Mind and Mood
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Psychology and Philosophy

One way or another, it's important to learn that our thoughts, more than the events we experience, determine how we feel. We humans commonly fall into ruts of thought and mood, in which our anger or sorrow or other habitual moods seem to be caused by things outside us. Yet people facing similar situations don't always wallow in nonproductive emotions. Many psychologists and psychiatrists assert that physical enhancements in brain chemistry are the best route to healthy functioning, and often prescribe exercise or improved diets or supplements or prescription drugs. And all of these may be worthwhile, at times (and future health research may even develop cures for counterproductive extreme philosophies). Yet plenty of researchers and writers persuasively assert that cognitive changes -- shifts in our ways of thought -- are often a more direct, lasting and effective route to sanity and feeling OK (and quicker and surer than the Freudian psychological methods of examining childhood influences). While there may be value in more than one kind of therapy, it seems clear that when we improve our thoughts, we improve how we feel, and how our lives go. Two great books which help us develop healthy ways of thinking and feeling are Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy : The Clinically Proven Drug-free Treatment for Depression, by David D. Burns, M.D.


You Can Feel Good Again: Common-Sense Therapy for Releasing Depression and Changing Your Life, by Richard Carlson. See also the books of Albert Ellis. The quotations in the right column, from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, are some of the earliest writings along these lines (which have survived history's many book-burnings by zealots, etc), as are parts of the slightly older A Manual on Living, by Epictetus. (I like tiny books like that, which I can carry around in my pocket. I especially recommend, and often carry with me, the excellent books in the Shambhala Pocket Classics series. Having one of these handy can bring refreshment to life's occasional unexpected "waiting" situations, such as when some event or appointment is delayed.)

"The spirit of democracy is that spirit which is not too sure that it is right."
~ Judge Learned Hand

Don't be a victim of your own confidence racket.
Most folks believe what they're confidently told to believe, especially whatever is implanted in them when they're young. People generally accept the first line of political or religious thought they're given, they file it in their minds, and when any situation or person brings that subject up, they simply regurgitate what they've been confidently told. It's often the extent of their thinking about that subject, and they're satisfied, for they have a ready answer. Nowadays, the cynical attitude is quite popular, largely because it's so easy to maintain and state. Rather than bother to learn about the differences between politicians or policies or religions or people from any particular group of which we're not a part, we can just dismiss them, say they're all the same and offer nothing worthwhile, without ever bothering to learn what they do offer.

"To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying "Amen" to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive."
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

Most of us develop full confidence in whatever we believe, regardless of its value or actual truth. Here's a suggestion: when you ponder your belief or opinion about anything, give it a percentage of confidence value. For example, if you want to believe in space-alien-piloted UFOs, decide to what extent you truly believe in it. Don't regurgitate ideas about it as if your confidence is 100 percent. Probably your confidence in something as incompletely proven as UFOs should appropriately be significantly less than 100 percent. Maybe 90 or 50 or 20 percent -- those would all be wiser, for one can't actually be 100 percent sure of such a belief. Same with religious, political and other opinions. Understanding your limitations will leave you open to learning, and perhaps give you a thirst to learn. 100 percent confidence in your opinions, or in the religious or political or most other statements of other people, functions as a wall blocking you from truth. For me, the possibility that UFOs are piloted or controlled by beings from somewhere beyond our planet seems to be worth one percent confidence, or a fraction of one percent, but you may differ and may be right -- so my confidence in my skepticism is not 100%.

I've traveled in all parts of the U.S., and find that in each area people have misconceptions about other, distant parts of the U.S., often oversimplifying and stereotyping. For example, Southerners often have disdain for Californians or Northeasterners -- and vice versa. In quite a few states, people are sure that theirs is by far the best state, and they can describe several of their state's features to back that up. Yet only by spending time in other states can one wisely make any such assertions. Having been in all of the U.S. states, I've encountered impressive people and practices and features in each, and problems in each. And having studied several religions and philosophies since childhood, I've found value and usefulness in more than one. Having spent my early years, until college, in the Washington DC area, I encountered lots of political thinkers and opinions, and eventually saw them all as limited, yet understood that many offered something worth considering.


