Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeking Attention

The need for attention is important to everyone. We're social beings, after all. When it's done in a healthy way, what's wrong with seeking attention, other than the fact that we don't want to admit we're doing it?

I'm going to step out on a limb and say that seeking attention seems to be the top social priority for many, if not all, people who have the luxury of doing so. Even while taking care of the basic needs like food and shelter, we choose to satisfy those needs in ways that attract the kind of attention we want. Why do you think people buy Priuses?

Now, you might be skeptical of this claim. Surely, you might say, there are people out there who are not interested in attention, but are interested first and foremost with something else, like wealth, power, good deeds, hatred, criticism, saving the world, sex, wine, or video games. And what about shy people or hermits? What about the fear of public speaking?

Well, let's look at the progress of the attention-seeker through life, and see if this story resonates with your own experience and perhaps explains any or all of those behaviors listed above:

During infancy, a person has to be cared for in order to survive, so they are showered with attention, and it feels pretty great. Growing up, though, they lose that attention to other siblings, to classmates, to strangers. Bad parents neglect their kids and good parents instinctively withdraw attention in order to prepare the child for independence. What is the reaction to either? Tantrums. Later, when that doesn't work, kids become more sophisticated. They might find new ways to rebel, or they might try to impress people.

Whether the action is constructive or destructive doesn't actually matter to a child.  Ask a teacher, or read a blog for teachers, and you'll find out that children will seek any attention, good or bad. This suggests that our fundamental social need is not approval; it's just raw attention.

How does that translate into adult behaviors? Although the need for attention is pure, it becomes shaped by experience. A particular child will find that some attention-seeking behaviors are more successful than others, depending on how their family, friends, teachers, and classmates are conditioned to react to their appearance, status, and personality. What kids then do--instinctively, not through a deliberate decision-making process--is they adjust their behavior in ways that get them more attention, and they avoid behaviors that lead to ostracism. If a kid tells jokes to get attention and their classmates laugh, then you can be sure the kid will tell more jokes. If, instead, the classmates ignore the kid, then you can be sure the kid will try something else to get their attention.

If the kid is most successful at getting attention through high grades and good behavior, that kid is going to perpetuate that cycle and eventually become something like an educated professional. If the kid is most successful at getting attention through rebellion and confrontation, then that kid is going to perpetuate that cycle and eventually wind up in a gang or worse.

The reason we don't see this clearly in ourselves is that we're not honest about our own relationship to attention, and the reason for this is that at some point, the taboo against overt attention-seeking kicks in. Maybe a parent or friend scolds us for it. Maybe it happens naturally: we learn early that everyone hates a show-off. We have feelings of jealousy and hatred for people who hog the spotlight. At some point we hear the phrase, "they're just seeking attention," and we become self-conscious of our own attempts to do the same. Nevertheless, we still crave attention, so we find ways to seek attention without being too obvious. We get sneaky. We come up with socially-acceptable stories to legitimize our attention-seeking actions, and eventually we tell these stories so much that we almost believe them ourselves and have serious trouble seeing the truth that they are hiding.

At this stage in our development, our minds also become more future-oriented, so we begin acting in ways that we hope will bring us future attention, and this becomes a very crafty way of hiding the underlying motive. Instead of acting out in class to get the teacher's attention right in the moment, we begin working toward a future position at the center of attention: we see the president addressing thousands of people on TV and (without even recognizing the motive) politics becomes our goal; we hear our teachers praise Einstein and we want to be scientists; we see our parents watching medical dramas and we resolve ourselves to become doctors, as if we were competing with the TV for our parents' attention. The fantasy of "saving the world," a common childhood ambition, is really just a well-behaved child's code for "occupying the center of attention." What could bring more attention than saving the world?

In parallel to the way future-thinking leads to abstract ambitions to occupy the center of attention, our social identities are constructed to attract the attention of abstract groups of people. In other words, instead of trying to get a reaction from the kid next to you on the playground, you begin to dress and act in a way that will generically attract the attention of "goths," or "chicks," or some other group. If you look carefully at these experiences in childhood, you'll see that the group you were trying to impress must have given you attention in the past, either positive or negative, and you were trying to get more attention from them because it was a familiar avenue. In adolescence, it probably didn't matter whether you crafted an identity that made people like you or hate you so long as it brought attention.

