Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Resources for Loving-Kindness

In my last post I talked about doing loving-kindness meditation. I think that it's easy to learn--and, in fact, it is easier for me to do than the sitting-and-following-the-breath, mindfulness meditation most Buddhist teachers encourage people to do.

There are a lot of books around that describe this meditation or variations on it. (Tibetan influenced Buddhists have some amazing meditations that go far beyond loving-kindness--I might write more about this at some point.) Here is an annotated list of some of the books I have read that talk about loving-kindness meditation. For more on the Four Brahmaviharas (or The Divine Abodes, among other names) see my post on 'The Four Gardeners' (2/14/10).

Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You Here Pema covers Lovingkindness, as well as Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity, and gives an overview of the Tibetan practices of Tonglen and Lojong which extend loving kindness to a place of taking in suffering and sending out love and happiness.

Gavin Harrison, In the Lap of the Buddha Gavin covers basic insight meditation, but also looks at what he calls 'The Divine Abodes': Lovingkindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity, and Forgiveness practices as well. Written by an HIV positive abuse survivor, it is filled with love and compassion. It has a very nice section on Generosity as well as the Five Buddhist Precepts.

Stephen Levine, A Gradual Awakening A good, basic book on meditation written in a warm friendly tone. Mostly covers basic mindfulness meditation, but he devotes two chapters to Loving-kindness, one of which is a 'guided meditation'.

John Makransky, Awakening Through Love This book begins with the identification of our 'benefactors' followed by an initial meditation on the love given to us by our benefactors. From there he develops the meditation to include mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations, but the initial portion where love is given to us makes these meditations more powerful--once we are filled with love it makes it so much easier to pour love out on the world.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living A book with a bit of everything, from the author's stories about himself and others to looking at how Buddhist meditation has been studied by western science, to chapters on how to meditate. He has a chapter on Loving-kindness and Compassion meditations that also covers Tonglen and Aspiration Bodhicitta. He also includes a chapter on 'The Biology of Compassion'.

Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness This is a classic text on loving-kindness meditation. Covers the Four Brahmaviharas in some detail. Also covers forgiveness meditation.

Quote of the Day: "It takes strong insight and often a good deal of courage to break away from our habitual ways of looking at things, to be able to respond from a different place. Imagine if we dropped our need to be right, our easy perpetuation of what we’re used to, our urge to go along with what others think, and tried to practice what the Buddha taught: 'Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love.'" - Sharon Salzberg

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spreading Love

I am not a believer in an afterlife or reincarnation, but I was intrigued when one of my housemates told me he used to do past-life regressions. He claimed that when people were asked the purpose of that particular life, 90% said the purpose of their life was to learn how to love. (The other 10% said it was to learn how to use power more wisely.) Rachel Remen, in her book My Grandfather's Blessings (see my last post and my post of 3/9/10), claims that "According to those who have returned from a near-death experience, we are all here to grow in wisdom and learn how to love better." (Her definition of wisdom is, "Wisdom is not something that we acquire; it is something that over time we may become. It involves a change in our basic nature, a deepening of our capacity for compassion, lovingkindness, forgiveness, harmlessness, and service. ... Our capacity for wisdom naturally grows throughout our lives.")

I am still not ready to buy into an afterlife, but I am intrigued by the notion that the purpose of life is to learn to love better.

I have been practicing meditations on Loving-Kindness everyday for a while now. I have actually started to teach this (occasionally) to other people. It is a wonderful practice. You begin by sending loving-kindness to yourself, then extend it to a beloved person--a mentor, teacher, or very dear friend; then a close friend or a family member that you are close to; then a 'neutral person', someone you have no particular feelings about; then someone you are having difficulty with; finally, extend wish of well being for all 'sentient beings'.

As you work with it, you can just extend that wish for everyone's happiness and well-being into a constant refrain repeated throughout the day. As one teacher I heard said, just repeating it often re-patterns our brain.

