Book Review-Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself

I didn’t really intend to spend so much time investigating Buddhism. Mark Epstein was recommended reading for me as I tried to integrate Western thoughts on positive attachment and Buddhist beliefs that attachment is the root of suffering. As I read Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, I began to see how both traditional Western psychotherapy and Buddhism revolve around finding a way to align our thoughts with reality. It’s not that we don’t need ego, and that it should be crushed or destroyed – nor does it mean that we should necessarily inflate it to be bigger than it should be.

In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Epstein looks at a few small components of Buddhism centered around the concept that life is suffering. In Advice Not Given he walks, chapter-by-chapter, through the Eightfold Path, introducing the traditional thinking and integrating Western psychology. However, he starts by framing the primary work of the path: our ego.

Our Ego

It’s the one affliction that we all have in common. We all have egos. We’re constantly tending to the size and shape of our ego – or it’s running amuck and causing havoc to us and to others in our lives. Unrestrained, the ego implores us to be bigger, better, stronger, richer, more attractive and more. The result is a constant nagging fear that we won’t be enough. It’s a self-doubt that is hard to shake. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on being enough.)

Conversely, some degenerate the ego and believe that it’s bad. John Dixon in Humilitas says, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” That is, those whose ego is sufficient to operate with conviction are confused with those whose ego is out of control. (See The Wisdom of Not Invented Here for a collected set of ego references.)

Enlightenment

A Hunger for Healing quotes a Zen (Buddhist) saying: “After enlightenment, draw water, chop wood.” Advice Not Given repeats this as, “after ecstasy, it is said, comes the laundry.” That is that while the Eightfold Path – and all self-reflection may lead to enlightenment– it doesn’t alleviate our need to be in the world and attend to our material needs and duties. After all, enlightenment (or awaking) doesn’t make the ego disappear, it changes our relationship to it.

The Eightfold Path to enlightenment is:

  • Right View
  • Right Motivation
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Before looking at each component, it’s important to pause and address the use of the word “right.” Epstein makes a point that the word doesn’t have to be translated to right as in “correct.” The original word could also mean “realistic” or “complete.” Epstein shares that he thinks of it as balanced, attuned, or fitting. This is important, because there’s no one “right” way to walk the path. There is a way of walking the path that is balanced or attuned to you, your needs, and the needs of the world around you.

Let’s walk the path as Epstein did.

Right View

Accepting reality as it is – not as we want it to be – is hard. It is, however, necessary to be in harmony with it. The right view has us constantly seeking to accept reality for what it is. The Serenity Prayer includes, “Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it.”

Too often, we see something unpleasant or discomforting, and we turn away from it. We seek to avoid the suffering of this life and only make it double. Right view isn’t eliminating suffering, but it’s changing how we approach it, so that it’s no larger and no smaller than it should be. It’s recognizing that both happiness and suffering – and everything else – is temporary. We don’t need to grasp onto it too tightly.

Right Motivation

We all have unconscious desires that drive us. Right motivation suggests that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our neuroses. By shining light into the dark places of our soul, we can come to know them – and address them in healthier ways. We must, of course, admit that the dark places exist. We must accept that there are parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know and some that we may not like.

Motivation also means a balance between the need to develop wisdom and the need to cultivate compassion. Epstein recounts more than one situation where a hermit was admonished for not living in the world. Buddha made a point of having his monks go out into the community each day to keep them connected to the world and realize that they weren’t above or apart from the rest of the world.

Right Speech

Traditionally, right speech is about refraining from harmful talk, like lying, gossip, and such. However, it can have a deeper meaning about not just the talk that we share outwardly with others but also with the talk whispered under our breath and our self-talk. If people heard what we say to ourselves about ourselves, they would be appalled. We speak to ourselves in such a compassionless and unfair way – and we continue to allow it.

Right speech leads us to pay attention to the space between thought and action to create more space and give us greater opportunity to intervene before harmful words or actions occur. Sometimes that intervention is to prevent us from adding more meaning than is there. (See Choice Theory and Argyris’ Ladder of Inference for more on how we add meaning.) Sometimes that intervention is to assess whether what we’re thinking is just a thought or whether it is reality. Too often, we believe that we know reality, when we’re just making a series of assumptions.

We can create a space where we’re open, accepting, and inquisitive about our inner lives and the inner lives of others. In this space, we can process our thoughts and emotions, comparing them with reality and enabling us to prevent past hurts from being borne out into the future.

Right Action

Right action is about not acting destructively. This means many of the things that make God’s top ten list (also known as the Ten Commandments): killing, stealing, etc. It also includes things like excessive drinking, which didn’t make God’s top ten list but are addressed in the Bible. It’s important to recognize, as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, that all religions fundamentally operate in the same direction – towards love. (See The Book of Joy for more.)

Much of right action could be compared to The Marshmallow Test. It’s denying our selfish, immediate needs in the service of greater rewards in the future. It’s difficult to delay our gratification and be willing to confront difficult decisions when they don’t fit with our previously established ideas or vows.