As we get older, the layers of intention become very complex. We see that certain types of people attract more attention, so we try to associate with them or become like them. We see that attracting one kind of attention attracts other kinds of attention, so we create an intricate web of ambitions to attract all that attention. For example, a man might seek the attention of his community in order to get the attention of his emotionally distant parents, and he might seek a prestigious job in order to attract the attention of his community, and he might seek the attention of his male peers in order to get the prestigious job, and he might seek the attention of beautiful women in order to gain the attention of his male peers, and he might spend hours at the gym every week to get the attention of the beautiful women. The dysfunction here is that he could just call his parents and get their attention directly if that's all he really cares about. If he didn't care about the attention of his male peers, the community, and the beautiful women, then this would be a miserable, phony life. On the other hand, if he did enjoy all those other forms of attention, then he could be pretty happy. The important thing is to be honest about one's actual needs and not seek any type of attention for any purpose other than its direct enjoyment.

In trying to associate with people who attract attention, we develop a habit of watching and following them. I wonder whether this becomes the root cause of the widespread fixation on celebrities. People spend a lot of time watching electronic images of famous people and get no practical benefit from it, so maybe this behavior is tied to the impulse to suck up to popular people in order to glean some of that popular attention for oneself.

More subtle behaviors and gestures emerge without any thought at all, but the quest for attention is still underneath. For example, I've wondered why some people inflect their speech so that their voices are annoying. Perhaps the reason is that they've had success generating attention by annoying people into confrontation. This isn't necessarily a consciously planned mannerism; it can be a habit that gets settled into gradually without noticing. With just as little thought, people become haters and critics when they discover that people pay attention to their insults. Other dysfunctional behaviors emerge when people feign illness to attract attention, or they have careless sex in order to get attention, or they binge drink and play videogames through their 20s to make their friends and parents worry about them.

So, this idea of attention-seeking may seem to fit with a lot of overt, assertive behaviors that obviously attract attention in some way. But what about the introverted, shy, anti-social behaviors that don't obviously draw attention?

On one hand, there's the possibility that some people are content with their lives, and they get all the attention they need from their job, friends, and family, and so they don't do anything extra to seek attention. Therefore, when you see them in a public place, they may look quite reserved. This is pretty healthy. 

On the other hand, there are dysfunctional reasons for shyness. At some point in the process of growing up, we discover our limitations as human beings. This throws a wrench in our plans to save the world, become a movie star, or be the first person on Mars (or all three). Traditionally, we view these experiences as blows to our self-esteem. But what is our self-esteem, really? We've already seen that some people thrive off of negative attention, which should theoretically be bad for self-esteem, but that doesn't change the behavior. Self-esteem must not be important. I'll posit that self-esteem is really just a person's estimate of the attention they expect to get from others. If you feel worthless to others, then you'll suffer from the fear that you won't get the attention you crave. This is what we actually feel when our "self-esteem" is low. When you feel valuable to others, you get happy in your expectation that people will pay attention to you. This is what we feel when "self-esteem" is high. In the pursuit of negative attention, being ignored feels like low self esteem, while getting into a confrontation feels pretty good, like high self esteem, even though you are actually disgracing yourself.

The real impact of discovering one's limitations, then, has to do with attention. As we get older we realize that there are a lot of people in the world, and a lot of them are better than us at the things that we traditionally did to get the attention of our peers or elders. Our immature plans to secretly become the center of attention fail. Adolescence and early adulthood becomes a time of restructuring, never naming the goal explicitly, but always seeking it through more clever pathways. For many people, the task becomes so hopeless that they shift to a defensive strategy, avoiding conflict, becoming more polite, trying to cut their losses to avoid becoming completely ignored. Shyness sets in at various ages as people carefully try to hold onto the attention that's available around them. The fear of public speaking and public humiliation arises from a person's fear that they will commit some action that will alienate them from everyone.

It's therefore possible for people to attach different values to different kinds of attention. Some attention is sought because it is believed to be conducive to attracting more attention, while other kinds of short term attention are avoided for fear of alienating people and therefore reducing possible attention in the long term. This may sound convoluted and theoretical, so take a moment to consider your actual feelings in times of shyness. When you shy away from a potentially embarrassing situation, are you really worried that people's judgments will harm you, or are you worried that if you embarrass yourself people will want to avoid you? If it's the latter, as I suspect it is for everyone, then it supports this idea that social anxiety and shyness are fundamentally motivated by the need for attention.