Now, I do various versions of this several times a day because I badly need to do them. You can read all my posts on love, compassion, and forgiveness and you might think that I'm this amazing, constantly loving person. I'm not. If you met me in person, you might find that I am often an anxious, frantic, frustrated mess. I can be rude, self-absorbed, controlling, and judgmental. I do all these meditations because I need them. I remind myself to be patient and forgiving with everyone, including myself. I try to be joyful and loving--my latest goal is to look at everyone I meet with 'love and delight'. I don't always succeed, but this is an 'aspiration' meditation. This is my goal and I am slowly working toward being that cheerful, loving person I want to be.

I truly think this is some of the most important work that I need to do, perhaps the work that all of us need to do. Spreading love isn't enough, but it is a profound beginning. I do think that if we could get to a place where most people lived simply, treated everyone equally, acted cooperatively, and practiced sustainability, a place where everyone's basic needs were met, it would make the world far, far better, even without love. I also believe that only when we start spreading love will the real healing of the world begin.

(I hope to put out a list of resources for doing loving-kindness meditation in my next post.)

Quote of the Day: "When the rivers and air are polluted, when families and nations are at war, when homeless wanderers fill the highways, these are traditional signs of a dark age. ...
"Practicing loving-kindness toward ourselves seems as good a way as any to start illuminating the darkness of difficult times.
"... There's so much resentment and so much resistance to life. In all nations it's like a plague that's gotten out of control and is poisoning the atmosphere of the world. At this point it might be wise to wonder about these things and begin to get the knack of loving-kindness." - Pema Chödrön

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More Blessings

As I said I would, I went back for a second helping of My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen. (See my post on 'Blessings', 3/9/10, for my first pass at this book.) I have been rereading it and enjoying it more and more. This is a book full of real blessings. As Rachel Remen says in the book, "Everything unborn in us and in the world needs blessing. ... Blessings strengthen life and feed life just as water does."

She goes on to say, "When we offer our blessings generously, the light in the world is strengthened, around us and in us. The Kabbalah speaks of our collective human task as Tikkun Olam; we sustain and restore the world." This is the healing of the world that I have spoken of (in my post of 2/24/10 entitled 'And Their Four Offspring'). As we bless the world and those in it, we become part of that healing, part of the Great Turning. (See my post of 11/15/09 for more on 'The Great Turning'.)

So how do we bless the world? Certainly we can wish it well. We can start with Loving-Kindness--I wrote about how this relates to social change in the third post I wrote for this blog. ('Loving-Kindness and Social Change', 6/24/08) From there add Compassion, Joy, and Serenity (see 'The Four Gardeners', 2/14/10), as well as Patience, Forgiveness, and Generosity (which I wrote about in 'And Their Four Offspring', 2/24/10--with a lot more on 'Forgiveness' in my post of 8/7/08). I believe that each of these things blesses the world, and each of these things contribute to its healing. The way that Rachel Remen talks about is through service.

She points out that, "We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual."

And she goes on to say, "...we do not serve from our strength; we serve with ourselves. We draw from all our experiences. Over the years I have discovered that everything I know serves and everything I am serves. I have served people impeccably with parts of myself that embarrass me, parts of which I am ashamed. The wholeness in me serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is as worthy as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals."

I think this is powerful stuff. But the point is that the service doesn't have to be perfect. We just need to open up our hearts and give to each other. I see service as a type of generosity. We bless the world as we give of ourselves. And we give of ourselves as well as we can. Again, "...according to my grandfather, it is better to bless life badly than not to bless it at all."

Rachel Remen also talks about Compassion. She relates the legend of the Lamed-Vov. Her grandfather tells her how it is told that God will allow the world to continue as long as there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. These are the Lamed-Vovniks. He says, "...Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role that they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them. ...
"They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world."

According to Dr. Remen, "Compassion begins with the acceptance of what is most human in ourselves, what is most capable of suffering. In attending to our own capacity to suffer, we can uncover a simple and profound connection between our own vulnerability and the vulnerability in all others. Experiencing this allows us to find an instinctive kindness toward life which is the foundation of all compassion and genuine service."

