a speaker their own words (or thoughts) until the speaker has a “felt sense” of the correctness of the thought. This can be a difficult and long-drawn-out process, and requires a strong ability to listen on the part of the person helping a speaker to focus. The person listening does not try to react or respond to what the speaker is saying. Their job is to listen and repeat in paraphrase – ONLY.

Many people new to focusing find it difficult or impossible at first. I certainly did. It’s easy, subtly, or unsubtly, to insert your own thoughts into the paraphrase. You are tempted to ask questions, which is a no-no. So, for example:

Person 1: I always feel hungry at the end of meals, no matter how much I eat.

Person 2 could respond with a question, rather like a therapist or prompt for more information. For example:

Person 2: Does being hungry feel bad to you?


Person 2: Tell me how feeling hungry makes you feel.

Both are misguided responses from the point of view of focusing. They are concentrating on a component that Person 2 wants to hear more about. It is not paraphrasing, so it is not really listening. Better would be:

Person 2: What I think you are saying is that eating does not satisfy you.

Person 2 is simply trying to find a different way of expressing what Person 1 has said. Person 1 may then reply in a number of ways:

Person 1: Yes !! It’s about not being satisfied.


Person 1: No, that’s not it. What I am saying is . . . .

So it goes on. The key skill is listening.

I am what you might call so-so about listening. Once my wife and I got on the same wavelength about it, I got pretty good at it. But I can slip these days. My last girlfriend quite often would look at me impatiently and say, “Can I talk now?” I do talk a lot. The thing is that I too want people to understand me. I’ve mostly solved that problem by living alone, and “talking” by writing. That’s my way of focusing. If I write enough, my thoughts become clearer to MYSELF. That’s why I say that if 10,000 people or none read my posts it does not matter to me – because I am writing them for myself. Having an audience is rewarding in its own way, but that’s not why I do it.

Some people need listeners, however. We should know how to listen for their sake. If a person wants me to listen, I do – on one condition. I will not react or give advice. My job will be to listen and that’s it. I can sympathize, give a hug, and so forth, of course. I’m not a robot. But listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give: it is a very rare gift.