We have to live in the world – even when what is happening to us in the world isn’t what we planned. If our lives aren’t going along the script that we had planned, we have to accept that and only take the actions that we can to move us forward – without an attempt to overcontrol things.

Right Livelihood

Everyone has to make a living –but you don’t have to do it in a way that is deceitful or exploitative. The heart of right livelihood is finding a way to live which enriches your life – and the life of others. Making money is necessary. However, making money while preying on others isn’t.

Right Effort

The middle way – neither living in self-denial or indulgent materialism – is what right effort is about. It reflects the nature of life where both extremes on a continuum are bad. Only a middle path balances discipline and love. Children, as Donald Winnicott noted, need “good enough” parenting that doesn’t over indulge nor neglect the child for them to develop normally. Children need challenges, but, at the same time, they need to know that they’re supported.

Like strings on an instrument that can be too tight or too loose, we need to find the right grip on the things we work at so that we neither over- nor under-control. This delicate balance – the middle way – isn’t easy, but the result of the rightly-tuned string is good music. The result of the rightly-tuned life is happiness.

Right Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a bit of a misnomer. The word used is sati – which means “remembering.” When we’re being mindful, we’re remembering to pay attention to the world – and ourselves. Mindfulness isn’t anything special or additional that must be done. It’s not something that’s done only in the midst of meditation. Mindfulness is a way of viewing things where you keep an eye on your own mental processes.

In the learning and education space, it’s called “metacognitive.” In the Buddhist context, it’s keeping a distant eye on the processing that’s happening, so that we’re more aware of it.

Right Concentration

In terms of teaching, concentration is typically taught before mindfulness, because it’s useful in the process of trying to be mindful. In truth, we’re not taught how to concentrate in our schools or societies. Though concentration is a powerful force – like how focusing light makes a laser that can cut metal – it’s not something that most folks know how to do.

Together

Together, these ideas are the path towards enlightenment. However, even those on the path may find that they are buffeted by the waves of uncertainty and change. If you’re trying to find peace, Advice Not Given counsels, it’s important to remember that the waves are a part of the ocean. They rise, and they descend, but they’re all a part of the ocean.

Perhaps my favorite part of Advice Not Given is the ending. “Our egos do not have to have the last word.” Our egos may keep us from accepting advice, but it can’t stop us from reading Advice Not Given.

Book Review-The Trauma of Everyday Life

Trauma is everywhere. It spares no one. The constant march of time propels it forward without end. It’s The Trauma of Everyday Life that Buddha spoke of when he used the word dukkha. It’s the suffering that we all face. Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life succeeds in helping to explain some fundamentals of our mental worlds as they intersect in Western and Buddhist philosophies.

Suffering

A man was being followed. Every street he turned onto, this figure followed. He ran, and the figure ran, too – as fast as he did. Every step, the figure followed. As he slowed, so did the figure. It was half an hour before the man realized that he was running from his shadow. That’s the experience that we have in life when we seek to avoid suffering. Wherever we go, suffering and trauma is there. We cannot escape it, because it’s an inescapable part of our lives.

Buddha called it dukkha, which is most typically translated as “suffering,” but the literal meaning is closer to “hard to face.” In Jewish and Christian traditions, it’s described that we live in a fallen world. The brokenness, pain, and suffering we experience are – according to the tradition – a result of the original sin. They’re a part of our existence now.

In Buddhist writings, there is a story of a woman carrying her dead baby and looking for a physician to bring the baby back to life. The Buddha told her to bring back mustard seeds from a family that had never known death. Of course, she couldn’t find any family who hadn’t experienced death. In the process, she realized that she wasn’t alone in her suffering and finally let go of her baby.

Suffering is a universal and unfortunate part of our lives, but we can’t run from it; we must accept it as a truth rather than try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s Not Your Fault

Suffering or tragedy is not your fault. It’s not “ye of little faith” that causes the suffering. You didn’t do anything wrong. Even with Buddha’s belief in karma, he believed that perhaps only one in eight bad things that happen to a person is related to their bad karma. That is even the most consequential view. The good or bad you did that was reflected back to you didn’t necessarily lead – in his opinion – to suffering. Suffering is, as was the first noble truth, simply a part of life.

When you accept that suffering – or “trauma,” the word Mark Epstein uses – is a fundamental part of our world, you can let go of the shame and guilt that you’re receiving suffering as the consequences for your living. You can address only the suffering and not the feelings that the suffering brings up.

The Path Through Suffering

Many people believe that the way to happiness and joy is to avoid suffering. This is like the idea that mental health is the absence of mental illness. (See Flourish.) Both are fallacies. Joy isn’t the absence of pain and suffering. Joy is something else.

In fact, the path to joy isn’t in the opposite direction of suffering – it’s through it. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama speak of the path to joy – and to how their joy led them both through struggles. If we stop short of joy at inner peace, we find that it too takes a path through suffering – not around it.

