Your Elephant and You

We come together in this place of connection

To know and to be known

To enter into relationship, which is our teacher, our inspiration, our shelter, and our prod toward growth

In this place, may we feel safe from the storm

And strengthened to reach beyond our sanctuary

To bring others to safety

And to calm the fearful winds of conflict

That all may know peace


Readings

Untitled by Rumi

We seem to be sitting still,
but we are actually moving,
and the fantasies of phenomena
are sliding through us,
like ideas through curtains.

They go to the well of deep love
inside each of us.

They fill their jars there
and they leave.

There is a source they come from,
and a fountain inside here.

Be generous and grateful.
Confess when you're not.

We cannot know
what the divine intelligence has in mind.

Who am I,
standing in the midst of this
thought-traffic?

 

We Are Many

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.

On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst
of people of some distinction,
and when I summon my courageous self,
a coward completely unknown to me
swaddles my poor skeleton
in a thousand tiny reservations.

When a stately home bursts into flames,
instead of the fireman I summon,
an arsonist bursts on the scene,
and he is I. There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to distinguish myself?
How can I put myself together?

All the books I read
lionize dazzling hero figures,
brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
and, in films where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.

But when I call upon my DASHING BEING,
out comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,
and so I never know just WHO I AM,
nor how many I am, nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.
I would like to be able to touch a bell
and call up my real self, the truly me,
because if I really need my proper self,
I must not allow myself to disappear.

While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.
I should like to see if the same thing happens
to other people as it does to me,
to see if as many people are as I am,
and if they seem the same way to themselves.
When this problem has been thoroughly explored,
I am going to school myself so well in things
that, when I try to explain my problems,
I shall speak, not of self, but of geography.

 

Half Life by Stephen Levine

We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream

barely touching the ground

our eyes half open
our heart half closed.

Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.

Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.

Until the fever breaks
and the heart can not abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.


Message by Andy Pakula

On Tuesday the 10th of March, Shaun Nichols delivered the 2015 Wellcome & Loebel Lecture in Neuroethics. You can listen to the lecture here.

Nichols presented a range of intriguing empirical data on how our view of the self affects our attitudes. The common view about the self is that it is something that persists through our lives. The self is an essential part of us that remains the same from childhood to adulthood. However some views in philosophy and religion see the self as something much less permanent.

Nichols notes that unlike many revolutionary views in the philosophy, the idea that there is no persisting self is predicted to have generally beneficial consequences. For example, it should make people more generous and less selfish, as the boundaries between different people become less significant. It should also make individuals less punitive, as if the self regularly changes, agents may not be responsible for former wrongs. Further, it should decrease peoples fear of death, as the person who eventually dies would not truly be them.

Nichols presented data from his own work showing that when individuals are primed to view the self as something which changes through time, they do indeed become more generous, and choose to give more to charity when given the opportunity. They also are less inclined to punish people for former wrongs.

However when Nichols looked at how the conception of the self affects attitudes toward death, he found it made no difference. Those who think the self changes over time are just as afraid of death as those who believe in the persisting self.

One explanation for these results could be that Nichols’ experiments only included those who grew up in cultures that continually reinforce the idea of the persisting self. Perhaps individuals from cultures which show a robust belief in the impermanent self will show less death anxiety. To investigate this, Nichols studied attitudes toward the self and death in Tibetan Buddhist Lamas. Members of this population have deeply ingrained views about the impermanent nature of the self, which was confirmed by Nichols. However when he looked at the views of this population toward death, the result was surprising. This group was more scared of death, not less, than controls.

Nichols then presented various theories that might explain this result. One comes from neuroscience. Evidence from brain damaged patients indicates that two distinct senses of self can be affected by two distinct parts of our brain – the semantic self, and the episodic self. Our semantic self is essentially the set of traits that we believe make us who we are. It seems clear that this does change significantly through time. According to the biopsychosocial view in psychiatry , our mental attributes are the result of interactions between biological, social and psychological factors. As these factors change, so do our mental attitudes. Hence as our brains, environments and social situations change from childhood to adulthood, so too does the sets of traits we possess.

However the episodic self is something quite different. When we conceive of our episodic self, we conceive of something that has experiences rather than something that has traits. When we imagine our first kiss, we imagine that experience as if it happening to us now. Our traits, our semantic self, don’t get represented at all.

One possible explanation for Nichols’ results is that although it may be easy to manipulate our view of the semantic self, this is not the case for the episodic self. When we imagine our death, we can’t help but imagine it happening to us as we are now – just like when we remember our first kiss.

As to why the Lamas actually have a greater fear of death than others, Nichols had an interesting hypothesis. Given these individual pray and think about death on a daily basis, this may bring death to the forefront of their minds and inadvertently make them more worried about it. This suggests that one way of avoiding death anxiety is to simply not think about death.

 

 "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes" Walt Whitman Song of Myself.