Saturday, July 26, 2008

Creating a Department of Human Rights

I encourage the next president to create a Department of Human Rights, lead by a cabinet-level Secretary of Human Rights. The purpose of the Department is to protect and preserve human rights throughout the world. This encompasses John Edwards’ goal of ending poverty in America and extends it to become an effort with international scope, guided by the principles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The simple guiding principle is that everyone has unalienable rights, and our nation cannot remain idle as long as these rights are denied anywhere.

The Department will begin by defining, measuring, and reporting on human rights domestically and throughout the world. Second, the many contributing causes of specific human rights violations will be identified, analyzed, and reported. As the causes contributing to human rights violations become understood then creative political, diplomatic, charity, economic, entrepreneurial,cultural, educational, multinational, and volunteer efforts will be used to address the root causes.

More than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Ensuring every person has access to clean and safe drinking water could be a specific and important first project. This is best done with the minimum intervention employing local people using sustainable methods.

All of history is the quest for dignity. What could be more urgent or more important than protecting human rights?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Fish Don’t See

Walker Percy observed that a fish does not reflect on the nature of water: “A fish cannot imagine its absence, so he cannot consider its presence.” Humans also live in an environment shaped by essential social forces so prevalent we instantly react and accommodate them although they are rarely noticed, contemplated, or discussed. These include trust and its essential components of candor and responsibility; power and its manifestations as dominance, stature, and influence; primal messaging, how we decide what to believe, our first person viewpoint, and how we approach conflict.

When we meet a new person we inevitably size him up. Can I trust him? Do I believe what he says? Can I depend on him? Can he hurt me? Can he help me? Do I like him? Can we get along? What can I learn from him? Where do we agree? Where do we disagree? The answers to these essential questions help us understand if we want to approach this person or avoid him, and how we will get along in any case.

The degree of trust we extend to another person strongly shapes our relationship. When we believe what others say and can depend on them, we work together smoothly, efficiently, creatively, openly, collaboratively, and quickly. When we distrust a person, we are defensive, cautious, closed, indirect, and often manipulative. We use many factors to assess trustworthiness, primarily including candor and responsibility.

Our conversations are most genuine when we begin with well considered thoughts, acknowledge our feelings, are clear and honest about what we want to say and we treat our listeners as respected peers. These are the authentic elements of candor and are essential to building trust. No spin, half-truths, misrepresentations, sales-pitches, insults, decrees, blather, or cryptic comments, instead just straightforward, sincere, and honest communications. People accurately sense what is authentic and prefer it to phony.

Trust is the decision to rely on another, and responsibility is at the core of this reliance. Having responsibility is the duty or obligation to act. Taking responsibility is acknowledging and accepting the choices you have made, the actions you have taken, and the results they have led to. Trust depends on both having responsibility and on taking responsibility. Responsibility is congruence of what you think, what you say, and what you do. It is essential for reciprocity, trust, and for maintaining peer relationships.

The symmetry of each relationship also profoundly shapes our behavior. Power is an asymmetrical two-person relationship. You treat the boss, the Nobel Prize winner, the rock star, and talk-show hosts very differently than they treat you. You defer to the boss because he can hurt you; this is an example of dominance. You seek out the Nobel Prize winner because you believe he can help you. This is an example of stature. You are attracted to the rock star because you hope to increase your status by associating with people having high social rank. Because you believe much of what the talk show host tells you he becomes influential. Power relationships are one-sided, peer relationships are symmetrical. You may be the one-up in some power relationships and the one-down in others. Peer relationships are sustained by dialogue, power relationships are validated by dogma.

Good vibrations, bad vibrations, no vibrations; we certainly feel something as we meet another person and get to know them. Emotions form our connections to others below our cognitive awareness. This primal messaging is a constant signaling between the limbic systems of two beings. It is often non-verbal, and often takes place below the level of consciousness. These messages have a vocabulary at the very core of our relationships. Do we approach or avoid, like or dislike, feel safe or afraid, agree or disagree? We associate with each person an unmistakable impression that may be comfortable or uncomfortable based on an integration of these signals by our emotional brain.

We are inundated with information every day. Friends tell you one thing, authorities say something else, and the evidence points in yet another direction. Because we are deluged by a constant flood of information from a wide variety of sources, each of us must evaluate and decide for ourselves what information is reliable and what is not. We dismiss most of it and come to believe some. We often discount evidence while we accept distortions. Although few of us can describe how we decide what we believe, we hold firmly to some beliefs while we flip flop on others. We base many of our daily decisions on strongly-held beliefs of unknown origin.