We can’t avoid suffering, we can’t run in fear that we may be hurt. Instead, we walk through it, not minimizing the suffering but acknowledging it as impermanent – only temporary. When we choose to run away from the possibility of suffering, we cheat ourselves out of a whole life and spend our time running from our own shadow, pretending that we can get away from suffering.

A View of Suffering

The pain we feel from something that goes wrong, misses our expectations, or harms us is only the first thing. What is more challenging – and longer lasting – is the harm that we cause ourselves by the perspective we take to the suffering.

Consider a beautiful vase in a store that you see crash to the ground. Though it is bad, you’re likely to not feel much. When the same vase is in your home and it’s a prized possession, because you bought it on your last vacation with your mother before she died, it will likely bring more suffering. The vase itself is the same. The meaning that we assign to it – and the perspective on the loss – is different. It’s that difference that causes the pain.

Another point of view is the old story about two Buddhist monks who had taken a vow to never touch a woman. Seeing a woman struggling and in need of assistance across a river, one carries her to the other side. He continues for the rest of the day with his companion, who finally explodes, “How could you carry that woman? You took a vow.” The first monk responds, “I only carried her across the river; you’ve carried her all day.” In one perspective, the monk was responding to the greater need for compassion than the limitation of his vow, and, in the second, the broken vow was unforgivable.

The first monk presumably suffered with the conflict between his vow to not touch a woman and his commitment to cultivating his compassion. This conflict was suffering – but briefly held as he moved on. The other monk presumably felt the same conflict but carried the suffering as his companion carried the woman.

Suffering is less about the objective pain or discomfort that we feel and more about how we view that pain – as having meaning or being pointless. (For more, see The Hope Circuit.) The way that we process the pain is substantially more important than the pain itself. (See Flourish for the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth.)

Basic Buddhist Meditation

There are many kinds of meditative practices and perspectives on those practices. However, the most basic meditative practices in Buddhism are about watching your breath or body. The idea is not that you’re trying to change anything. Instead, you simply watch your thoughts and gently guide them back to your breath.

Not only is there no condemnation if your mind wanders, there is an expectation that it will wander. Even the most practiced meditators find that their mind wanders from time to time, and they simply lead it back gently and firmly, like you would a child.

Embedded in this practice is a paradox. People often come to meditation to change their life, to make pains disappear, or to feel less anxiety. The meditation itself isn’t trying to change anything. People change through these practices while they’re not trying to change anything.

Impermanence

One of the things about our breath is that it is constantly changing. Each breath is slightly different from the last, like snowflakes gently drifting down into our consciousness before melting away. All of life is like these snowflakes, which are here for the moment and then gone or changed the next. Our perspective that things are permanent is an illusion.

Scientists typically prefer to picture time as being laid out along a line and that we are simply moving along that line. Everything that will happen has – in essence – already happened. While this challenges our belief in our free will, it helps us visualize impermanence. We don’t expect that our home will exist in the same way that it does forever – or that we’ll even own it. Instead, we can recognize that everything that we feel is permanent really isn’t.

Absolute-isms

We like to believe that the world is much more cause-and-effect than it really is. We like to forget that there are probabilities in everything. We believe that we’re going to drive to the store safely – even though there is a small chance of an accident. These absolute-isms that things are going to be OK are what allow us to function. (See Change or Die for more on this.) Trauma can take these absolute-isms from us and force us to deal with our world in a more realistic way.

For me, losing my brother to an airplane accident was probably my singularly worst moment. In addition to losing a brother and a friend, I had to confront that even the best pilot and mechanic could have a set of things happen that he couldn’t compensate for. I had to come face to face with knowing that, no matter how good a pilot he was, it wasn’t enough.

Emotions

The mistaken impression of most is that Buddha transcended emotion. He eradicated it from his life and from the things that burdened his spirit. However, in truth, it’s more accurate to say that he learned how to come to terms with his emotions. He didn’t fear that they would overtake him and run amuck. Nor did he berate himself for negative (or afflictive) thoughts. He learned to simply allow his emotions to pass by as he saw them.

So many people want relief from the pressures of their emotions. The result is they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, and other maladaptive coping strategies to allow them to numb themselves from their unpleasant emotions. This approach is different than the approach of learning to work with your emotions.

The Problem of Attachment

Buddha was surrounded by those who thought that the path to enlightenment was found through denying oneself and through inducing more suffering. However, as Buddha articulated, life is suffering. There is then no reason to try to add to it. There is enough suffering. Conversely, there were those who believed that there was no reason to suffer, that they should live life to its fullest and be materialistic in their desires. This too, he thought was wrong. Thus, he developed a middle way, which acknowledges life for what it is and still seeks to make it better.

In the middle way, Buddha realized that there is nothing wrong with pleasure. The problems that most people ascribed to pleasure were really problems with attachment to the outcomes, objects, and people that are necessarily impermanent.