As we get older and begin finding our place in the world, this anxiety motivates us to find acceptable ways of seeking attention. The ideas of being good, moral, nice, and polite appeal to this type of thinking because we can blame the ideas if anyone calls us out on what we're really doing. We turn to institutions and traditions that provide a pretense for being noticed, but we do our best to convince ourselves that we're not seeking attention, that we're devoted to something bigger than ourselves. Maybe we go to a good college and then climb up the corporate ladder. Maybe we reject society and become spiritual teachers. In either case, though, the person is still seeking attention, just through some kind of surrogate. The shy inventor toiling in obscurity for a big corporation is hoping that their products will be noticed. The insecure teacher spreading the ancient wisdom is hoping that those ideas will be noticed. These are indirect ways of getting attention, but the mind is capable of identifying itself with the products of its actions, and that's good enough for some people.

For people with serious problems attracting a healthy amount of attention, including people with an unrealistic sense of self or with mental illnesses, social interaction can become very stressful, as each conversation where something inappropriate is said feels like one more step toward total ostracism. Rather than facing the underlying truths--that they've been seeking attention and doing it the wrong way for their personality--they might beat themselves up emotionally and get depressed, or they might comfort themselves with fantasies that they will someday, somehow attract a lot of attention, or they'll swing back and forth between these extremes (this was my personal experience). The attention is never an explicit goal; it's always disguised in the form of an idealistic dream or cause. I can only imagine that a lot of political extremism and religious fanaticism stems from this situation. When all else fails, politics and religion can be distorted and used to prop up a personal delusion of grandeur.

And now that we're looking at painful manifestations of the craving for attention, we'd might as well descend all the way into the private hell of fully antisocial behavior. Besides the mental health factors that complicate it, I suspect that when a person's pain and alienation have become unbearable, when they've failed to seek the right kind of attention for their personality, and when they've found no comfort in idealistic plans and delusions, the need for attention explodes outward in the form of violent atrocities which--not coincidentally--earn a lot of temporary attention.

So that's a pretty wide, and admittedly vague, survey of different behaviors and their possible relation to the underlying quest for attention. I don't know whether this idea explains every behavior, but in the last couple of weeks I've used it to interpret various situations and my reactions, and it's led to some productive insight.

How is this useful? First off, we waste a lot of energy trying to act like we're not seeking attention when we really are. Just being honest with ourselves takes a huge load off our backs. That frees up a lot of brainpower, which leads to clarity and good decisions. It also simplifies our emotional situation, leading to a feeling of relief and comfort with oneself. It also helps us understand why people act out, and it helps us choose the most effective way to respond to them. Most importantly, it helps us interpret our own feelings about people and situations so that we're not reacting blindly out of fear and ignorance.

Recognizing that attention is a simple and honest need that is neither right nor wrong, we can make use of that fact. You can use the desire for attention as a motivator for yourself and others. If you're smart about it, you can turn attention-seeking into a constructive, joyful process that actually makes other people happy, which in turn leads to lasting happiness for yourself.

The trick to making this work lies in the understanding that you only get what you give. You are actually in possession of that thing everyone wants: you have the power to pay attention to other people! Instead of working desperately to draw attention to yourself, see what happens when you simply open yourself up to other people and pay attention to them. You'll open up a two-way street of attention: you pay attention to each other. This is the essence of friendship, but it need not be confined to your interactions with friends. You can extend this two-way attention network to coworkers, acquaintances, and even passing strangers. In this way, you help satisfy other people's need for attention while satisfying your own need as well. It's mutually beneficial.

At first, you'll probably encounter a lot of internal resistance to it because we've made a habit of seeking attention from people who don't need our attention while ignoring everyone else. It may feel weird at first to listen to people we've trained ourselves to ignore--people we compete with, people we don't know, or people we look down on. Nevertheless, this is the way we begin to expand our network of two-way attention. What's really cool about this is that you can control this network to be as large or small as you want, depending on your needs. You can also make use of your particular talents and interests to inform the type of attention you bring to people. In other words, I'm not suggesting that you just walk around staring at people; I'm suggesting that you make use of your existing career and relationships to tune into other people.

