My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.
Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice
by Krista Tippett, host
Matthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.
I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.
But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman swathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.
I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators" — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.
Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.
He had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.
Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.
The question for me is, how do we love wisdom — philosophia — in the face of impending catastrophe, given the kind of thinking, loving, caring, laughing, dancing animals that we are?
For touring, my Kindle is just about the greatest thing I own. I have a few hundred books on it and have recently been going back and rereading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I was in college I was a philosophy major and now I feel like forgotten almost everything I’ve learned. So I’m putting myself through a Bertrand Russell refresher course. On tour, however, I also tend to read a lot of what you’d probably call plot-driven airport fiction—I go through that like water.
Integrity has no need of rules.
Our Robotic Moment: Turkle Says We Should Be Reframing the Questions about Technology and Our Humanity
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Humanoid robot ASIMO directs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (photo by: Honda, Ars Electronica/Flickr)
"The options are given in the description of the situation. We can call this the package problem. In the real world, situations are not bundled together with options. In the real world, the act of framing — the act of describing a situation, and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made — is itself a moral task. It’s often the moral task. Learning how to recognize what is and isn’t an option is part of our ethical development…In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”
In her latest book Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle cites this passage from Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiment in Ethics to raise an important point about context and decision-making. She is concerned about the way we set up such important social questions, “quandaries” she calls them, such as: “Do you want seniors lonely and bored, or do you want them engaged with a robotic companion?” A “robotic companion,” in fact, may not be the only solution or even a viable one to “lonely and bored.”
She wants to make sure we’ve considered moral issues not only when setting up a quandary, but also when responding to it. And as Appiah suggests, how you frame and respond to a quandary is a moral issue that is part of a person’s moral development and obligation. Turkle takes on this task by questioning how we think about our relationship with technology.
In our show this week (title "Alive Enough?"), Sherry Turkle asks how we can shape technology to serve human purposes and not the other way around. During one poignant moment of the interview, she tells a story about how children and others have reframed one of the most fundamental questions of reality, about recognizing “aliveness” and having a new kind of pragmatism about how alive something needs to be for its purpose.
"By the time of the Darwin exhibit in 2006 I think, my daughter saw a Galapagos turtle which had been brought up from the islands, this was the life that Darwin saw. And she looks at this turtle…and she looks at me and she says, because this turtle is sleeping, she says ‘for what this turtle is doing, they could have just had a robot.’ And it struck me that from her point of view, the fact that it was alive mattered not at all.”
The package problem around technology is that most people simply want to ask whether it’s good or bad for us, and not how it changes us. How it changes us can be as complex and as fundamental as how we recognize life’s worth.
About the image: (lower right) A giant Galápagos tortoise on display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibition. The diorama was labeled with a “Live!” sticker. (photo: Andrew D. Miller/Flickr)
Are You a Philo Fan?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
Are you a Philo fan? Robert Wright is, as you can see in the video above.
Wright devotes a couple of chapters in The Evolution of God to exploring the Hellinistic Jewish philosopher’s influence on religious philosophy. Here, Wright illustrates his view that Philo helped give us both a morally and an intellectually modern God:
"…it’s worth taking a look at the ancient Abrahamic thinker who tried supremely to have it both ways: to see divinity abstractly, as a kind of logic running through history, yet to do so in a way that preserved the emotional satisfaction of traditional religion."
My introduction to Philo came through a quote that’s posted on the desk of our managing producer: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” (a quote apparently often wrongly attributed to Plato or Socrates).
After hearing Wright talk about Philo, I’ve been digging around to learn more about this man who straddled two worlds, and why, though not widely accepted in his time, he holds resonance for ours. Are you a Philo fan?
Prayer, Attention, and Will
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
As I was listening to last week’s program, one part that stood out to me was Krista’s question to Stephen Mitchell about the last line in his book, The Enlightened Mind, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” A quote from the French philosopher Simone Weil, Mitchell responded:
Well, that’s a marvelous definition. I love that. I think that could be as close as someone can get to a wonderful definition of prayer. In that sense, prayer has nothing religious about it. A mathematician working at a problem or a little kid trying to pick out scales on the piano is a person at prayer.
Weil has come up before at SOF, as a potential candidate in another run of programs about historical figures (we just finished the first series with our program about Sitting Bull). Intrigued, I did a bit of searching an found the quote in an essay by Weil titled “Attention and Will,” from Gravity and Grace, the first collection of her essays to be published in book form. Here’s the same quote with a bit more context:
We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.
The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them. To beg for them is to believe that we have a Father in heaven. Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.
Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.