Monday, September 26, 2011

WALKING THE LABYRINTH WITH MINDFULNESS

I have led spiritual retreats over the years as well as attending many church conventions, conferences and the like. At some of the places where these events took place there was a labyrinth which I enjoyed walking. These days, there are even portable and, heaven forbid, online labyrinths!

I have written elsewhere about mindful walking, and much of what I have written on mindful walking is relevantly applicable to walking the labyrinth.

The labyrinth, which is found in various forms in most religious and spiritual traditions and cultures (including Christian, Buddhist, Native American, Greek, Celtic and Mayan), and which has been around for over 4,000 years, provides innumerable opportunities to walk with an open heart and mind. In the process of walking mindfully and meditatively, whether in a labyrinth or elsewhere, you gain insight by simply walking ... and observing. Yes, walking can be a spiritual, indeed a sacred, experience, and the labyrinth is a powerful ‘tool’ for psycho-spiritual growth, self-alignment and transformation. The labyrinth brings us back to our 'centre', that is, to the 'core' of our being, which is the very ground of being itself ... the very self-livingness of life!

The labyrinth, with its mandala-like shape and pattern, is a most ancient archetypal symbol. Now, symbols are very important ‘things’. The Greek word sumbolon (‘throwing together’) ‘means really a correspondence between a noumenon and a phenomenon, between a reality in the higher archetypal world and its outer physical expression here’.

However, the labyrinth is more than just a symbol. As a walking meditation, the labyrinth is a ‘living symbol’ – what H P Blavatsky referred to as ‘concretized truth’ – in that it not only ‘symbolizes’, ‘represents’ or ‘stands for’ something else (the ‘inner reality’ and, in this case, ‘inner spaciousness’), it actually is instrumental in bringing about that reality and, in very truth, is that reality. Life is dynamic and not static. So is the labyrinth. Walking the labyrinth, in the form of 'Circling to the Centre', is engaging in a nonlinear, psycho-spiritual, transformative ritual.

The labyrinth is also a metaphor, and an objective metaphor at that. It is a metaphor for the so-called spiritual journey. Now, I have written elsewhere that, in a very profound sense, there is no journey. We are already ‘there’. The so-called ‘there’ is nothing more nor less than the eternal here-and-now ... and it is, or at least ought to be, more than enough for us! We simply need to be consciously awake, from one moment to the next. That is perhaps why the labyrinth has only one nonlinear path over which you meander back and forth, and that path is unicursal – that is, the way ‘in’ is also the way ‘out’ – as well as being operatively multicursal. (So it is with life. I will have more to say about that below.) Actually, the metaphor of the labyrinth is not so much the labyrinth but the walk itself.

I love the symbolism of the circle. In metaphysics and esoteric spirituality the circle represents the whole universe, eternity, infinity, life itself (as well as the continuum of life), reincarnation or rebirth, God, Spirit, perfection, oneness, the unity of all persons and things ... and so many other things as well. A circle has no beginning and no end, and so refers to what some refer to as the ‘cycle of existence’. Now, the great monotheistic religions assert that life is linear – that is, life had a definite beginning, and life will come to an end at some future point in time. Buddhists and certain others see life as being cyclical and nonlinear in nature. I lean more toward the latter view, but not in the rather mechanical way it is sometimes presented in Buddhism. One thing I do know is this – life is a spatiotemporal continuum of moment-to-moment experiences. Life is endless. In that regard, I love these oft-quoted lines from The Bhagavad-Gita:

Never the spirit was born, the spirit shall cease to be never. End and beginning are dreams. Birthless and deathless, timeless and ceaseless remaineth the spirit forever.

When we think of Aristotle we tend to think of logic, reason and frame-by-frame thinking, but it was Aristotle who said, ‘The soul thinks in images.’ I like that. The soul thinks in images. We need symbols, metaphors, ritual, myth and legend, for by means of those things we find connection.