Seeing things from our own point of view is always easier, and first-hand experiences seem more real than understanding another's point of view can ever be. Your eyes, nose, taste buds, tactile sensors, and ears connect directly only to your brain. Only you experience first-hand the direct sensory input of the world; you are the observer. This raw sensory input is interpreted and gains meaning through your unique perceptions and past experiences. Furthermore, contemplation, desire, intent, pain, introspection, consciousness, and reflection are all private and solitary. This unique first-person viewpoint of the world creates a fundamental asymmetry that contributes to many other asymmetries that govern social interactions. We judge others based on behavior and we judge ourselves based on intent. Your own point of view, the way you see things, is unique. The golden rule and our empathy struggle to overcome this fundamental imbalance.

We face conflict whenever we encounter contradictory goals. Agreeing on what to cook for dinner, where to go on vacation, who washes the dishes, or what car to buy are examples of the many simple conflicts we may face each day. Choosing between communism, dictatorship, and democracy; electing the democrat or the republican; pro-life vs. pro choice; nuclear energy, conservation, or burning more oil; the safety and comfort of an SUV vs. green transportation alternatives, and many other mega-conflicts are at the center of the most important issues facing our world. Conflict is unavoidable; fortunately we can learn to transcend conflict as we avoid false dichotomies.

Like fish in water, we are constantly surrounded by the almost invisible issues of trust, power, emotions, beliefs, first person viewpoint, and conflict. Better understanding of these concepts can help us to stay afloat.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Authentic Humility

Humility is recognizing and accepting our own limitations based on an accurate and modest estimate of our importance and significance. The humble person recognizes he is one among the six billion interdependent people on this earth, earth is one planet circling the sun, and our sun is one of a billion stars in the presently known universe. Our brilliant wisdom is recognized, acknowledged, and accepted along with our profound ignorance. Because of this broad and sound perspective on her significance, the truly humble person cannot be humiliated.

Humility reduces our need for self-justification and allows us to admit to and learn from our mistakes. Our ego stands down. We are better able to balance inquiry with advocacy.

But humble people are easily trampled, oppressed, ignored, or overrun by the arrogant, aggressive, greedy, power-hungry people who are so prominent. No one needs another resentful and helpless wimp, doormat, or milquetoast. There is also no need for false modesty or condescension.

Authentic humility preserves dignity and stands up for the needs of each person. It does not submit to indignity, tolerate violence, or let human needs go unmet, submit to tyranny, or tolerate arrogance. It is authentic because dignity and human needs are authentic, intrinsic to each of us, including ourselves and all others. It is a humility that takes a firm stand for human rights.

Authentically humble people choose to act consistently with their own values rather than submit once again to an impulse. They choose humility over arrogance, stillness over aggression and destruction, cooperation and achievement over rivalry, inclusion over exclusion, needs over wants, peer over power, candor over deceit, stature over status, dignity over disrespect, and authentic over bogus.

Authentic humility is willful, not passive; it understands the significance and potential of a transformation toward humility by all and pursues it relentlessly. It is the simple and symmetrical agreement that I will not trample on you, and I will not be trampled upon. It acts (or remains still) to ensure humility.

We do not tolerate tantrums from two-year olds. Don't tolerate tantrums from your ego, or anyone else's. Quell ego rants. Ensure respect and dignity for all. Become authentically humble.

Embrace authentic humility as if your life depends on it, which of course it does.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Demystifying A New Earth

Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose is captivating millions of readers. Since being selected for the Oprah Winfrey book club millions of people have been inspired by the awe elicited by this book. But many readers find the material difficult to grasp. Fortunately many of the concepts presented in the book are described elsewhere in a less mystical and more direct style that may appeal to some readers. Here is a guide to several of the concepts discussed in the book, presented in the approximate order they appear in the book, and organized by chapter number. This text reflects only my own interpretation of some of the concepts mentioned in Tolle’s book and is in no way connected with his book or efforts. Follow the links for in-depth descriptions and references for each term.

Chapter 1
Evolution is on-going and sometimes crosses transformational thresholds. This book may cause a collective awakening that allows us to cross such a threshold.