Integrated Self Image

Epstein speaks of Buddha’s dreams and how he learned how to accept himself fully. He didn’t trouble himself with second-guessing. He accepted his bad parts – and his good parts – as one integrated person. He isn’t the result of one decision, one thought, or one action. He’s one collective whole. This is a concept that I’ve written about before in my reviews of Rising Strong, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Clearly, it’s a recurring concept and important to me personally. I believe that developing an integrated self-image is key to surviving The Trauma of Everyday Life. What do you think?

Book Review-The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

There aren’t many members in the moral leaders club. For that reason alone, when two moral leaders – The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – gather to share deep discussions of morality and, in this case, joy, it’s worth investigating. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World both chronicles the meeting and walks through the agreements and disagreements of these two great leaders.

What is Joy?

I’ve written about my journey to find happiness with many reviews (Stumbling on Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, Flourish, etc.). I’ve considered the difference between hedonistic happiness and value-based happiness in my reading and reviews of The Time Paradox and The Happiness Hypothesis. Joy is something different.

The Archbishop says, “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” The Dalai Lama echoes this in the inverse by saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Joy, then, is a conscious choice to respond to our circumstances in a positive and fulfilling way. We cannot change our circumstances, but we can change how we respond.

Everyone Has Pain

The Archbishop comments, “I’m really actually very humbled listening to His Holiness, because I’ve frequently mentioned to people the fact of his serenity and his calm and joyfulness. We would probably have said ‘in spite of’ the adversity, but it seems like he’s saying ‘because of’ the adversity that this has evolved for him.” The Dalai Lama has certainly known pain. It isn’t in spite of the pain that he’s become the great man he is today but rather because of it. It’s because of the way that he’s been able to work through his pain and choose his response that he is revered – even by other leaders – for his serenity, calm, and joyfulness.

The research says that if you “help” hatching sea turtles to get to the ocean, you’ll disrupt their sense of bearing and ultimately kill them. If you “help” a chick to escape the egg shell, you’ll condemn it to death. Even our stem cells need biological stress to cause them to become the specific cells we need. Pain, stress, hardship, challenge, or whatever you call it is the power that drives us to be better.

The challenge, as we learned in The Hope Circuit, is to find meaning in the pain. Without meaning to our pain, we see no sense to it nor control, and we develop the state of learned helplessness – or, rather, we fail to develop a sense of control that enables us to persevere. So, it’s not in spite of hardship that we develop joy but through it.

Dejection

Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master, wrote, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” It is key for joy to not be sucked in by destructive emotions like dejection. Shantideva is saying that, on both sides of the coin, dejection is not useful. If nothing can be done, then your dejection will do nothing but further zap your energy. If something can be done, then why wallow in a dejected state – why not just go do it?

Ultimately, the feeling of dejection arises when you don’t believe that you can do anything about your situation – that you have no control. This may be the literal truth, but being dejected does nothing to change that fact. In fact, it reduces your capacity to do other things. By accepting that you can’t do anything and moving on, you’re better off.

Destructive Emotions

Dejection is only one form of destructive emotion. Other destructive emotions like envy literally block a person’s ability to feel love, empathy, and compassion, and, as a result, they prevent joy. Destructive Emotions is the subject of a book by Daniel Goleman and The Dalai Lama. It came from a set of meetings between spiritual leaders and scientists. The conversation centered on the Buddhist belief that emotions can be either afflictive or non-afflictive. In other words, they can be either destructive or not.

The problem with destructive emotions is that they block the path to joy. Anger that is maintained for too long becomes afflictive (destructive) and keeps someone from reaching joy. The path to joy, in this case, is through forgiveness or letting go of the anger. Consider a man who was imprisoned for 30 years, who was asked how he could forgive those who jailed him. His response was, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”

Despite the encouragement to release destructive emotions, both the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop acknowledge that destructive emotions come to everyone, and there should be no shame in them occurring. They should simply be set aside.

Emotional Control

One of the areas that the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama disagree is the degree to which people have control of their emotions. The Archbishop feels like people have little influence on their emotions, and the Dalai Lama feels that we have more. How Emotions Are Made argues that emotions are entirely constructed in our mind – and therefore we should be able to control our emotions. While I think that this goes too far, to say that we have significant influence on our emotions isn’t an understatement.

Paul Ekman has been working with the Dalai Lama since Daniel Goleman introduced him back at the conference that led to the Destructive Emotions book. In fact, Ekman and the Dalai Lama have authored a book titled Emotional Awareness. Ekman is known for his work in developing the facial action coding system (FACS) or, more colloquially, in his ability to train people to detect lies. (See Telling Lies for more.) Ekman believes that, in addition to the ability to shape your emotions, there’s a gap between feeling the emotion and responding, and that this gap can be cultivated. However, he cautions that this isn’t easy, because evolution designed emotions and their responses to happen quickly.