Now, back to walking the labyrinth. There are three basic designs to the labyrinth – seven circuit (being perhaps the most common design today), eleven circuit, and twelve circuit. More importantly, there are three stages to walking the labyrinth: first, the path in to the centre; second, the centre itself; and third, the path out of the centre.

As already mentioned, there is only one meandering path leading to the centre and back out again ... and there are no dead ends! A maze is altogether different. It has dead ends and trick turns. Some cynics will say that life is like that! Well, the labyrinth is not like that. If you keep walking, you will reach the 'centre'. In my view, life is like that. Yes, as has often been said, no one is lost who knows the 'way' home. You see, there is no one 'right' way to walk the labyrinth. Being a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist, I love that! (I have no patience whatsoever for those who assert that there is only one way to Heaven, God or whatever.) Here, however, are some simple guidelines for walking the labyrinth.

In the Western Christian tradition there are three basic stages to the spiritual path or journey or the ‘mystical’ experience: purgation (or purification), illumination (or contemplation), and union. That is known as ‘The Threefold Path’. (Here is a precis of an address on 'Christian Mysticism' I delivered to a Masonic Rose Croix gathering in Sydney a few years ago.)

Outside, or beyond, the Western Christian tradition, we can speak of the ‘three R’s’ – releasing (that is, emptying the mind, and letting go of 'self'), receiving (that is, experiencing an ‘at-one-ment’ with All that is), and returning ... calmer, and with a deeper connection, as well as sense of connectedness, to oneself (that is, the person you are), to others, and to life itself.

The mystic Paul Brunton expressed it beautifully when he wrote, 'We must empty ourselves if we would be filled.' I have found in my own life that walking the labyrinth mindfully is a simple yet wonderfully powerful tool for self-emptying and spiritual infilling.

The Rev. Dr Lauren Artress, an Episcopalian (Anglican) priest, is the celebrated author of several books on the labyrinth including the invaluable Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. Dr Artress, a renowned ‘labyrinthologist’, writes that walking the labyrinth enables a person to 'gather an inner spaciousness inside' – a transrational and nonlinear experience that others refer to as entering sacred time and space. Dr Artress writes, 'We [have] lost our sense of connection to ourselves and to the vast mystery of creation. The web of creation has been thrown out of balance.' (The great mythographer Joseph Campbell used to say more-or-less the same thing.)

Here is a short video clip (all rights reserved) in which Dr Artress speaks about the sacred path known as the labyrinth:




In walking the labyrinth, anything can 'happen' ... in the form of, for example, thoughts, feelings, sensations, sounds, the physical experience of passing others, and so forth. Whatever arises, whatever happens, can serve as an insight. Returning from and out of the labyrinth is an opportunity to go forth ... ‘awake’. When Shakyamuni Buddha woke up, he said, ‘Now all beings have woken up.’ Perhaps the Buddha was saying that, in truth, there is no difference between the so-called enlightened state and our ordinary life. We live our life as if we were unenlightened. We simply need to observe ... and wake up.

Walking the labyrinth is a right-brain experience. The insight derived comes not from logical, rational frame-by-frame thinking or any kind of thinking for that matter – but from psycho-spiritual intuition, imagery and imagination. The experience gained ought not to be talked away or analysed in any way. It is sacred. Like the initiatory experiences of the ancient mystery schools, the experience of walking the labyrinth is ultimately unspeakable.

As I have written before, truth – that is, reality – cannot be grasped by rational analysis or linear thought. Truth, and the experience of truth, are entirely a matter of direct experience. Once you start analysing truth, you are in the realm of ideas, opinions and beliefs. You have ceased to be in direct contact with truth itself. Ideas, opinions and beliefs are barriers to truth. Krishnamurti may have said (indeed he did say), 'Truth is a pathless land.' Well, the labyrinth may have a path of sorts, but it is as close as you can get to a 'pathless land', for the real 'path' of spacious pathlessness is within you ... in inner space.