Learning a few things from real Zen
In 1969, when I lived in California, friends fortunately told me about a nearby Zen Buddhist group, whose elderly leader was remarkably articulate. So began a couple of years of often sitting with, sharing tea and meals with, and listening to inspiring talks by Shunryu Suzuki, whose books Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
and Not Always So
are well worth reading, for their unusual, profound and upbeat philosophy. Even if you're confident in your own ideas and don't want to follow a Buddhist-style way of thinking or living, you can find much of value in these big-hearted books, derived from Suzuki's indescribably nutritious talks. An independent thinker who'd mastered useful ancient ways, he and his group gradually helped me realize the enoughness of listening, watching, breathing, and doing a little something worthwhile through most of each day's moments, with breaks for meditation, tea, walks, gardening and other daily doings -- while not taking one's own thought-stream too seriously, or lapsing too often into over or under estimating oneself or others, or aching for anything enormous (work toward goals, yes, while appreciating things as they are, too). Before encountering Shunryu Suzuki (whose students called him Suzuki Roshi), I'd read about another form of zen, called Rinzai, which emphasized pondering koans and strange, seemingly self-contradicting statements, and seeking "enlightenment". Suzuki Roshi's approach (derived from the Soto branch of Japanese Zen) seemed more down-to-earth, modest and productive, with an emphasis on meditation and being content to do one's best in each moment, without strugging for any extreme pleasure or trying to awe others or oneself (forgive me, I oversimplify). There was nothing to attain beyond what one was already doing (though the relaxed attentiveness cultivated through meditation and other practices tended to lead to impressive craftsmanship in those zen folks). While appreciating the philosophical principles of Soto Zen (such as the compassionate statement "Sentient Beings are numberless; I vow to save them all"), I also found many strange customs which I eventually realized were wise, such as removing shoes when entering homes, and bowing to everyone, not in a worshipful way but as an indication of respect for all people. Suzuki and his group (more friends than followers) were vegetarians without making any fuss about it, though I imagine it contributed to their peacefulness. (See my page on veganism.) I remember one time some young male hecklers came into the Zen Center and loudly challenged Suzuki to respond to religious questions. He calmed and quieted them by saying, in a friendly yet firm way, "I don't know. And sometimes I don't know is the right answer." There are now many good books by people who were Suzuki Roshi's students -- check out, for example, Gary Thorp's Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks and the writings of Edward Espe Brown (The Tassajara Recipe Book, etc) -- and a well-regarded biography of Shunryu Suzuki:
My impression was that Suzuki Roshi's favorite zen teacher (the one he most often mentioned) was Dogen, who founded the Soto Zen sect about 800 years ago. Fine folks whom I met at Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center included Alan Watts, Chogyam Trungpa and Katagiri Roshi -- though I was also impressed by several non-famous nonwriters I met in the zen community. (Note that D.T. Suzuki, another noted writer about Buddhism, is not the same person as Shunryu Suzuki.) There are many other excellent Buddhist teachers and writers, such as Jack Kornfield and Charlotte Beck. And one of the best writers about how to write is Natalie Goldberg, who was once a student of Katagiri Roshi.

Though influeced by Buddhism, including Zen versions, I don't think it would be reasonable to consider myself a "Buddhist", and my most intense phase of exploring Zen and several other religions and philosophies and psychological approaches unfolded partly because of related work I was doing for a psychology journal (which I plan to describe here later). Yet I do recommend reading a few of the books mentioned above, and perhaps visiting a local Zen group, because you'd probably benefit -- even if you decide on independence, which is a key principle Zen tends to promote.

Mind-Revising Quotations

"Man is disturbed not by things, but by his opinion of things."
-- Epictetus, Roman Philosopher, 1st Century AD

From the Meditations
of Marcus Aurelius

"Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking."

"If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment."

"Forward, as occasion offers. Never look round to see whether any shall note it. Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matter, and think that even such a result is no trifle."

"Don't waste the remainder of your life in imaginings which do not contribute to the common good."

"A wrong-doer is often a man who has left something undone, not always he who has done something."

"Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."

"Remember that to change your mind and to follow him that sets you right, is to be none the less the free agent that you were before."

"How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy."

"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive -- to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love."

"Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible."

"The happiness and unhappiness of the rational, social animal depends not on what he feels but on what he does; just as his virtue and vice consist not in feeling but in doing."