Shifting Perceptions

Jinpa (who is the Dalai Lama’s primary English interpreter) mentions that it’s much easier to change perceptions than it is to change your emotions. I find this to be very true. To change perception simply requires examining the perception and others’ perceptions. However, telling someone that they shouldn’t be angry denies and invalidates them. (See Motivational Interviewing for more)

Once perceptions are changed, it’s possible to get folks to re-evaluate their emotions in the context of new information. Sometimes they are so moved that they will adjust their emotion to match the facts – but often not without internal difficulty. I often encounter people saying that they know that they shouldn’t be angry, frustrated, sad, etc., but they still are. The feelings, however, tend to fade with time.

Multiple Brain Circuits

What we may be experiencing is the same sort of tug of war that we saw in The Hope Circuit, where the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is able to dampen the response of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). It takes time (and training) for one part of the brain to attenuate the function of another. The more we research the brain, the more we realize that there are separate, sometimes redundant, pathways. Richard Davidson, for instance, discovered there are four separate brain “circuits” involved in joy. There are one each for maintaining positive states, recovering from negative states, generating focus and anti-mind-wandering, and generosity. It’s amazing that we have four separate circuits that are converged on the ability to help us find joy.

The fact that nature designed so much into the possibility of joy gives us hope that we can each find our own joy – irrespective of our circumstances.

Cultivating Joy

In the end, it’s possible to cultivate joy by cultivating our compassion and focusing our thoughts towards more compassionate directions. Further, we can cultivate joy by forming and maintaining intimate relationships with other humans. The more connected we become to others in a meaningful way, the more joy we find.

Breaking Traditions

There are traditions in each religion. For Christians – particularly Catholics – it’s traditional to only offer the Eucharist to other Christians. It’s the symbolic body of Jesus and his blood. The thinking goes that you would want to only offer this special rite to those who would honor it. For the Dalai Lama, he made a vow not to dance. Both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama broke their tradition (or vow) during the course of their meeting. The Archbishop by offering the Dalai Lama the Eucharist and the Dalai Lama by indulging in a bit of a dance to follow the Archbishop’s irrepressible boogie.

To some this may seem like a major transgression; to me, it seems like an awareness that the customs, conventions, and vows are designed to direct us towards the goal of our religion – which both men would describe as love. In context, love most likely equates to the Greek word agape, and thus is essentially the same as compassion. I was impressed, when I read Heroic Leadership, to find that the Jesuits focused on the essentials of their beliefs and bent those traditions that inhibited their ability to become a part of other communities. I see these leaders’ acts as attempts to close the gaps between differing religious views and to unify us all in our acceptance of everyone.

We open ourselves up to joy when we realize that we’re all a part of one large community of humans, and we desire to be in relationships with others. The Book of Joy is written with space for all our names. We just need to seek to be in community with all of our brothers and sisters across the planet Earth.

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Most folks don’t describe Christianity with the adjective “mere.” However, C.S. Lewis isn’t most folks – rather, he’s a common man with an uncommon view. Mere Christianity is the written record of what started as a series of BBC broadcasts to help explain what Christians believed. He didn’t speak as an authoritative source who had dedicated his life to the scholarly study and application of ancient texts in Christianity. He came as a man who could see to the heart of Christianity and who could speak so eloquently that anyone could understand what he saw in it.

The One Denomination to Rule Them All

Lewis quickly dispensed with the internal conflict that pits Christian against Christian and divides the one brotherhood into many different factions. He describes a great hall off of which each of the denominations has a room. He invites us to stand in the hall, accepting the rules of the house – the rules all Christians believe – but also to move into a room where we can be comfortable and fed.

To Lewis, it seems, all of Christianity receives the benefits of the house, no matter which room you’re in. He has no quarrel with someone who believes in Christ but believes slightly differently about things that matter little.

Pathfinding

Finding our individual paths isn’t easy. There are times when we’ll end up off track. Lewis has a way of conveying the fundamental truths about finding your path that is both practical and direct. Whether it’s reminding us that going farther in the wrong direction doesn’t bring us closer to our goal or that progress isn’t just changing, it’s changing for the better, Lewis is gently reminding us that, in whatever journey we’re on, we must keep the end in mind.

With understanding Christianity, our goal is to understand how to behave more like Christ would behave. Before this, however, we must think through how we have come to believe this goal. We must move through the theological and ideological challenges that have been laid at the feet of Christianity and be able to explain them to ourselves with reasonable satisfaction.

It’s only then that we can start on the path forward to find where walking in Christ’s footsteps will lead us.

Other Religions

It’s not like Christianity is the only game in town when it comes to religion. However, there are some distinct differences. Christianity is the only religion where your sins have already been paid for – you’ve been redeemed. Sometimes, however, other religions are more appealing. They provide the same comfort of believing in a benevolent power greater than yourselves with none of the guilt.

Still, Lewis remains open to Christians to considering other religions and believing that they may have some hint of truth. After all, when you’re dealing with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being that created the universe, it’s possible that we may not be able to fully comprehend him.

Free Will

Injecting common sense into a difficult argument, Lewis points out that free will opens the door to evil in the world. However, at the same time, the only way to truly express love, goodness, or joy is to do it freely. Free will is an expensive tool that makes it possible to see into the hearts of men and illuminate meaning and intent in ways that perfunctory words could not.