Instead of being dependent on someone else to dole out a ration of the attention you crave, you can become the person in charge of the attention. You just have to make the leap of faith that you'll get the attention you need by paying attention to others. This will happen as long as you make an effort to communicate and work with people directly, where two-way attention is possible. This is not possible through TV, novels, or other one-way media (and usually not blogs either, I have to admit), but it is possible through everyday, face-to-face interactions. This clarifies the idea of "seeking the right kind of attention for your personality." Everyone has different abilities and modes of communication, so you want to shape your life in such a way that you use your strengths to connect with people. For example, if you're mechanically inclined, you might be happier using that talent in a service industry where you meet people and help fix their cars than if you worked in isolation in your garage trying to invent the next great gizmo.

While I've emphasized that there's nothing inherently wrong with the need for attention, that doesn't mean that any type of attention-seeking will be constructive and mutually beneficial. You have to use your judgment as you explore what kind of simple actions lead to a satisfying experience of two-way attention. In other words, where intentional effort is concerned, I'm suggesting that you focus on constructive attention-seeking behavior that is mutually satisfying. Nevertheless, when you inadvertently attract some negative attention, there's no need to feel bad about it, and in fact it's natural to enjoy it. I think it's actually a good idea to throw away some of the stupid defense mechanisms we've built up and just get back in touch with the simple enjoyment of attention. Therefore, if it happens to arise, you should also feel free to enjoy the attention that comes from embarrassing yourself or accidentally annoying someone, even though, and this is a subtle point, you should not willfully seek out this attention.

That may seem like a contradiction, to have a very high standard for your intentional attention-seeking behavior but to enjoy any and all attention received without preference, but it's a simple way to feel free and powerful in your mental and social experience.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Happiness

I'm noticeably happier now than I was a few years ago, and the reason is that I stopped doing things that didn't make me happy and started doing things that did make me happy. It was surprisingly hard to figure out what brings about lasting happiness.

Through a process of internal investigating (meditation) and systematic experimenting with new behaviors (volunteering, charity, listening, letting other people go first, confronting fears, letting go of material attachments, etc.), I learned something that is worth sharing:

Anything that makes you happy and also makes others happy will lead to lasting happiness.

Something that makes you happy at the expense of others, or something that makes others happy but not you, will not lead to lasting happiness for you. This is to say that lasting happiness is not to be found in the pursuit of self-gratification, nor is it to be found in the pursuit of selfless sainthood. Happiness is to be found in the middle, where you create situations that benefit yourself and others. To put it another way:

Happiness is a collaboration.

The good news is that anyone can find happiness this way. The "bad" news is that, if you've spent your whole life until today pursuing self-gratification, then you should expect that it will take a lot of effort to climb out of the emotional hole you've been digging. Even so, it doesn't take long before you begin to enjoy the process of climbing.

If you do try it out, I think you'll be happy with the results.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Less Idealism

Preparing for the Young Urban Zen talk on sexuality led me to confront my own idealism in a way that changed my current attitude toward the Zen practice. In trying to prepare for it by reading texts, I got very idealistic, and then I realized that my idealistic hopes stemmed from a desire to escape my present situation, which was actually making me feel worse. It was also distancing me from others. Seeing that, I realized that projecting the ideals of a book onto my life was not the way to go.

Next I noticed that, in the brief course of writing this blog, I've already started to focus less on the interpretation of other people's teachings and more on the direct pursuit of lasting happiness. It has been dawning on me (once again) that one's own happiness is a better guide in life than words in a book. My intention when writing the first several entries was to bridge the esoteric terminology of Buddhism with everyday experience and hopefully show that the basic ideas are already familiar. Then I started to wonder, "If these ideas are already familiar, why even talk about Buddhism?" So I've recently been compelled to write less about Buddhism and just relate everyday experience to the pursuit of happiness, since that is really what motivated me to pick up this practice in the first place, and that is what Buddhism is about anyway, to a large degree. The vocabulary, the stories, the myths, and the teachings are somewhat extraneous if you can learn from your own experience. And if you can't learn from your own experience, I don't think the teachings will be much use either. When it comes down to it, learning from your own life is clutch.

After seeing that, I met with a couple of the YUZ panel speakers before the talk. We tried to figure out what we were going to say. In doing that, we looked at the experience of sex in our own lives. An awesome thing happened: we discussed the issue in terms of our own feelings and experience, with little reference to the buzz-words of Buddhism. It was a natural and genuine conversation that clearly drew on what we've learned through the practice of Zen Buddhism, but it was about reality, not some words on a piece of paper. It was the kind of conversation I'd been looking to have since I first showed up to YUZ last year. This gave me confidence that we can use our experience and intuition to guide us on the path toward lasting happiness; we don't have to rely on some exotic words or customs to take us there.