To find a labyrinth near you, visit Veriditas, the online home of the Labyrinth Project. As already mentioned, there are even online labyrinths. Here’s a link to a couple of them. The commentary associated with the labyrinth found on this particular link is explicitly Christian (thankfully,  'Progressive Christian') but, with some psycho-spiritual gymnastics on the part of the 'walker', the labyrinth experience in question can still be enjoyed by non-Christians.

So, circle to the centre. Walk the labyrinth ... purposefully and mindfully ... and often.


Postscript: Have you heard of the condition known as labyrinthitis? No, it is not an addictive disease characterised by excessive and obsessive walking of labyrinths. Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear. Fascinating. IEJ.



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Friday, September 23, 2011

MINDFULNESS CURES THE WANDERING MIND

There is an old saying, which I think has the status of a metaphysical or spiritual law – ‘As within, so without.’ There is another old saying, an Oriental maxim, which states, ‘What you think upon grows.’ More and more medical and scientific research is demonstrating the truth of those and other old but wise sayings.

A 2010 Harvard University research study, reported in the 12 November 2010 issue of Science, suggests that people's minds ‘wander’ almost half the time resulting in ... unhappiness. Yes, the researchers found that a wandering mind is usually an unhappy mind.

‘The volunteers' minds were on something other than their current activity 46.9% of the time. And those whose minds were elsewhere were decidedly unhappy.’

The researchers estimate that only 4.6% of a person's degree of happiness was due to the activity they were engaged in, but 10.8% of their happiness could be attributed to whether or not their mind was wandering.

The researchers interpret these findings to mean that people who ‘live in the moment’ – that is, live mindfully from one moment to the next – are happier than those who don't. In other words, those most focused on the present are the happiest. ‘Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people's happiness,’ said the researchers.

An earlier study reported in the 9 January 2007 issue of Science found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in ‘self-referential’ (that is, mindless) thoughts.

As I have often said in these blogs and in other writings of mine, mindfulness is not about silencing or stopping thoughts but rather developing a new and altogether different ‘relationship’ with your thoughts. Instead of grasping, chasing after, or clinging to thoughts, you simply observe. That means, among things, that you not identify with any thoughts as they arise ... and they will! If you identify with any thought, you give it power and intensity. You know that to be true from past experience.

As soon as you recognise that your mind is restless or wandering, ‘note’ that fact. Then you can simply observe the mind as it ‘plays itself out,’ so to speak. By simply accepting the restless or wandering mind as it is, without expecting thoughts to stop (let alone trying to stop them – heaven forbid!), and practising observation and choiceless awareness, the thoughts will slow down. They may even stop altogether.

Choose to be happy! Be mindful.


Resources:

Killingsworth, M A, and Gilbert, D T. ‘A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind’, Science, 330: 6006, 12 November 2010: 932. DOI:10.1126/science.1192439.

Mason, M F, et al. Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought’, Science, 315: 5810, 9 January 2007: 393-395. DOI:10.1126/science.1131295.

Friday, September 16, 2011

FORGET ALL ABOUT IQ AND DISCOVER THE TRUE NATURE OF INTELLIGENCE

Phyllis May Ellis-Jones (1922-1981)
to whom this post is dedicated in loving memory


I don’t know what my IQ is these days, and I don’t really care. I am sure it has gone down over the years [see note 1 below], but, as I say, I don’t really care.

Here's a secret. I don’t care who knows this. Back in 1964, when I was in the fourth grade at Gordon West Public School the then headmaster of that school, Mr Kenneth MacKinnon – who is deceased so I can’t legally defame him (sorry, sir) – told my mother [pictured above] (so she told me, some 8 years later) that, based on the results of one or more IQ tests which I had sat that past year or so, I was not ‘high school material.’ Here’s a school photo from that year. I’m in the second front row, fifth from the left, looking very awkward (which I was).




I 'm so glad my mother didn't tell me what the headmaster had said, because I'm sure that if I had known that supposedly I was not ‘high school material’ it would have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I do remember that my mother bought some books written by that controversial man Hans Eysenck (pictured left) which contained several IQ tests and for a couple of years at least my mother made me do IQ tests at home with a view to ‘improving’ (that is, elevating) my IQ. Not surprisingly, my score did go ‘up,’ even if it was artificially inflated. Fortunately, even my mother soon realized that all this ‘IQ stuff’ was not that important after all. Bless you, Mum.