The God of the Material

The Christian (and therefore Jewish and Muslim as well) God is said to be a jealous God. We’re to make no god before him. However, what does that mean? Certainly, the Bible is clear about making golden calves, but few people would do that today. It doesn’t need to be taken in the completely literal sense. Having a god before God can be anything that takes the place of importance.

Some worship at the shrine of football. Others worship at the shopping mall. Others worship their beauty. The idols that we have today aren’t explicitly called out as other gods, yet we insist that they must come before everything else.

God is Love

If God is love, then a discussion of Christianity should include a conversation about love. Lewis makes the point that love is a relationship between two. If God is love, then who is he loving? The short answer is us. Lewis spends his time in Mere Christianity focused on those things that are important. It seems like if more people modeled God’s love with others, we wouldn’t just call it Mere Christianity.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Book Review-Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Doubt is a natural and healthy part of the human experience so when Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson crossed my path, I was intrigued. What could I learn about doubt?

The great irony of the book is that it is a history of atheism but one that reaffirmed my faith. Doubt is focused on religious doubt but along the way showed a pattern of even the doubters disagreeing with one another. How can I accept that one of the doubters is right about their doubt if the doubters can’t agree with each other about how or why God doesn’t exist?

What is God?

Humans have been trying to make sense of the world around them and the causes for things since we began to walk upright, if not before. (See Man’s Search for Meaning to see Viktor Frankl’s perspective that meaning is the primary drive of life.) We have been seeking a way to better control our lives and our fates through appeal to powerful beings who could intervene on our behalf. The view of what these powers are has varied culturally, from the polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks to the more modern monotheistic belief in one all-powerful God.

Monotheism finds its roots in Judaism. Once God gave Abraham instruction to kill his son, and before he faithfully carried out God’s command, God intervened. Abraham and his wife then filled the planet with their descendants. (Or so the story goes.) This gave rise to Judaism, which in turn gave rise to Christianity. Jesus put a new spin on the old religion, recasting God as a loving father instead of a vengeful and angry God.

Muslims, too, owe their God to the God of the Jews. Mohammad saw himself as the last in a line of prophets, from Moses to Jesus and finally to him. Of course, today we tend to see Islam as a separate religion, but the roots and heritage are the same.

Not all religions can trace their roots to Judaism. Hinduism has a polytheistic approach like the ancient Greeks, with gods having power over different aspects of life. Buddhism doesn’t have a god as such. The approach here is simply to view the next stage in evolution as a higher place, where we’re disconnected from the encumbrances of our lives.

There are as many views of what God is as there are grains of sand on a beach. However, folks generally fall into the preceding handful of categories. See this pie chart of the various religions:

Disbelief “Proofs”

There have been various ideas of God over the eons of our time on Earth, and so too have there been various ideas about why there cannot be a god or why our conception of God must be wrong. A few of the recurring themes in the history of doubt are:

  • God is the universe/world – This model doesn’t accept that there is a separate entity called “God,” but rather says that there is a universal force in the universe.
  • God logically can’t exist – The proofs offered are different, but they often hinge on the question of who God’s creator is. Since we have no frame of reference for a being that wasn’t created, we assume that this cannot be.
  • God is irrelevant – God is unconcerned with the lives of humans, and the presence or lack of presence of a god is irrelevant to our lives.
  • God is cruel – Why would someone worship a god who has left the world with so much suffering?
  • God was invented to keep people in check – Many of God’s structures seemed be to keep the people in check.

Certainly, there are more variants of the challenges to God’s existence; however, the general idea is that, using our rational thinking and logic, we establish – or fail to establish – a mechanism by which God exists.

Bread and Circuses

The Roman Empire was powerful in its time and strange in its longevity. Some of this is surely due to the times they were in and some to their military presence, but at least some of the reason why the Roman Empire was so successful had to do with how they managed the citizenship. Citizenship was a responsibility. It was something that people could look up to being a part of. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on how membership might change perspectives.)

However, the real genius may have been what has been labeled as “bread and circuses.” The bread component is the ability for everyone to meet their basic needs – including, of course, food. This means that, for most, there was enough to eat to sustain themselves. Having your basic necessities met leads to a lower level of angst. It was thousands of years before we discovered how our basic disposition changes when we’re not well fed. (See The One Thing, Willpower, and Predictably Irrational for more on the impact of low blood sugar on decision-making.) Augustus seemed to know empirically that food was a baseline that must be met.

Circuses is a proxy for entertainment. There were grand spectacles that kept people connected to the magic of the empire. They had their basic needs met, and they got regular entertainment. What else could anyone want? It turns out the answer might be fulfillment.

In Drive, Daniel Pink explains what motivates us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Richard Florida makes a point that, today, we’re seeing the rise of a creative class, where these motivators are strengthened. However, the drivers have always been there behind the scenes, pulling us towards a different way of motivation. Once our basic needs are met, the next thing we want to do is to meet these higher needs. Strangely, in the times of the Roman Empire, we may have found that folks had a great degree of autonomy and felt a great degree of mastery. The missing component was purpose.