I love this book. I could go on quoting from it--and it is filled with stories, stories of how vulnerable human beings struggle with illness and change, and become blessings in the process. I have found myself close to tears at some points.

I do think this is social change. If more and more people focused on service rather than acquisition, it would totally reorient our society. If we focused on being blessings for the world and part of life, rather than being removed and separate from it, a sustainable, compassionate world would start to grow. I don't think that reading this book is enough to totally change things, but it is enough to push things further along.

Quote of the Day: "All who serve, serve life. ... When we serve, we discover that life is holy." - Rachel Naomi Remen

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kale, Carrots, and Chard

My attempts last year at gardening were less than successful. A housemate nutured some kale and chard plants that I wanted until they were seedlings and we planted them outside. I watered and weeded them, but the chard died and the kale never grew. Like some sort of Peter Pan plant, these little green things didn't grow up. In fact, contrary to everything I understood about biology, the tiny kale plants never grew or died but just stayed same size they were when we transplanted it. Eventually, as the weather got colder, I transplanted them again and brought the kale inside. I would have thought they were plastic or some other type of artificial plants, but they did orient themselves to the sun whenever I turned them. Finally, I harvested the little things and ate them as part of a salad.

This year I am resolving to learn everything about the three plants I want to grow. I am limiting it to three, figuring that I need to really learn how to grow just three plants, and grow them well, before expanding my repetoire. So this year I am concentrating on meeting the needs of kale, carrots, and chard.

Because it would be useful for me to have this information stored this way, and because, who knows, someone may want to raise kale or carrots or chard or all three, I'm going to write down what I have learned so far about each vegetable. (All three are, as it turns out, frost hardy biennials.)

Kale: a member of the Cabbage/Brassica family. A heavy feeder. Likes 'fertile, fine-textured soil'--pH 6.5-7.0; develops best in 'deeply prepared, loamy soil'. Prepare soil with manure, compost, mulch. Prefers cool weather and doesn't like hot weather--taste improves with frost. Can do multiple plantings (planting season around Boston: March 20-April 10 & July 1st thru August 1st). It can follow any other vegetable except another Brassica. You can keep harvesting it by pulling off just the outer leaves.

Carrots: a member of the Parsley family. Wants full sun but can stand partial shade. A light feeder. Likes light soil, a 'sandy loam free from lumps and stones'. One source claims carrots need pH 5.5-7.0; another suggests a pH>6.5; develops best in 'loose friable deeply dug soil free from stones and dirt clods'. (Stones, etc, cause mishapen carrots but one source suggests that halfsized carrots can be grown in rocky soil.) Don't start indoors--carrots don't transplant well. (Although another book suggests that they can be sprouted like any sprout--see my post of 2/26/10 on 'Sprouts!'--and then sprinkle sprouts over bed and cover.) Seed to harvest in 10 weeks. Planting season in Boston: April 1st-July 20th. Seeds can be sown every 3 weeks from early spring until two and a half months before the first frost. Water frequently and keep ground moist at all times--especially in hot weather. Need constant moisture until almost fully mature, then slow up so they don't split. They like phosphate and potassium but not too much nitrogen. Final harvest mid to late autumn.

Chard: a member of the Goosefoot family (related to beets). Does best in full sun, but can grow in partial shade. A light feeder. Does well with almost any soil but likes lots of humus. Again, one source says it needs a pH>6.5 while another says it will grow in pH 6.0 to 7.5 (not that they are that different). Apparently chard is a very deep rooted plant so it's useful where the subsoil requires aeration. Can be started indoors; keep soil warm (70F) until sprouted. Move to full sun as soon as first shoots appear. Seed to harvest in 8 weeks. Planting season in Boston: April 1st-July 20th. Will produce greens through the summer and into winter (but cover with a deep layer of straw or mulch). Three different books give three different advice on harvesting: 1) Carefully cut off outer leaves at stem by plant base with sharp knife when leaves are 6-9 inches tall; small, inner leaves will continue to grow. 2) Pull leaves off the plant, cutting causes bleeding; take just a few leaves from the outside of the plant, leaving remainder to grow. 3) Harvest by cutting to an inch above the ground and fertilize after harvesting; they will quickly regrow. The majority of the sources suggest pulling off the outer leaves so that's probably what I'll do.