At the end of 1972 I was Dux (in Humanities) of Knox Grammar School. After I had been told by the then headmaster of Knox, Dr Ian Paterson AM, that I was Dux, it was then that my mother told me about the 1964 ‘prophecy.’ On that very same day, we just happened to bump into the wife of the (now former) Gordon West headmaster at the local shops. My mother could not help herself. Embarrassingly (for me), she insisted on telling the headmaster’s wife of my recent success, and advised the poor woman to tell her husband not to say ‘that sort of thing’ to others. The headmaster’s wife simply said, ‘IQ tests are generally right.’ (Really? I am not at all certain that's the case, and I wasn't then, even in 1972, when there was already a strong backlash against IQ testing.)

What can I tell you about my mother? Shortly after her death in November 1981, I wrote these words:

'She was a very loving woman – vivacious, outgoing, friendly, sometimes outspoken but always caring. She watched over me with unflagging devotion. Over-protective, perhaps, but I didn’t care; as a boy and young man she was the one big love of my life. She thought only of what was best for my father and me. The sacrifices she made were enormous. She died too soon.'

In 1973 I started Arts-Law at the University of Sydney and in the years that followed I was awarded two bachelor degrees, a masters and a doctorate as well as some diplomas, certificates and other miscellaneous ‘pieces of paper.’ None of that is important. None of that means I am intelligent. I simply mention it in light of what Mr MacKinnon had told my mother way back in 1964.

Now, back to this business of IQ tests. Most people know that a polygraph (so-called 'lie detector') does not really measure whether a person is lying. It simply measures and records various physiological responses from or on the basis of which an inference – safe or unsafe – can be drawn as to the presence or otherwise of lying or deception. (I'm appalled at the wide use of polygraphs in the United States, and I am grateful that they are banned in Australian courts of law. For that and other reasons I think we have a much better system of law and justice in this country, even though it is by no means perfect.)

Well, measuring so-called intelligence is not at all dissimilar to measuring so-called lying or deception. There is now a considerable body of scholarly material attesting to the fact that IQ tests – in particular, the long-venerated and seemingly respectable Stanford-Binet tests – do not measure 'intelligence' as such. IQ tests are supposed to measure, yes, intelligence but, at the risk of stating the obvious, before you can measure something you must first know what exactly you are measuring. The problem with IQ tests---well, one of many problems with them---is that the term intelligence has never been defined adequately, with the result that no one knows exactly what an IQ test is actually measuring. To put it bluntly, perhaps too bluntly, IQ tests measure one’s ability to do ... IQ tests. Yes, IQ tests. In the very early days of IQ testing, the American writer, reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann said it all when he wrote, 'We cannot measure intelligence when we have not defined it.'

Perhaps more fairly, IQ tests, at their best, measure a certain kind of knowledge (yes, knowledge, of the kind learnt in school) and what is known as abstract problem-solving ability, that is,  the ability to solve problems that are context free (i.e. not verbal or numerical in nature). That’s about the extent of it, despite apologists for IQ asserting that standard tests (eg Stanford-Binet) measure such skills as verbal reasoning, abstract/visual, quantitative, and short-term memory, which to  a limited extent they do, but almost entirely under the umbrella of an all-too-often culture-bound learned (as opposed to intuitive) knowledge.



However, the question of intelligence is even more complicated than that. We now know that there are multiple types of intelligence. IQ tests are misleading because they do not accurately reflect intelligence. In fact, a minimum of three different exams are now said to be needed to measure someone's overall intelligence because there are at least three components that affect overall performance (viz short-term memory, reasoning and verbal recall). In that regard, we now know that different circuits within the brain are used for different thought processes. 