Fear is a basic emotion that quickly alerts us to impending danger. Our emotional brains are wired to defend even before we comprehend.

Greed is a failure to distinguish wants from needs. Wants are insatiable, so greed is ongoing. Needs are rather simple, but not often met. Beyond meeting basic physiological needs, we only require autonomy, competency, and relatedness.

The desire for power has several origins. Tyranny is an abuse of power.

First-person viewpoint is the fundamental asymmetry of humanity. We don’t recognize the many distortions inherent in our thinking.

Chapter 2
In the world there are real objects, collections of real objects, mental symbols we use to represent objects and collections and words we use as labels for objects or symbols. Tolle uses the word “form” to mean label, symbol, or object.

The word “self” has a few meanings and is often synonymous with “ego.”

An ego consumed with wanting more, being better than you, self-justification, and proving itself faultless is destructive. Tolle calls this the "egoic mind".

The “voice in my head” is our own awareness of our self-symbol. We can think about a tree and we can think about our thinking about a tree. When we are thinking about thinking about ourselves we are aware of that voice. At other times, that voice is advising us.

When we confuse stature with status, image, or class, we make the mistake of confusing ourselves with our associations and our attachments. We can begin to mistakenly believe that we become better by having better things or hanging out with better people. But stature can only be attained through the hard work of making authentic contributions toward helping others.

There are paths of progress other than growth. There can be more to life than wanting more.

When an irrevocable loss occurs, we adopt a series of coping strategies. Once we recognize the loss is permanent and cannot be changed we can move past our grief.

Researcher and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dedicated his career to studying flow—the absence of emotion or consciousness that occurs when we become so engrossed in our present activity that we suspend our self awareness. This is similar to Tolle’s concept of “Presence”.

Chapter 3
A prevalent myth is that stature is a “zero-sum” game and your loss of stature can somehow contribute to my gain in stature. It is the mistaken belief that I can enhance myself if I diminish you. For me to be right, you have to be wrong. This leads us to be destructively competitive. It also drives us apart, to emphasize differences rather than similarities we have with others. This is the precursor to hate.

Hate is the strong emotion based on intense dislike—distancing ourselves from others. It has a simple origin in self-protection, but it is only sustained by cognitive error.

Envy is a synonym for resentment. It is our wanting what another person has.

We always have choices in how we respond to events. We don’t have to react as we always have. For example, there are several paths we can take out of our anger. Choose a constructive path. Don’t be overcome by destructive reactions, become aware of the choices you have. Analyze and step away from your anger, jealousy, envy, blaming, and hate. Be willing to forgive and move on. Don’t take the bait; sidestep dominance contests.

Separate fact from opinion and separate assumptions from well-founded beliefs.

Chapter 4
Many of us live according to introjected regulations—acquiescing to an external motivation without accepting it as our own. We feel obligated to do something, perhaps to fulfill some role or to meet someone else’s expectations. These introjected regulations are the results of someone else’s “shoulds” and “oughts” and they are not authentic to our self. They cause stress, guilt, anxiety, and obligation and have many other negative effects.

For many people their self-esteem is fragile or variable. They are insecure about their stature because they are not confident their authentic stature is high. This makes them very vulnerable to the opinion of others. They have not yet learned that image is not stature and at the end of the day, the only opinion of yourself that matters is your own.

Playing the victim is a destructive tactic of passive aggressive behavior—hostile inaction.

You must become your authentic self before you can have an authentic relationship. Authentic relationships are peer relationships, where each treats the other as an equal and is not filling any other role.

Peace of mind is only achieved by removing obstacles to it. Understand what you can change and what you cannot change. Om shanti, shanti, shanti. Authentic happiness is achieved largely through gratification.

Relatedness—the need to feel connected to others and to feel like you belong—is a psychological need that often goes unrecognized and unfulfilled.

Love has several manifestations, but limbic resonance—an emotional bond created by responsiveness—is at the core of true love.

An essential element of anger is blameworthiness—the belief that someone else is responsible for my loss. A constructive approach to anger begins with examining and challenging this assumption.

St. Augustine famously warned us that: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Yet many hot-heads are hostile people who allow resentment to define their temperament; they get angry very easily.

Our egos cause us to distort, select, and interpret evidence to sustain the essential belief: “I'm OK”

Improving our emotional competency—the skills to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in yourself and others—increases our awareness and allows us to step back from our egos. With that awareness we can act rather than simply react.