I should report at some point later on how the plants actually do. Maybe if I do better growing kale, chard, and carrots this year, I will try raising a few more vegetables next year.

There is a church near me that has a corner flower garden with a plaque that reads: "We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden." It's a good reminder.

Mel Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening
James Crockett, Crockett's Victory Garden
Geoff Hamilton, DK Pocket Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
Organic Gardening Magazine,Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
Dick Raymond, Garden Way's Joy of Gardening

Quote of the Day: "My philosophy is that a garden should be in production for as long as possible, from early spring into the winter. This means working all year long, preparing the soil in the fall, ordering the seeds and planning the garden in the winter, getting the seedlings started in January, and planting and harvesting all through the growing season." - Jim Crockett

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Story of Soil

As winter becomes spring, I am thinking more about growing food. One of the things I have been studying is soil. Last spring, I wrote a post on 'Food (Soil and Seeds)' (5/13/09). In some respects, this post is a continuation of that one. Here I am going to concentrate on soil science.

The story of soil is the story of the earth, so I will begin with the cosmic view. After the big bang, the universe slowly formed into lots of space with giant 'clouds' of hydrogen (and a little bit of helium) floating about. As the hydrogen atoms began attracting each other, they began condensing and getting denser and denser, until the atoms in the center got so squished that they began fusing and giving off massive amounts of heat and forming stars. All elements we know, other than hydrogen and helium, have been formed in the fiery furnace at a star's core, and thus Joni Mitchell is right, we are all 'stardust'--and so is almost everything else on earth. When these stars went nova, they flung their contents out into space in giant explosions. Slowly these fragments formed new stars and planets (including earth).

Earth cooled to a huge mass of rock, with an atmosphere, and lots of water. Life emerged, and modified the atmosphere and the rock. (See my post on 'Gaia', 1/3/10, for more on how life modified the atmosphere.) The atmosphere and water also modified the rock, breaking it down into pebbles, and then sand and dust. The surface of the moon, and many of the planets, is like this.

But life crawled out of the oceans, and died. And more life crawled out, and died. And this happened again and again and again. And as more life crawled onto the shore, it began feeding on the remains of earlier life, and transforming it. Slowly, the debris of life became humus, the main component of soil.

Soil science is truly an interdisciplinary venture. It combines geology, chemistry, and many branches of biology: botany, zoology, microbiology, and ecology. The rock of the earth is buried in most places under the soil and called bedrock. Above that is a section of loose rock called 'regolith' or the 'parent material'. Above that is the subsoil and the topsoil. Soil is a mixture of three types of rock particle (in order of decreasing size: sand, silt, and clay) and humus which is the decomposed remains of plants and animals, now an amorphous, almost gell-like, substance. Sand, silt, and clay in the right proportions is called loam and loam plus humus create a healthy soil structure called tilth.

The chemistry of soil is where things get interesting. Rocks are made up of many elements combined into minerals. The earth's crust contains roughly 47% oxygen, 28% silicon, 8% aluminum, 5% iron, 4% calcium, 3% sodium, 3% potassium, 2% magnesium, and less than 2% everything else (combined). The chemical needs of plants (and really most living things) are (in roughly decending order): carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, iron, magnesium, boron, manganese, copper, zinc, molybdenum, chlorine, nickel, and cobalt.

The first thing that seems to join these two lists is high placement of oxygen--but, as it turns out, plants don't get much of their oxygen from the soil. It's also obvious that although much of the rock, and indeed the soil, consists of what is called aluminosilicates (minerals made of silicon, oxygen, and aluminum), living things don't use silicon or aluminum (except in reconstructive surgery). (Okay, I take that back--I just found out that corn, as well as some other plants, benefit from silicon.)