Lifestyle factors are also very important. For example, gamers -- or people who play a lot of computer games -- score higher on tests of reasoning and short-term memory. Smokers do poorly on tests assessing short-term memory and vocabulary, while test takers who have anxiety don't do as well on short-term memory tests.

What it all gets down to is this – IQ tests assume that intelligence is the ability to comprehend quickly, but is such ability the measure and determinant of intelligence or simply the result or by-product of intelligence? In any event, why should the ability to comprehend quickly be determinative of the matter? I know of no cosmic law to that effect.

Erstwhile friend Allan B, eat your heart out. Despite your assertions to the contrary, there is now a considerable body of peer-reviewed, statistical longitudinal material which debunks the old assertion that there was supposedly a direct and causal correlation between high IQ and career and socio-economic success. Clearly, IQ---whatever it is or isn't a measurement of---is not totally unimportant, but it is only one factor ... and not one of the more important ones at that. So, as Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear. The studies on IQ simply do not demonstrate unequivocally that what is being measured by the tests is the reason---that is, the cause---for the apparent greater success in the workplace and job market of higher-IQ children. Correlation does not imply causation.

We all know that there are a number of different ‘kinds’ of intelligence including emotional intelligence and social intelligence. IQ tests do not measure those kinds of intelligence, and it is those sorts of intelligence which are perhaps the most important. Another thing IQ tests cannot and do not measure is ... effort. 'Effort quotient' (EQ) is perhaps more important than so-called intelligence quotient (IQ).

For those who are interested in the many shortcomings of IQ tests, Stephen Murdoch has written a wonderful book entitled IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea.

True intelligence, as that great spiritual figure J. Krishnamurti often pointed out, is not the same thing as intellect. Intelligence means living naturally and spontaneously. In the words of K, ‘To be integrally intelligent means to be without the self.’ He would also say, ‘The moment you come to a conclusion as to what intelligence is, you cease to be intelligent.’ I like that. It’s delightfully iconoclastic and, as K would also say, ‘an intelligent mind is a mind which is not satisfied with explanations, with conclusions; nor is it a mind that believes, because belief is again another form of conclusion. An intelligent mind is an inquiring mind, a mind that is watching, learning, studying.’
Intelligence may be elusive and even indefinable but it is possible to say what it is not. For example, intelligence is not book knowledge, and sadly traditional IQ tests do test to a considerable degree the type of knowledge gained as a result of school tuition. True intelligence is not the product of thought, for as K would say, if that were the case then intelligence would be entirely ‘mechanical’.
To those who have been told they are not intelligent or will not succeed, never despair. Refuse to accept any intimations to that effect. Understand yourself. Then you will understand others better. Live mindfully, one day at a time, and from one moment to the next. Live in choiceless awareness of what is. Live, so far as is possible, in harmony with others ... and forget about acquiring ‘intelligence.’ Forget about IQ and pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you IQ is important. If you can do what I have just said, you will be – indeed you are – an intelligent and successful human being ... regardless of whether you’re a lawyer, a plumber, a prostitute or simply unemployed.
Here's some more wisdom from Krishnamurti:

‘So intelligence comes into being with the understanding of yourself; and you can understand yourself only in relation to the world of people, things and ideas. Intelligence is not something that you can acquire, like learning; it arises with great revolt, that is, when there is no fear - which means, really, when there is a sense of love. For when there is no fear, there is love.’

Intelligence and love connected? Yes. If you are in any doubt about that, please read The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence by German neurobiologist and brain researcher Gerald Hüther which points to laboratory research as providing support for the view that love, compassion and empathy actually make us 'smarter.'

Ha! There's no need to 'improve' one's IQ scores ... as if I didn't already know.


Note 1.

Fluid intelligence (the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge) tends to decrease with time, starting in either one's 20s or 30s whereas crystallized intelligence (the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience) is fairly stable over time. There is, however, disagreement over when the decline begins, however. Some researchers have found that certain aspects of intelligence start declining in one’s mid-teens while others start to decline in one’s 20s even though some measures like working memory can still improve in one's 20s. However, there seems to be a general consensus that it's pretty much downhill from one’s 30s. Great news.

