Ideas

There are many articles that I read that I find inspiring or that give me a fresh way of looking at the world, and these days, there are a few that seem to drill a little deeper into the current malaise:

A trio of articles that have caught my attention this week: how could I not enjoy something entitled ‘Was Bo Diddley a Buddha?‘ – the answer is yes, of course, and even the comments seem unanimous for once. This New Yorker article grabbed me from the opening paragraph, as their good ones always do, even if I am not sure I am interested in the subject. There is what seems to be an artfully raised eyebrow at some of the egos involved in extending life-span, but also crucial ideas like, ‘what is the fundamental you that is you?’ (I am going to shoehorn in this similar article I read a couple of weeks later which adds a religious flavour to the conversation). And then, some positive thinking about economics and sustainability, which seems enlightened to me, even if the comments do not agree here.

If you are reading this in a state of the US where your senator leans to the right, why not send them this letter to protest the gutting of environmental regulations?

A grab-bag of recent philosophical musings: I was expecting to find this piece in the New Yorker one of those frustrating mental spirals, but enjoyed the relatively light touch. If that was too many words, this one, complete with animation, was a very sweet reminder of reading Camus as a teenager. This was food for thought; my first response on reading the title was that Buddha was a pretty good quantum physicist too.

This article sums up a lot of what I feel about my home country.

Here is something that seems to need to be said loudly and regularly in the US. This is a low-hanging fruit satire along the same lines.

My kind of brain food.


This was a fun article I sent to my students, and I agree with large parts of it. There was one statement that felt glaringly wrong from a zen perspective, and I was thinking of writing a post about that, but then I saw that Brad Warner already had – at least one that encapsulated the point I would have made. I might have even used the same quote, as it is one I am especially fond of.

I have been enjoying Umair Haque‘s writing since I came across it; a great example of how no wisdom tradition has a monopoly on human wisdom.

Lower down this list there are articles about the quantum world and articles about consciousness. Now we have one exploring current ideas about how they might be linked.

There is a lot of reading to do these days as everyone has their views on how we fare in these interesting times. I make no apologies for wanting to highlight two views from women of colour, this one a collectively written piece, and this one by Ijeoma Oluo.

Often things come in pairs, so here is Brad Warner’s take, and here is Umair Haque’s, on the value of silence.

It has only been a fortnight, at time of writing. As the smart guy says,’you get enough snowflakes in one place and you get an avalanche.’ I plan to be protesting this weekend. Scarily, this article written just after the election seems in turn prescient and not imaginative enough for how things have unfolded. Over in the UK,  George Monbiot always has a clear view of some of the roots of the problem.

2017 has gone very fast already, and things are unfolding in a way that does not make for cheerful viewing. Here are a few articles that are trying to look beyond the day-by-day outrages and into deeper patterns: even over the course of a weekend we can go from this to this. A similar take is presented here in the Washington Post, which also brings us this illuminating comparison, which goes beyond taking sides. Finally, looking at the bigger picture, there are times when I feel just like the way this article describes.

This went much further than I thought it would – the kind of multi-media experience I like.

We all know about this; along with climate change it is the matter of this generation. This piece is a nice articulation of the problem and how to counter it. The author references this article from the Atlantic, which is also worth a read.

Identity politics seems to be the current scapegoat of choice, but, once again, I am happy to listen to Ijeoma Oluo on the subject. This piece, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is one of the longest I have read in a while, but very much worth it. And if you feel in the mood for something lighter, this piece made me smile – it is as close to a kitten video as you will get on this site; the BBC has a way with this kind of article.

A post-election, pre-inauguration weariness seems to have set in, but there are still huge issues to be faced. This details how the presumptive Secretary of State’s commercial interests are detrimental to facing up to climate change; these two list the harm being done to the planet by the current model of resource extraction and  relentless growth.

Some cogent analysis of the world we find ourselves in now: from the insightful Ian Buruma, Moira Weigel, and George Monbiot.

This article does not surprise me, speaking to the extent to which commercial imperatives trump the well-being of the planet. To which I will add this story, which I feel embarrassed not to have been following so closely.