Finally, at the talk itself, it seemed that focusing on the personal, everyday challenges and benefits of being mindful toward sexuality was more helpful and better received than previous attempts to discuss the precepts in abstraction. I left feeling pretty confident that one's internal compass--comprised of emotions, understanding, and intuition derived from experience--is a fully capable guide for navigating the complexity and uncertainty of ordinary American life if the mind and heart are open to learning.

So I might not write explicitly about Zen or Buddhism anymore. There are plenty of books about those topics, anyway, and I'm certainly not an expert. What I'd like to share--in the most direct way possible--is the discovery that has steadily changed my life for the better: our everyday experience points the way to genuine happiness, if we allow ourselves to learn from it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sex!

Tonight, I'm participating in a panel discussion at Young Urban Zen. The topic is precept #3: not misusing sexuality. In the weeks since I was invited to join the panel, I've been reading, thinking, and figuring out what to say, and I'm still not sure that I can say anything definite.

Here's why:

Having sex is not inherently bad, and avoiding sex is not inherently good. On one hand, to suddenly uphold this precept rigorously, trying to conform to the ideal of celibacy, requires repression of feelings. Experience shows that dumb repression doesn't work if the underlying issues are not confronted; it eventually leads to frustration and behavioral outbursts that are more harmful to the self and others than the original behavior that was repressed.

On the other hand, there are real problems with sexuality.

At one level, there is dumb, selfish, greedy sexuality that is obviously harmful. This is when people use each other for sex and let their lust blind themselves to their partner's feelings. This is the domain of bad relationships and one-night-stands and drunken hook-ups. After such experiences, denial sets in and you convince yourself that you got what you wanted, but you might actually feel bad, and you may want to hurt someone else to feel better. This is the harm of selfish sexuality.

At another level, even when you're mindful of your partner's feelings, sex creates attachments that cause problems later. Right now, things might be dandy and you may be creating the most wonderful and loving relationship, but at the end of life, after decades of fostering sexual attachment, how will you be ready to let go? It's not that letting go has any magical importance; it's that not being able to let go will lead to a profoundly stressful experience when aging and dying. It's important to take this into account when considering sexuality, because however wonderful and good sex may be now, we will have to live with the attachments it creates later. There's no escape from that.

Another problem with sexuality is that it focuses your attention exclusively on one person, and therefore it creates barriers between yourself and other people. Of course, there's even a good side to this--by learning how to open up to one person and care for them, you learn how to open up to others and care for them.

Looking to ancient teachings on this issue can be confusing. The Buddha taught a society that had never known the sexual revolution, contraceptives, Hollywood, rock and roll, pornography, or Disney movies. All of these things have contributed toward a totally different kind of sexuality, more recreational than procreational. In our world, we're not just caught up in the emotions and attachments of the sexual experience itself; we're bombarded with sexuality in every aspect of our public lives as well as private. For that reason, and the observation that repression doesn't work, I don't at this point believe it is possible to follow the Buddha's teaching of celibacy immediately. It's necessary to first discover a process for dealing with the attachments and emotional baggage that already exist, and that may require you to continue participating in sex so you can explore what it really means to you. But certainly it's a good idea to work toward a more caring and less lustful sexuality at the beginning of this process, rather than repeating the same mistakes over and over. This is compatible with the modern spiritual attitude about sex taught by gurus like Krishnamurti and Osho: it's something you can't overcome by aversion; you have to grow out of it.

Another reason it's hard to say anything definite about sex: Sexuality itself is not inherently bad or good. It is just a part of being human. That doesn't mean we should indulge in it. That doesn't mean we should repress it. It's just there. That's all it means. Because sex itself is valueless, many of our sexual problems don't actually stem from sex itself; they stem from our attachments to, and projections of, what sex is supposed to be. Consider whether you have ever had sex without a purpose, or whether you've only had sex to fulfill some other purpose. There are many purposes that we attach to sex: getting attention, feeling loved, attaining idealistic romance, seeking approval, living out a fantasy, relieving stress, wielding power, passing time, showing your love, apologizing, taking out anger, repeating what was seen on TV, doing something to brag about, feeling cool, feeling secure in your relationship, earning your partner's trust, having a baby, earning the respect of your friends, impressing someone, relieving horniness, making someone want to stay, distracting yourself from worry, returning a favor, replacing the unconditional love of your mother.... the list goes on and on. Even in celibacy, projections of what sex is supposed to be clouds the issue of what it really is.