Note 2. Since I first wrote this post I have become aware of research---the largest single study into human cognition to date---that confirms that IQ tests are fundamentally flawed, as is the notion that human intelligence can be measured by IQ tests alone. 




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Thursday, September 15, 2011

RATIONAL HUMANENESS IS THE ANSWER

Emeritus Professor Paul Kurtz and Humanist President Dr Ian Ellis-Jones
Australis2000 Congress, Sydney, Australia, 14 November 2000

Rational humaneness is the answer.

‘Yes, but what is the question?’

OK, so it’s not funny.
In my last blog I referred to a book entitled A Humanist View which contains chapters written by a number of prominent Australian humanists of yesteryear. As I mentioned, in one of those chapters, entitled ‘Life Without Magic’, the eminent zoologist Dr Ronald Strahan showed, using reason, that there is no such thing as the ‘life force’.

Another of the chapters was written by the eminent criminologist, materialist philosopher and academic Dr Gordon Hawkins (1919-2004) [pictured left], who lectured me in criminology at the University of Sydney in the 1970s, and who was one of the very first members of the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Hawkins' chapter is entitled ‘Humanism and the Crime Problem’, and contains some very sound advice on matters pertaining to crime, penology and the like. I remember the ‘wow’ moment I experienced years ago when, some years after he had been my lecturer, I read these words penned by Hawkins:

‘[H]umanism, if I understand it rightly, involves what the great nineteenth century radical John Morley (who shocked Victorian England by spelling God with a small “g”), called “rational humaneness”. This means a rationality which is informed by consideration and compassion for the needs and distresses of human beings.’

Many thousands of law students in Sydney have heard me repeat those words over the years ... ‘rational humaneness’ ... ‘a rationality which is informed by consideration and compassion for the needs and distresses of human beings’.

Rationality on its own is inadequate. That should be obvious to all. Compassion, or humaneness, without rationality is also inadequate, for it quickly becomes weak-kneed, soggy sentimentality. The two must be combined – rational humaneness. That is what we need to handle all our problems.

We have had an ‘Age of Faith’, as well as an ‘Age of Reason’. It’s now time for an ‘Age of Compassion’, but it has to be a compassion which is informed by rationality. For example, at the risk of provoking a riot, it may be compassionate to let all the ‘boat people’ into Australia who come to our shores, but is it ‘rational’? I am not saying that it would be irrational to let them all in, but it is a matter which must be determined with ... rational humaneness.

What a transformative phrase and philosophy of life – rational humaneness!

Some 11 years ago I delivered the keynote addess at the Australis2000 Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union [IHEU] and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies [CAHS], which was held in Sydney, Australia. Before a large audience at the University of Technology, Sydney which included the great American philosopher Paul Kurtz I spoke, with great passion, of the need for there to be a sensible, compassionate balance between the 'head' and the 'heart'. Here is a copy of my address.

Finally, here is a brief clip from the first of four programs made for a 1977 ABC-TV series entitled Beyond Reasonable Doubt. The presenter (who appears on camera) is none other than Gordon Hawkins, then Associate Professor of Criminology at Sydney University Law School. This particular program was about Ronald Ryan, a convicted armed robber, who was the last man to be hanged in Australia.


video


Saturday, September 10, 2011

MINDFULNESS AND THE LIVINGNESS OF LIFE

I often say to my students as well as to those who come to listen to my public addresses, ‘If you can go away from here today with just one new thought – one hopefully life-changing thought – then my mission has been accomplished.’ In that regard, I have always loved these words of Friedrich Nietzsche:

‘Even a thought, even a possibility, can shatter us and transform us.’

So it is, when reading a book or an article – or even a blog  – on some important topic. If you can pick up some new idea or thought-form which opens up some new understanding, then it has been worthwhile.