If your life is an endless struggle for survival, and each season seems like the next, you’ll start looking for purpose. (See When – also by Daniel Pink – to understand how we created the concept of time to break the monotony.) We’re hardwired as humans to try to make sense of our surroundings. (See Incognito for more on the way we’re wired to make sense of things.)

Religion is a way to make sense out of our world. It’s a way to ascribe meaning to the things that happen to us, even when some of those meanings are painful for us.

Crime and Punishment

One view of God is that He’s just, and therefore anyone who is suffering deserves it. That is, they’re being punished for something they did – or didn’t – do. This is an awful burden to place upon someone who has fallen victim to misfortune. If you lose a brother, it must be because you did something wrong. If you’re sick, you must not have said your prayers. Or perhaps you had too little faith.

This view of God is inconsistent with the literal meaning contained in the Bible – but that doesn’t matter when you’re unable to read. See Faith, Hope, and Love for more on what these really mean – and why it doesn’t mean that you’ve done wrong.

One view is that God was created to keep those who are less fortunate shrouded in shame. In this way, they can be perpetually kept down. (See Daring Greatly for more on shame and its power.)

Karma and Castes

Transitioning from Christianity to Hinduism, there are signs pointing to the fact that the idea of karma was designed to keep the caste system in place. The caste system places people into different strata in society. The idea is that you have a station in life that you should keep.

Karma holds the system in place by helping to explain that you are responsible for your “lot in life.” That is, you must have done something bad in a past life if you find yourself in a lower caste, or something good if you happen to find yourself in a higher caste. Suddenly, there’s an explanation for your bad – or good – luck in life, and it’s you.

It’s not hard to see how one could hold the position that religion is created by the ruling class to keep the working classes down.

Lenin Read a Book of Marx

Marx, a famous atheist, believed that religion was “the opiate of the masses.” That is, it served to dull the pain of a life of struggle. Instead of being to control, Marx believed it served to mollify people. It’s the answer to what bread and circuses couldn’t do. In a great sense of irony, Marxism took on many of the characteristics of a religion. Instead of a religion that had a god, Marxism had a belief that there was no god and no reason to worship anyone. He began an attack on religion.

Lenin liked Marxism but disagreed about religion being bad. Lenin saw no need to immediately remove religion. It was serving a purpose. In his grand plan, religion wouldn’t be necessary any longer; but until the fruition of the plan, there was little reason to rock the boat. Once peoples’ lives were better, they would no longer need the support of religion.

In a ironic twist, most religions have components of helping out your fellow man. What Marx and Lenin wanted to do was have the community or the state do what most religions said they were supposed to be doing.

Morality and the Afterlife

The start of religion concerned itself only with what was going on in this life. It was some time before the idea of an afterlife came into wide acceptance. Many of the “doubters” were concerned not with whether they believed in a god as most religions defined them, but rather what would happen in the absence of the concept of a god. How would individual power of kings and leaders be limited if there wasn’t a higher authority to which people could appeal their case?

Morality is a tricky topic. Haidt seems to have isolated six foundations of morality, as he describes in The Righteous Mind. Bandura speaks volumes about how morality can be disengaged in Moral Disengagement. Milgram’s experiments showed that, with very tiny nudges, most people – good, decent people – could be encouraged to give what they believed were lethal shocks. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more.) It’s no surprise that early philosophers were concerned what would happen if they “killed God” in the service of reason. What happens to morality when you remove its moorings?

With the introduction of an idea that there was something beyond this life, comfort was offered to those losing loved ones, people were more likely to sacrifice themselves for others, and there was a place and time for consequences – both positive and negative – for the decisions made now. The afterlife – or what happens after life – was a good addition to religion, both in terms of easing suffering and in terms of increasing the hold of morality.

The Narrow Gate and the Middle Way

Buddha recommended the Middle Way between self-indulgence and abnegation. Jesus explained, “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13). For Buddha’s part, he said that it was as narrow as a razor’s edge – one must be vigilant against the seductions of either tendency. Jesus’ call was for others to follow him, and in this call is the complexity of what to do is answered by the question now found on bracelets: “What Would Jesus Do?” – or, simply, WWJD. Both calls are about finding the path where indulgence doesn’t rule, but there’s no self-harm through denial of basic needs.

In many cases, organized religion has attempted to simplify the message to a set of rules that can be followed rather than a set of guiding principles. We know from leadership research into excellence that getting everyone aligned around guiding principles is substantially more effective than legislating every action and thought that every person should have.

Even the army recognizes that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. It may be useful to do the planning exercise, but “commander’s intent” is now included with orders. (See Made to Stick for more on this.) Religion may have run aground on the sandbar of rules instead of being guided by purpose.