Think about the tremendous conflict caused by projecting ulterior motives on sex. When two people have sex, they can be doing it for completely different reasons. One may be doing it for approval, while the other is trying to live out a fantasy. When they each fail to give the other what they really wanted--because they never knew what the other really wanted--one ends up feeling rejected and the other disappointed. Then they'll argue about it. There's no end to such an argument, because neither one realizes what the conflict actually is. I'm speaking from experience--this really happens, and it happens a lot.

This is a clear example of misusing sexuality. When sexuality is distorted by ulterior projections, it is very easy to misuse. Learning how to overcome these distortions falls clearly in the realm of practicing precept #3. Even though this interpretation really skirts the central issue of Buddha's teaching--attachment to sex itself--I'll probably end up talking about this because it's simple and practical. For people with a causal attitude toward sex, it's a good place to start.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Eating Vegetables

In the last 10 years or so, I've tried to go vegetarian several times. The first time was in college, after I learned about the crap that is actually in meat (chickens are fed arsenic!), the cruel treatment of the animals, and the side effects that the meat industry has on the enviroment. It didn't last, because I got too idealistic. It was frustrating to think that my actions weren't visibly changing anything. Worse, I started to feel morally superior about being vegetarian, which made me act like a snob. After a few months I decided it would be better to go back to eating meat just to get over the bad attitude.

Later in college, I tried it a second time. This time, it was for a girl. Everyone in her family was vegetarian. She grew up vegetarian. This really inspired me to go for it. But once again, those feelings of frustration and arrogance became problems, and I stopped.

After college, I tried again. I was making my own meals, so it was more challenging. Grocery stores are chock full of meat products, it's pretty hard to find nutritious and satisfying vegetarian food, and even then a lot of it is bland, a hassle to prepare, or ridiculously overpriced. Several attempts to "go veg" after college failed, each time after a few months, because a ravenous hunger would develop that I couldn't figure out how to satisfy without meat.

With each failure I found some way to justify eating meat again: I decided that I needed more protein, or I heard about some study that said eating meat was really healthy, or I would decide that it was impossible to be vegetarian, or I thought it was good to overcome my idealism. The concerns I had about the animals, the environment, or the health effects of consuming the chemicals in the meat were still there, but I could find an excuse to ignore them.

The problem with those attitudes--both for and against eating meat--was that I was looking for some external reason or authority to tell me what to do. Looking outside my own mind for guidance just led to confusion and hypocrisy. One day, I'd be motivated by my concern for the animals or the environment, but another day I'd be more interested in my own nutrition. One day, I'd hear a compelling reason to eat one way, then later I'd hear a compelling reason to eat another way. In all honesty, there doesn't seem to be any clearly right or wrong way to eat. Diets with and without meat both have benefits and drawbacks, and regardless of which one is healthier, the human body is remarkable resilient and able to survive for decades even on terrible diets. The point is, the issue of diet cannot be resolved through simple analysis of facts.

Clarity came for me when I focused internally and began to think about the emotional and psychological meaning of eating meat. Putting aside the idealism about health, the environment, and even the ideal of having compassion for animals, I investigated my inner motivations for choosing to sustain myself at the expense of living, feeling beings.

The first thing I noticed was the laziness, denial and fear underlying my choice to eat meat: I had frequently chosen to do it because it was the easiest choice, it was a habit, and because everyone else was doing it. I struggled with vegetarianism because I was too lazy to research good nutrition or learn how to make the food enjoyable. That degree of laziness was pathetic, even independent of the fact that it brought excruciating suffering to other beings.

The next thing I noticed was the necessary selfishness inherent in the decision to eat meat. To facilitate the systematic confinement and slaughter of sentient beings just for my personal convenience struck me as extremely selfish. It wouldn't take much sacrifice or effort on my part to spare many animals from a horrible experience. In that sense, vegetarianism could serve as an opportunity to work on my own selfishness.

This became a compelling reason for me to stop eating meat. Selfish actions, I've discovered through careful observation of my personal experience, always come back to bite me in the ass. It's really tempting to deny this fact and lie to myself and say, "I can get away with this one..." but opening my eyes to the big picture of cause and effect in this world eventually brought me face to face with the reality that every action comes to fruition in the future; the seeds you plant turn into the fruit you harvest.