Some years ago I was president at the same time of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanists. I still consider myself a humanist because it is obvious to me that human problems can only be solved by human beings acting rationally. In that regard, I fully and unashamedly embrace the sentiment in these words from Humanist Manifesto II: 'While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.' Got that? We must save ourselves. Nevertheless, I tire easily of old-fashioned dry, unadulterated rationalism that is not accompanied by some emotion in the form of compassion and humaneness. I should, however, add that I tire even more easily, and much more quickly, of superstition and notions of ‘supernaturalism’.

Now, well before I joined the Humanists, I had on my shelves a most illuminating book entitled A Humanist View, which was edited by one Ian Edwards (a former chairman of the NSW Humanist Society, which was instrumental in causing the book to be brought about), and which contained chapters written by some 16 then-prominent Australian humanists.

One of the chapters was entitled ‘Life Without Magic’, which was written by the eminent zoologist Dr Ronald Strahan AM (1922-2010) (pictured right) who was at that time and for many years the director of Taronga Zoo, Sydney – truly one of the world’s greatest zoos. Now, getting back to my original point, this article contained what was, and still is, for me one really life-changing, transformative thought – namely, that there is no such thing as the ‘life force’.

New Agers love to waffle on and pontificate about the existence of the supposed ‘life force’, as if it were some mysterious vital principle which animates all life (cf the totally discredited notions of vitalism). However, the reality of so-called 'life force' or 'universal life energy' is completely unknown to natural science. Now, Dr Strahan convincingly demonstrated that there is no such thing. That's right. There is no vital force or power distinct and separate from the various mechanical and physico-chemical forces of nature. Strahan wrote:

‘The word “life” has been avoided intentionally. Instead, we have considered what certain material structures known as “living things” do. What they do is what we call “living”. “Life” is the abstract noun from the verb “to live”.

‘And it is an abstraction. To say that a living thing is matter plus life is as nonsensical as to say that a motor car is matter plus locomotion, or a “motive principle”, or an “élan locomotif”.’

This is a most important point. What we call ‘life’ is simply the sum total of living things, all living out their ‘livingness’ in time and space. The so-called ‘life force’ is nothing more than the self-livingness of living things. The self-livingness to which I refer is characterised by living things self-moving, self-directing, self-adjusting and self-regulating. Is that not amazing enough? Why do some feel a need to interpolate some additional supposed vital energy or force?

It is the same with the 'universe' [see below]. I have not difficulty in accepting that what we call the universe was either unmade or self-made. I rejoice in the fact that there is no concept in Buddhism of ‘creation’, let alone any doctrine of ‘special creation’ (as in Christianity), nor is there any sense of there being a ‘Creator’, whether personal or otherwise. Buddhism teaches that everything is ‘fundamentally uncreated’ and that life exists through and as things as opposed to in things. All that makes perfect good sense to me.

Life is simply an abstract noun – a word – but in a very important sense there is no such thing ... just as there is no such thing as the universe. Yes, that’s right. The word ‘universe’ is simply an abstract noun that refers to the sum total of all there is (that is, A + B + C + D + E ... and so on). The various things A, B, C, D, E and so on do indeed exist as separate things in their own right, but not the supposed thing called the ‘universe’. I thank Professor John Anderson for that insight.

I remember the day when I first read what Strahan had written. It was a 'wow' moment for me. I felt a tingling sensation in my head, and down my spine, knowing that I had read something new (at least for me) which had the effect of opening up new ‘channels’ (for want of a better word) of understanding. Yes, I said to myself, that has got to be right. There is no life force as such, just living things living out their livingness as occurrences in time and space. Each living thing has internal differentiation and interacts with other things ... all on the same level or order of reality and observability. In addition, living things are constituent members of wider systems and exchanges of things, with the forms of things constantly being transmuted.

Mindfulness is a lifelong inquiry into what it means to be fully present and alert in the present moment. Each moment of our existence is but a brief occurrence in what is otherwise a state of flux. Life is nothing but the very livingness of all things living out their livingness from one moment to the next.

The unity of all things derives, not from all things being one, nor from the presence of some supposed ‘life force’, but simply from the fact that a single logic applies to all things.


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