I read various things while I was in England, and while they may be responding to particular events, I think the sentiments expressed are durable: from the reliably excellent Sarah Benincasa, and on a not-dissimilar note, very powerful invective from Lindy West; also, from Medium, about our current work climate.

Two pieces of enlightenment from the New York Times today: first a wonderful map showing the concentration of same-sex marriages through the country (as commenters point out, it is not too dissimilar to the political affiliation map); second a revelatory piece about how big industry will always act in its own interests at the expense of just about everything else.

For those people who would say, it’s only words.

Here is an article that articulates much of what I feel about the economic and political state of the west.

If you have the time to read it all, this extended piece on the Middle East from the New York Times is powerful and disturbing.

Je me permets un brin d’orgueil en lisant ceci.

I did not need any convincing about the argument in this article about how we respond to nature as human beings.

With so much negative discourse around, it is nice to read of people speaking differently: the Pope encouraging young people not to just be materialistic, and Cory Booker advocating for love.

An enjoyable polemic on the politics of self-care.

One of the joys of living at Tassajara for me was the abundant silence. Which is apparently very good for your brain.

While a lot of news is depressing right now, this slew of articles made me feel better about things: the benefits of running, and how walking and bicycles are good for cities as well as us.

I am always happy to have my brain stretched by quantum theories on a Monday morning.

This essay is beautifully written about the interconnected impact of history, money and race.

In the realm of how we don’t know what we don’t know, a pairing about bacteria from the New Yorker, and life and death via Brad Warner.

This is an engrossing discussion on racial identity.

If you need a little run-around with your brain, musings on consciousness. The comments may be more incisive than the article.

My New York Times reading friend forwarded this opinion piece to me. I have spoken many times of my lack of sustained interest in western philosophy, and very much agree with their suggestion.

At the risk of being smug, I have been trying to drive in the way recommended by this article for a while whenever I am stuck on the freeway, as it seems to make sense. Traffic needs to be a co-operative venture.

Another in the ongoing series of ‘things science tells us that we kind of knew anyway’.

Reading this long story this morning, and without wishing to get polemical about diet, I was thinking about the Diamond Sutra: ‘Streams of thoughts, Subhuti, what the Tathagatha speaks of as “streams of thoughts” are no streams.’ Or perhaps we can chalk it up as another dominant narrative.

I was interested to read this story, a practice which I think was very common in China in the golden age of zen.

A brace from the New York Times over the weekend, sent to me by a friend: on the one hand, the continued rise of popular meditation spots around Manhattan; on the other, a lament at the commercialism that has crept into the continued rise of popular meditation.

Not unrelated to the link below, this piece was elegiac enough for me to get nostalgic about the English countryside.

I have an inbuilt, perhaps age-related bias around this one, as you will know if you have listened to my talk from January 2015, so of course I agreed heartily with this article. I can also think of a number of occasions when people have landed in Tassajara, after fourteen miles of grueling dirt road, convinced by their GPS that they were taking a short cut to Big Sur, or even, once or twice, on their way to San Francisco.

Though totally pervasive in modern culture, it’s worth remembering smartphones have only been around a few years. People are trying to plot the effect they have on us as humans, and this line stood out to me: ‘Because they aren’t learning how to be alone.. young people are losing their ability to empathize’ (even if I don’t agree with the next statement). See also this account, or this one.

Although one of the earliest zen admonitions, attributed to Bodhidharma, instructs us neither to sigh nor cough, I think we all know the value of a good sigh. And now it may even be a life-preserving mechanism – and proof yet again that we barely scratch the surface in terms of understanding ourselves.

A friend pointed me to an NPR podcast about this book, underscoring how little we really know about what our minds and bodies are up to, though the review, and certainly the comments, seem a little reductionist to me compared to the nuances the author presents in the podcast.

Despite having grown up with a well-developed sweet tooth, I have been lucky enough not to have to worry too much about calorie-counting in my life so far, but I enjoyed all the information in this article from the BBC.