Failures of Religion

It doesn’t take a scholar to find where religions have failed us. It doesn’t require much work to find priests and ministers having “inappropriate relationships.” It’s not hard to overhear a Jew and a Catholic having a competition about which religion is better at inflicting shame and guilt on its members. At every level, there are places where religion – as a human institution – has failed. I’ve been too close to churches who have shunned the spiritually wounded. I’ve been in the splash zone as people were shamed for their behaviors and their identity.

It seems pointless to enumerate the failures because they are so many. However, it’s these failures that the doubters latch on to. “If there is a god, how can they let this happen?” is a common cry of both believers and those filled with doubt. It’s a hard question that none of the proposed answers seem to satisfy.

Monopoly on Truth

Doubters – like religions – must have some degree of believing that they’ve got a monopoly on the truth. There’s a belief that you’ve figured it out, and the “others” got it wrong. At one level, this is our ego protecting us and our decisions. (See Change or Die.) However, understanding how we come by our belief that we’ve got the only right answer doesn’t make the consequences any less tragic.

The things that have been done in the name of religion are gruesome. Consider how the Protestants were massacred by a king to prevent a revolt – and how the Catholic Parisians extended the carnage to their fellow townsmen. Here, you have two religious groups who believe that Jesus came to save everyone from their sins. They disagreed with some of the church doctrine layered on Jesus’ teaching, but in most ways, they believed the same things. And in the end, three thousand were dead, because they didn’t believe in the church doctrine.

This is hardly an isolated occurrence in any religion. When we become convinced that we – and only we – know the answers, we become vulnerable to irrational rationalizations about how we’re right and others aren’t. For me, it’s important to realize that we all go through a growth process, from following the ideas of others, to being fluent in our understanding of them, and, finally, to detaching and recognizing that there are other views that should be considered as well. (See Following, Fluent, Detaching in Story Genius for more.)

Successes of Religion

Most of the philanthropy done is done in the name of religion. Certainly, religion harms people, but it gathers people together and rallies them for the common good – and a lot of good is done. Religion connects us to one another and helps us to align to a common set of goals. The pursuit of righteousness with God has shaped the moral fiber of many people. So even in its current imperfect state, the religions of the world seem to serve more than they take away from the experience of life.

Religion also comes with a set of rhythms and rituals that help bind us together. They help us to be better at that trick of mindreading (see Mindreading).

Wanting and Lacking

Among the doubters are those who have found the way. They learned how to not want anything – and therefore not feel as if they’re lacking anything. They realized that a change in their fundamental attitude was “all” it took to change their outlook on life. They realized, rather than comparing themselves to others through material things, that they could look at the world as owing them nothing. They could accept the blessings of the things that they had and not long for more – or different.

When you don’t want anything, then you don’t want for anything. When you don’t feel like you need things, then you don’t lack them. Certainly, there’s a need for basic necessities, but once you’re beyond those, what is it that you lack that you need? The answer is typically nothing.

The Fear of Pain

There’s a power to anticipation. While we may discount future gains when comparing them to current losses, we amplify the potential losses. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this asymmetry.) This evolutionary trick may have been helpful when the fears could result in death, but today, most of our pains are not fatal. Yet, there are a great many pains that we face that never really happen. They’re imaginations in our mind. They’re projections of stress that may never come to be. (For more on stress, see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” He knew that there were far more worries in his head than things actually happening that were life threatening – or even truly troublesome. Tucked inside doubt is the awareness that sometimes the healthiest thing is to face fear and pain and move through it.

Consider a storm rolling across the plains. Some animals stand firm in their spot. They hunker down. Other animals move away from the rain and continue as it overtakes them. Other animals charge headlong into the turbulent weather. Which group of animals experiences the least amount of rain? Those animals who are willing (and able) to move into the storm are those who experience the least of it.

Great Awakening

Many doubters consider themselves to have had a great awakening. They believe that they figured out the great mystery of religion. Zen Buddhists believe “Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening.” That is, to really understand the world, you must have great doubt, great curiosity about what is real as opposed to the lie that our eyes and our brain tell us. (See Incognito for more on the lies our brain tells us.)

This mirrors trust. Our ability to truly trust is exposed when others are trustworthy. That is when our trust has been tested. Similarly, we can feel convinced of our great resolve of our faith only after we’ve been tested. It is for this reason that I believe that reading books like Doubt and Misquoting Jesus can help us to become more resolute in our faith.

God Is Love

It’s only fair that I share my beliefs about God and religion. Personally, I believe that every religion gets God wrong. I believe that it’s not possible for our finite and limited human condition to fully comprehend the wonder and majesty that is God. I do not believe in a disinterested God who does not care about us. Nor do I believe that he would like to know our latest tweets.

Many of the great doubters have held out the idea that there may be a god that is the universe. I believe this in that I believe that God is connected to all living things. I believe that God is love. God is the love the binds our human condition to each other. Love – or social cooperation – is what allowed us to succeed in a competitive environment where we have few assets. If you doubt me, perhaps you can develop faith through reading Doubt.