A vegetarian diet is a way for me to plant seeds of care and patience in the action of eating, which is helping me cultivate an attitude of care and patience that seems to be enriching every relationship in my life. It's a way to stop planting the seeds of violence and destruction that must inevitably be planted when eating animals, seeds which come to fruition in subtle and confusing ways in everyday life. Whatever the objective facts may say about meat and nutrition, environment, or cruelty, the unquestionable reality is that it's impossible to eat meat without heightening your sense of self and therefore heightening your sense of alienation from others.

The bottom line is that I'm no longer convinced that eating meat is necessary, and whatever marginal benefits may come from having it in the diet don't outweigh the psychological benefit I've enjoyed from giving it up. At the end of the day, happiness is in the mind, not on a plate.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Uselessness of Political Argument

These two articles present different points of view on the question of wealth disparity, both from members of the "1%":

The Purpose of Spectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy
-An article about multimillionaire Edward Conard's new book, which advocates lower taxes on the rich to promote investment.

Stephen King: Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!
-Multimillionaire Steven King's argument for increased taxes on the rich.

High tech capital feeds billions
Before cursing the good fortune of others, take a moment to consider the egotistical motivations for such criticism. Some popular resentment of the rich just stems from immature jealousy--"why does that person have more than me?"--and it ignores the fact that the services provided by the rich have greatly empowered us--bringing food, health, energy, transportation, and information to more and more people. The fact that those elite few have become very powerful themselves is to be expected: you get what you give. That's awesome. Why begrudge their success?

However, a successful person such as Conard can have a blind spot that pokes holes in his best intentions to understand and improve the world: survivorship bias. The article doesn't mention whether he accounts for his good health, opportunity, and luck. In his model, it seems that we just have to choose whether to be art history majors or successful executives. I wonder what his plan is for people who are too sick or too ignorant to become global innovators, or for those who take big risks and fail. If he hasn't considered that, then his grand economic theory may amount to nothing more than an egotistical rant about why he's better than everyone else.

But he has good reason to be tuned into the reality that we have to do a lot of work as a society just to keep everyone alive. There are harsh realities in the world. One is that some people--through chance and skill--are better able to handle responsibility than others, and in our society that responsibility is tied to money, so it's only natural that some people would have more than others. I'm not worried about financial inequality if everyone's standard of living is improving. The fact that it is improving is amazing. Who cares if that process requires the use of ever bigger ranges of numbers in finance? We're never going to run out of numbers.

On the other hand, Steven King's article was also compelling and made an excellent case for supporting social programs that stabilize society, but I don't think the articles are contradictory. The most important point King brought up was that the US economy is suffering, at least for the "99%," because so much investing is happening abroad. But that makes sense--there's a lot of work that can be done abroad. What we have, though, is a double-edged sword: people living in extreme poverty overseas are being used for cheap labor that undercuts a lot of manufacturing labor in the US.

This is a direct problem for those people abroad who are suffering in poverty and for Americans who are not well educated, but we--lucky kids and adults privileged with intelligence, opportunity, and education--are largely shielded from the worst of it. The question is then--what is our role, as smart, well-educated citizens? Well, we can hide from the world, keep ourselves down, repress our feelings, experience life through a television, avoid wealth, vilify people who are different from us, and watch passively as tremendous suffering happens all around us, or we can get creative, get our hands dirty, and maybe improve the world around us a little bit as we improve our own lives and organize our little corner of reality to facilitate peace and happiness.

Does this image really have
anything to do with your life?
Whether you side with King's "tax the rich" plan or Conard's "let the rich invest" idea, it falls on somebody--like us--to find ways to provide meaningful, valuable goods and services that sustain life and also generate income that can either be taxed or invested. Creation of wealth is necessary to make either plan work. Without our success as individuals, there is nothing to share. Vilifying money, resenting the rich, or fighting over the mode of wealth sharing only distracts us from the task at hand. Perhaps the worst thing we can do is let fear and guilt motivate a retreat from the world in a delusional attempt to distance ourselves from the suffering and greed of others. There is actually no escape. But there are countless opportunities to do something beneficial with it.

Our role in improving the world is 100% a matter of how we live our own lives. The political hubris on TV has very little to do with what we will actually leave behind when our lives end. The dichotomies between rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, taxing and investing, greed and charity, personal success and the greater good... these are useless ideas and not worth a moment of our consideration. They distract us from figuring out whether it's actually possible to improve our own lives as we improve the world around us. The question is--do you know, from your own experience, whether that's possible?