We can add this one to the ‘not surprised by this at all’ files.

In the realm of privilege and diversity, trans issues are the ones that seem to be rising most sharply in our awareness. For me, allowing people to self-identify as they wish is a no-brainer, and this does seem to be entering the mainstream slowly. I was encouraged by this article (though not, as usual, by some of the accompanying comments), and took a couple of reads to absorb all the messages of this discussion.

I seem to be a sucker for all kinds of life-work-tech balance articles. Here are two similar ones from this week.

We still seem to be in the season of self-improvement, but I think this has good advice for all seasons.

A couple of related pieces from the BBC about our will and intention: this one about how we try to manage our resolutions, and one from the same author looking at how the brain functions in decision making. I was struck by this line, which sounds like Dogen to me: ‘Just because we erroneously report the timing of the decision, doesn’t mean we weren’t intimately involved in it, in whatever meaningful sense that can be.’

While unpacking my stuff at my new home, I came across a few articles I had cut out of the New Yorker a few years ago. This one does not seem as poignant to me now as I remember feeling about it at the time, but it still has some sweet notions contained within it.

This comes as absolutely no surprise to me, or to any other Buddhist, I would imagine.

I am a keen amateur when it comes to quantum science, and enjoy stretching my brain to try to grasp the concepts behind it. Although not an in-depth piece, this article from the New Yorker highlighted several topics I like to think about; as a Buddhist I can only delight in the scientist who marvels, ‘They are not in contact, and no known force links them, yet they act as one’. I am also comforted by the notion that science can be as blinkered as any other field of human endeavour; I often find myself frustrated by internet commentators insisting that, for example, acupuncture couldn’t possibly work because there is no scientific evidence for it.

Anything to do with neuroscience and how our brains work – with our bodies – is likely to interest me. Here are a bunch of articles that are more or less related to that theme:

From the Guardian, about the roots of language, and a musing on consciousness.
I am not in the habit of downloading or buying games, but I did in this case, if it helps pay the people in the first of these two similarly timed articles about neuroplasticity, from the New Yorker, and the BBC.
These three speak to the way we relate to each other on subtle physiological levels: one from the BBC, and two from the New Yorker.

I always enjoy a good head scratch at how scientists are trying to resolve the conflicts between quantum physics and relativity, so this was a fun read. I tend to think that Buddha, in his realisation, understood all this instinctively. One scientist is quoted as saying ‘we don’t even know what time is’ – I would always suggest reading Dogen as the remedy for that.

I said ‘being human’ higher up, but having been talking in the posts about the dharma of the insentient, this seemed a propos, especially these lines near the end: ‘Traditionalists have derided attempts to describe problem-solving and learning as “intelligent” in organisms that lack a brain. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, in a neat parry, has mocked such views as “cerebrocentrism”, and lamented the fact that we find it difficult (and maybe humiliating) to conceive of intelligence as existing in any form other than our own brain-and-neurone variety.’

Here is another article on the same theme. One scientist cautions against using the word ‘intelligent’ for plants, but also says ‘We need to understand that the brain is but one amazing evolutionary solution for information processing. It’s necessary to write a symphony and do linear algebra, but it’s not the only solution for integrating information.’

A few articles from the mainstream press a while ago, which I would classify as ‘yes, and’, looking at meditation from differing angles: The Guardian, which, especially in the comments, tends to espouse a rationalist point of view; The Atlantic, on how businesses are looking at improvements to their profits by using mindfulness techniques, and The Guardian’s view of that issue, together with an extract from the book in question by the Huffington Post.

In a slightly different sphere – mindfulness has very much taken off in the UK, and is now being advocated for high-security prisoners.


A great starting place is Norman Fischer’s commencement speech a few years ago at Stanford that lays out a beautiful vision for life: ‘The most important characteristic – the defining characteristic, I would say – of a spiritual practice is that it is useless. That is, it is an activity that has no other practical purpose than to connect you to your heart and to your highest and most mysterious purpose – a purpose that is literally unknown’.

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