Sometimes we can get fully engaged in our work, lose any sense of self consciousness, and enjoy our state of flow.

Chapter 5
Emotions are subjectively evaluated on a scale ranging from “feeling good” to “feeling bad”. These are often called positive and negative emotions. There must be a goal at stake for an emotion to be aroused. Our emotional response to an event depends on our appraisal of the event. We often adopt unhelpful rules that misguide our response to various events.

We retain vivid memories of past events. Separate mechanisms store emotional memories and cognitive memories. Memories are associative—recalling one aspect of the past event often evokes a more complete memory of the event, including emotional aspects.

We often recall memories, replay past events, and fantasize about making different choices affecting past events. This ruminating is often stressful. Long-lasting painful memories often result in our enduing quest for revenge.

Dominance—the ability to harm another—is the predominant manifestation of power. Abuses of power are common and lead to the oppression of many people. Oppressed people suffer humiliation, harbor resentment, and seek revenge. Tolle uses the term “Pain-body” to collectively describe these bad memories and vindictive passions. It represents the on-going costs of past violence and abuse. People may seek pity, play the victim, indulge their past suffering, adopt pessimistic outlooks, or remain helpless as a result of this long-felt pain. People who allow this pain to become salient in their self-concept are often hot-headed, hostile, and easily become angry.

Forgiveness provides an escape from the cycle of anger, hate, revenge, and violence.

Chapter 6
People may allow themselves to submit to urges originating from their “pain-body.” This may result in anger displays, road rage, or other destructive, violent, dramatic and irresponsible behavior. People may feel less responsible for their actions when they can blame their pain-body. People whose temperament is dominated by pain are easily provoked to anger or hate. They may be described as “having a chip on their shoulder.” Perhaps they believe they are their suffering.

Various conditioned responses can serve as triggers for negative moods or destructive behavior.

Awareness of these mechanisms increases your autonomy and makes it easier to choose more constructive behavior.

It is best to accept what is.

Chapter 7
Behavior—your actions and reactions—is the most reliable indicator of your actual values and goals.

Know thyself. Discover your authentic self—do who you are.

Savor the awe and abundance of nature and the universe.

Integrate reductionist views of the world with holistic views of the world. Combine analysis with synthesis.

Suspend judgment—integrate experiences before forming an opinion or making a decision.

Stress results from resisting loss.

Accept what is, assimilate reality, and don’t argue with it.

Only the present moment is real. Plans are only thoughts about the future, memories are only thoughts about the past.

Choose when to resist and when to flow; become aware.

Self-justification frantically preserves our ego.

Humility prevents humiliation because the ego stands down.

Artists place lines and forms in space. The space is essential; the form is unremarkable without the space.

Chapter 8
This too will pass—everything is impermanent; attachment can be only transient.

By removing the clutter of the foreground—the things, the thoughts, the worries—the quiet contentment constantly present in the background can emerge. Be still and savor the awe inherent in nature: a sunset, flowers, breathing, a forest, vistas, or the vastness of space. The peaceful stillness and awareness that emerges is what Toll calls “inner space”.

Separate observation from interpretation. Events are experienced as: 1) neutral observations, 2) cognitive judgments, and 3) emotional appraisals.

Consciousness results from a strange loop.

Awareness of your breath creates space that invites the present moment in.

The universe consists almost entirely of empty space.

Cherish stillness.

Chapter 9
Our inner purpose is to gain perspective, focus on the present, and become aware of the interconnectedness of the world. Practice meta thinking; an awareness of your thinking.

This allows you to attain a viewpoint (an awakening) where you can observe your ego at work, isolate it, and decide not to let it proceed destructively.

Chapter 10
The entirety of the universe is vaster than anyone can comprehend. Therefore each of us has only a limited viewpoint on the universe. Each thought is only a tiny fraction of the whole and therefore not an accurate representation.

As we approach old age we naturally become less active. This decrease in doing provides space where we can increase our appreciation of being.

Eject introjected regulations so you can become integrated and accept everything you do. Enjoy most of what you are doing; become enthusiastic as you are achieving goals. Stress is a signal that we are resisting events rather than accepting them.

Value humility. Encourage it in yourself and others. It promotes peace on earth and goodwill toward all.

As you develop a robust theory of knowledge the true value of Tolle's book will become clear to you.