Plants get their carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air, the hydrogen and oxygen from water, and the nitrogen from the atmosphere--but indirectly. It's everything else on the plant list that comes from the rock via the soil. The minerals--calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, etc--come from the breakdown of rock due to weathering. This releases ions which are attracted to the clay and humus and passed on from there to the plant via its root system. For example, phosphorus comes from a mineral called apatite and magnesium comes from minerals like serpentine and dolomite--all part of the rocks.

But, as I mentioned in my previous post on soil, soil is more than just rocks and chemicals. It is more than even sand, silt, clay, and humus. It is a living entity, filled with living creatures. Take for example how plants get nitrogen. Unlike carbon dioxide and oxygen, which it can breath in directly, all the nitrogen in the atmosphere is not in a state that can be used by plants. However there are bacteria that can take nitrogen from the air and use it directly. Some of these bacteria (called rhizobia) live in a symbiotic relationship to certain plants, particularly the legumes, as part of their roots. Other bacteria change the nitrogen from protein to ammonia which other bacteria change to nitrite ions and still other bacteria change to nitrate ions. It's the nitrate ions that are absorbed by the plants after all the work of the bacteria.

Soil is just teaming with life, some of it microscopic (besides bacteria, there are algae, a specialized bacteria called actinomycetes, protozoa, and fungi with its microscopic mycelia), some of it worm-like (including the earthworms and the nematodes), some of it arthopod (including springtails, mites, and insects such as ants and termites), and some of it is full fledged mammals (like moles and mice and groundhogs).

At the end of my post 'Food (Soil and Seeds)', I closed with a quote from Elaine Ingham which I will repeat here: "Agricultural soil should have 600 million bacteria in a teaspoon. There should be approximately three miles of fungal hyphae in a teaspoon of soil. There should be 10,000 protozoa and 20 to 30 beneficial nematodes in a teaspoon of soil. ...
"There should be roughly 200,000 microarthopods in a square meter of soil to a 10-inch depth. All these organisms should be there in a healthy soil." When I used this quote, I had no idea who Elaine Ingham was. Elaine Ingham runs a group called Soil Foodweb Inc that may be the premier group looking at life in the soil. She wrote the Soil Biology Primer, which is an incredibly detailed overview of soil life and is available to read for free on the web courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She also wrote the The Compost Tea Brewing Manual, a classic about how to add life to the soil.

This is just a tidbit of what soil is all about. Think of all that complexity the next time you garden--or even just walk on the earth.

Milo Harpstead, Francis Hole, and William Bennett, Soil Science Simplified
David Lambert and the Diagram Group, The Field Guide to Geology
James Nardi, Life in the Soil
Elizabeth Stell, Secrets to Great Soil
and, of course, Wikipedia

Quote of the Day: "I've never outgrown a child's simple love of dirt. It has continued to fascinate me since those early days of mud pies and simple earthworks. After studying it at the university level I learned to respect its complexity and call it soil. Years of gardening work have taught me how resilient it is. The more I learn about soil, the more marvelous and magical it seems." - Elizabeth Stell

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


In my quest to find books to help my spiritual and emotional growth--and especially ones from non-Buddhist framework, since I have become so beholden to that view point (see my last post for more on this)--I was poking around the library and found My Grandfather's Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen. Actually, I was looking for it, because I had seen it somewhere and thought I should read it.

This truly is a work about blessings and blessing the world. Three of the sections are entitled: 'Receiving Your Blessings', 'Becoming a Blessing', and 'The Web of Blessings'. The remaining three sections are: 'Finding Strength, Finding Refuge', 'Befriending Life', and 'Restoring the World'. This is a book about the work that each of us needs to do to help the healing of the world, but it is also a book about the need for each of us to appreciate ourselves and our worth; appreciating the blessings we have, as we ourselves become a blessing.

It's a book of stories, some of them about the author's grandfather, an orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, but more of them about the author's life and about people she has met through her medical practice. In many of these stories, she develops the idea of service.