"In the morning, when you are sluggish about getting up, let this thought be present: 'I am rising to a man's work.'"

"Be not as one who has ten thousand years to live; death is near at hand; while you live, while you have time, be good."


Some More Good Thinking

"Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."
~ William Jennings Bryan

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
~ 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

"Happy are those who find fault with themselves instead of finding fault with others."
-- Muhammad

"If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow."
-- Chinese Proverb

Whatever an enemy might do to an enemy, or a foe to a foe, the ill-directed mind can do to you even worse. Whatever a mother, father or other kinsman might do for you, the well-directed mind can do for you even better."
-- from the Dhammapada

"Look to this day for it is life -- the very life of life In its brief course lie all the realities and truths of existence the joy of growth the glory of action the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is already a memory and tomorrow is only a vision but today well lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day. "
-- Ancient Sanskrit Poem

"If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time."
-- Edith Wharton

"To know someone here or there with whom you can feel there is understanding in spite of distances or thoughts unexpressed - that can make this life a garden."
-- Goethe

"Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd."
-- from the I Ching

"They are richest whose needs are simplest."
-- Henry David Thoreau


OK, if you've read down to here, maybe you're the sort of person who won't get a heart attack after reading the next book suggestion, which is a bit controversial. First, don't you think it's a good idea to become at least somewhat familiar with multiple religions and philosophies, and even some uncomplimentary analysis of whatever views you hold dear? -- partly so you can interact in an informed way with diverse other people, and because it's quite possible you'll discover improved ways of thinking and living, either little things, or on a bigger scale, if you expose your mind to more than just the same old thoughts it now repeats. I assume that most who read this will have read much of the Bible, that old oft-revered foundation of multiple religions -- which I managed to read all the way through, 3 times -- in childhood, and in the Episcopal high school I attended (though I wasn't Episcopalian), and in my college years. And quite a few of you will have become somewhat familiar with some form of Buddhism and/or Taoism, perhaps through books (see the Tao Te Ching, on another page of Upchange.com), or more indirectly, through writers such as Emerson and Thoreau. And many others just ignore the whole business of religion, without thinking about it much. However, I find that few people ever are exposed to an intelligent presentation of a case refuting religion entirely -- and that's what you can find in Atheist Universe: Why God Didn't Have A Thing To Do With It. There are lots of earlier writings with this sort of view (by people such as Einstein, Edison, Bertrand Russell and many others), but this book is the most comprehensive and readable and worth-reading "God doesn't exist and all religions are foolish" presentation that I've seen. I do think that most standard religions and atheists and agnostics tend not to consider another option: that there exists a story-creating, meaning-infusing, tieing-together, structuring aspect or mechanism in the universe, or throughout all things, which is not a know-it-all authority (or group of authorities), but rather which may be evolving and growing along with us, and we (and all other life, or all things) may be its eyes, ears, its very being. Though as old as the universe, it may not be older, in a sense, than this season's apple blossoms, nor tower at some end-stage of wisdom, but may be relatively young-at-soul and questing, and possibly even, at times, (dare I say it?) confused. However, for my own mind, I see no point in taking sides, or declaring full confidence in things which I do not and perhaps cannot fully know. For me, rather than assertions about ancient miracles or super-human beings (or refutations of them), what's most interesting, what matters, are good step-by-step tips on ways to improve life -- that's what religion (or other teaching) needs to offer, and of course it's what this website aims to become.

"The basic thing nobody asks is why do people take drugs of any sort? Why do we have these accessories to normal living to live? I mean, is there something wrong with society that's making us so pressurized, that we cannot live without guarding ourselves against it?"
~ John Lennon

If you'd like to experience some of the best college-level courses taught by some of the best US professors, and do it at home without the pressure of exams, grades or the high costs of the ivy league colleges where many of these profs teach, check the DVDs, CDs and audiotapes sold by The Teaching Company. For the best current deals, click the "On Sale" link at the top of their site. For example, consider "The Great Ideas of Psychology", taught by Professor Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University; or "Ancient Geek Civilization", taught by Professor Jeremy McInerney of the University of Pennsylvania. Oops, make that "Ancient Greek Civilization". Oh well, it still may be worthwhile.

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