Buddhism’s intricate relationship to modern psychology

Buddhism is called the “middle way” because it winds between two other paths. On one hand is the material path, which we follow in the belief that collecting enough possessions, wealth and influential friends will keep us safe from suffering. When that fails we turn to the spiritual path, the belief that by behaving in certain ways we can enter some non-physical reality – heaven or nirvana – where we will also be safe from suffering.

Against The Stream by Noah Levine

The middle way is not separate from either the material or spiritual path. We all live in a material world and have to deal with its sometimes harsh realities, the middle way can help make that experience less stressful and more joyful. We all have a spiritual life that seems to reach beyond purely material concerns, the middle way helps people explore spiritual ideas without taking them too literally. But what the middle way actually IS can be very hard to grasp at times.

Josh Korda is a member of the Dharma Punx community founded by Noah Levine, who publish a regular podcast that is one of the best sources of contemporary Buddhist teaching I have found. Josh now leads the New York Dharma Punx group,and his podcasts from their meetings reveal a fascinating insight into the middle way of Buddhism.

Modern psychology and the dharma: the true and false self.

Modern psychology and the dharma: irrational thoughts and beliefs.

Modern psychology and the dharma: alternatives to repression denial and avoidance.

It’s often argued the modern discipline most closely related to the 2500 year old tradition of Buddhism is psychology. In the three talks above Josh Korda delves into this idea in detail, comparing the work of 20th century psychologists to the Buddhist teachings from the Pali cannon, the oldest Buddhist texts believed by many to best represent the original essence of Buddhism.

Even if you accept the idea that Buddhism is an early form of psychology, it may not be immediately clear what that means. The middle way does not try to change the outer world like the material path. Neither does it try to escape the outer world like the spiritual path. Instead it asks those who follow it to turn their attention inward, to look at our inner world, and to examine the thing that makes that inner world: the mind.

But examining our our mind can be a far from comforting activity. In the second talk in the series, Josh Korda looks at the well known ABC model taken from cognitive psychology of the Activating event, our Belief in what that event means, and the Consequences of that belief. For instance, if we believe that an event like losing our job will lead to starvation the consequence is we will panic. But if we believe we will simply find a better job, the consequence is we will calmly look for new employment. More often than not, it’s our own beliefs that create suffering in life. But how many of us, when we encounter a problem in life, have the presence of mind to admit that we are very likely the problem’s cause? And how many of us will choose to look more deeply at our mind when that action constantly challenges us to take responsibility for ur own problems?

The insights shared between Buddhism and psychology are deeply fascinating. While you may well choose to believe in neither, and ignore the middle way in favour of a path of your own choosing, I suspect Josh Korda’s talks will be useful to you whether you beieve in them or not.

Read more about the five spiritual practices that lead to true power with Thich Nhat Hanh, or follow the advice of Alan Watts to find security in insecurity.


Quality writing is not subjectve

This is a short sequel expanding on the question of why writing workshops fail (but why you still need one).

So how do we end up in this situation, with groups of unskilled writers gathered together in workshops kicking the crap out of each others emotions to no useful purpose? Well it’s one of many destructive outcomes from the most pervasive myth in writing (and in many creative activities), the myth that quality is subjective.

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NO NO NO NO NO. NO. Buying in to the idea of quality as subjective is the very best way to completely disempower yourself as a writer. The quality of writing is as objective as anything else in this realm of existence. Choosing a Mercedes over a Chrysler may be subjective. But the layers of engineering, from the metallurgy employed to make the basic materials, up to the aerodynamics of the body, are entirely and demonstrably objective.

If you can’t write a decent sentence, you can’t write. Full stop. If you can’t carry a single idea from one end of a paragraph to another, your writing quickly loses meaning. If you don’t understand the dramatic structure you are working with, you don’t have a story. The end. Writing is as technically demanding, and requires the same breadth of technical knowledge, as law, engineering or medicine. And when you think through the influence that written language exerts over our culture and society, it’s every bit as essential.

If you’re scoffing at that suggestion, it’s because you have internalised the idea that writing and the quality of writing are subjective. Imagine if you wanted to be a lawyer, but instead of learning the law, every time you lost a case you just excused yourself by saying “Bah!  It’s all subjective!” You would be disbarred! And yet thousands upon thousands of people are drawn towards the profession of writing, only to crash on to rocky shoreline of quality. You can’t really get good at writing (or anything else for that matter) until you acknowledge that you CAN get good at it. And you can’t even begin that process until you recognise that being good at writing, like being good at anything, is far from a subjective matter.

Stan Lee : the greatest storyteller in history?

Creator of a host of enduring superheroes, from Iron Man to the X-Men, his own powers have enabled him to see far into the future.

A billionaire industrialist developing technologies that others believed impossible. A team of heroes using science to understand the universe. A secret government agency protecting its citizens from threats that may not even exist. No, these aren’t characters in a Stan Lee comic: Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the heroic researchers at LIGO, and the secretive folks at the NSA and GCHQ are very real parts of a world – ours – that seems to become more like an extension of the Marvel universe every day.

Unless you’ve been in cryogenic deep freeze for the last decade, you’ve probably noticed the wave of Marvel film and television franchises breaking relentlessly across the entertainment landscape. What’s slightly less obvious is that almost all these stories were originally created by the same comic book writer. Deep breath: Spider-Man, the X-­Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, SHIELD, Daredevil: all of them were created by Stan Lee.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

This is how you make a Fantastic Four reboot great

You cast the characters from Big Bang Theory in the lead roles.

There have been three terrible film adaptations of the Fantastic Four, one so awful it was never even released. The two big studio adaptations both suck for the same reasons – they take a fun, very kitsch, self-referential comic like FF4 and take it WAY TOO DAMN SERIOUSLY. What FF4 needs is HUMOUR.

Do I really have to explain the casting? Sigh, ok.

SHELDON – as Reed Richards, natural casting choice.

PENNY – as a sarcastic Sue Storm.

RAJ – Human Torch

LEONARD – The Thing. Yes, he keeps the glasses.

If that doesn’t get your butt on a seat for a FF4 re-boot, nothing ever will.

Oh, all right then. HOWARD as Doctor Doom.

Science and superheroes : how close are we to creating real superpowers?

As Marvel’s Deadpool hits screens we ask: with three out of five fictional superheroes owing their powers to science, will we ever have real superpowers?

There are, according to the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game (a source I am choosing to accept as 100% canonical), five general origins for all superheroic powers: Altered Humans (Spiderman, Fantastic Four), High-Tech Wonders (Iron Man, Batman), Mutants (X-Men,) Robots (The Vision) and Aliens (Superman and gods like Thor).

Until quite recently all five of the general origins of super powers seemed entirely beyond reach. But is the high speed advance of science in the 21st century bringing those superpowers based upon it – Altered Humans, High Tech Wonders and Robots – any closer?

Read more @ Guardian Science.