There was a point when I was with radical groups who contrasted social service with 'real' social change. I have come to believe that all real service is social change. We need those who think about and strategize and work for social change, but we also need those who simply do lovely things for other people and for the world. I most appreciate those who do service while holding the clear necessity for change--for example, groups like the Catholic Workers and Food Not Bombs.

The first story in the book is about the author at four years old being told by her grandfather that she needed to water a cup of dirt every day. She didn't understand and did it only because she had to, but she did it. A few weeks later, when a green thing emerged and grew leaves, she was astonished. Her grandfather told her that life is hidden everywhere. "And all it needs is water, Grandpa?" "No, Neshume-la. ...All it needs is your faithfulness."

The world certainly needs us. It needs us to restore and heal it. It needs our faithfulness.

I realized as I was halfway through this book, what I wanted to do was read the whole book and then start over and read it again. I have found the stories profound, inspiring, and thought-provoking. And, in spite of Rachel Remen's orthodox grandfather and socialist parents and medical background, there is Buddhism in this book--and Catholicism as well. She draws from many spiritual traditions and many people's stories to create a framework that transcends them all. Just being of service, she points out, is being a blessing. As the author says, "Service is not the attribute of any one religion any more than holiness is. Many of those who serve have no formal religion, while others follow any one of the many religious traditions on the face of this earth. All are a blessing to life."

Quote of the Day: "...every act of service bears witness to the possibility of freedom for us all." - Rachel Naomi Remen

Friday, March 5, 2010

Evolving My Spirituality

This is a somewhat personal post, focused more on me and my process than on social change. But I figure that maybe someone else can learn from my struggles with spirituality.

Up until recently, if you had asked me what my spirituality was, I would have said I was a Naturalistic Pagan. I haven't thought of myself as even remotely interested in being Buddhist since the nineteen seventies.

But lately, I have been doing a Buddhist meditation for a half-hour every morning and a different Buddhist meditation for ten minutes or so every evening. I have been attending meditations and talks at our local insight meditation center, went to an orientation at the local zen center, and have recently started attending a meditation run by some Tibetan influenced folks.

There are certain teachers that have stayed with me through the years, principally Stephen Levine and Pema Chödrön; but the daily meditating started a few years ago when I read Stephen Batchelor's book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. Like it or not, this was an approach that I could follow. Eventually I found myself reading Buddhist writers like Joanna Macy whose writings I have written several posts about (see my posts on World as Lover, 1/15/10; Mutual Causality, 12/18/09; and The Great Turning, 11/15/09) and John Makransky who is one of my current influences.

But, as I'm reading all these Buddhist books and doing all these Buddhist practices, I kept saying, "I'm not a Buddhist, I'm not a Buddhist, I'm not..." And I'm not. I find the stuff incredibly useful for my emotional growth, but I saw the core of my spirituality as being around the world and nature, thus a pagan.

And I love reading pagan writers like Starhawk (and have written a couple of posts on her work, One with Nature2: The Path, 12/28/09, and Starhawk, Political Theorist, 8/17/08) and Luisah Teish and Thorn Coyle. (All three of these women have connections with Reclaiming Witchcraft and Starhawk and Thorn Coyle are witches.)

But I have also been occasionally going to Quaker meeting, and have been influenced by my Catholic upbringing (and Thomas Merton), my Jewish friends, my Ethical Culture friend Susan (see my post, Unoffendable, 12/4/09), my univeralist (not UU) friend Robert (see my post, WWJD, 12/25/09), and Christian blogger Robyn Coffman (also featured in Unoffendable, 12/4/09). I was starting to call myself things like a 'Reclaiming-influenced Pagan, also with Buddhist and Catholic influences'. It was getting a bit ridiculous. There were people encouraging me to shed the labels, but that's hard for me.

Finally I did something similar to what I had done with my political beliefs (see my post on SECS, 9/22/08). There I replaced the political labels with what I actually believed in. Now I am replacing the spiritual labels with the source of my spirituality.

When I look at what really nourishes me spiritually, I realize that it is four things. At the center is Love. Truly, I am a devotee of love and compassion and forgiveness. (See my post on The Four Gardeners, 2/14/10, and my post entitled And Their Four Offspring, 2/24/10.) But also Community is not only a political belief of mine (see my four posts on community in October, 2008), but a source of my spiritual strength as well. (Somewhere Thich Nhat Hanh said something like 'the next Buddha will be a sangha'--that is a community. I think most spiritual groups also honor community.) And, of course, Love (in the larger sense) and Community are related. The third source of my spirituality is Nature and the fourth source is the Earth--and these two sources are why I thought of myself as a pagan for so long.

But no spirituality has a monopoly on Love, Community, Nature, and the Earth. So rather than labeling myself, I am now choosing to honor the sources of my spirituality--and act in ways that connect me to those sources. And for me, while Nature, the Earth, and Community are very important, I am realizing more and more that my spiritual base begins with Love.

Quote of the Day: "Love is a choice -- not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity -- a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life..." - Carter Heyward

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Prisoner's Dilemma

Prisoner's Dilemma describes a situation where two people (or groups of people) have the opportunity to cooperate with one another or try to take advantage of one another. The Wikipedia article on Prisoner's Dilemma gives one formulation of the story:

"Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?"

While I'm certainly not suggesting that I hope criminals will cooperate and avoid justice, this scenerio is the basis for a 'game' which looks at cooperation vs competition as well as individual benefit vs collective benefit and trust vs suspicion. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a long, complex, and detailed article on Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) which points out that "PD is a game in which a 'cooperative' outcome obtainable only when every player violates rational self-interest is unanimously preferred to the 'selfish' outcome obtained when every player adheres to rational self-interest." Their idea of 'rational self-interest' is that you look out for yourself regardless of what that means for the other person.

In a very early post (Two Basic Principles, 6/30/08), I looked at the difference between self interest that only sees immediate gain vs self interest that sees that we are all connected and thus what benefits everyone benefits us. Prisoner's Dilemma interests me because it resembles a lot of social situations that I can think of (although some of these situations more resemble the Game of Chicken). The question that PD most raises for me is how can we increase the likelihood of cooperation?

In some versions of PD, it's played multiple times, which I think more approximates life situations where you are involved with someone else on an on-going basis. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics suggests punishing someone who 'cheats' as a deterrent. They point out several problems with this, including: "The cheater’s reward comes at once, while the loss from punishment lies in the future." and "Punishment will not work unless cheating can be detected and punished." They also mention, as an example, a game strategy called 'Tit for Tat'.

I mentioned 'Tit for Tat' (although not by name) in my post on Complexity Theory (7/16/08) and talked more about Prisoner's Dilemma and Tit for Tat in my post on Original Virtue (9/14/08). Basically, Tit for Tat cooperates in the first round of PD, and thereafter does whatever its opponent did to it on the last round. Robert Axelrod has written an entire book on Prisoner's Dilemma, Tit for Tat, and what supports cooperation entitled, The Evolution of Cooperation.

The Stanford folks describe Tit for Tat as "...nice, meaning that it is never the first to defect. ... retaliatory, making it difficult for it to be exploited by the rules that were not nice. ... forgiving, in the sense of being willing to cooperate even with those who have defected against it ... And ... clear, presumably making it easier for other strategies to predict its behavior so as to facilitate mutually beneficial interaction." Wikipedia's version is 'Nice, Retaliating, Forgiving, and Non-envious.' (Non-envious meaning "not striving to score more than the opponent".) In my post on Complexity I referred to it as a computer program that was "nice, forgiving, tough, and clear". Being nice, forgiving, clear, and non-envious, all seem like great qualities to me. My problem is with the 'retalitory' piece--the 'tough' part and the 'punishment' that the Economics people are advocating.

Here is the rub. There are lots of people and institutions that will take advantage of anyone who is nice and does not retaliate. Ironically, this 'nice' behavior can encourage aggressive behaviors. It's referred to sometimes as 'enabling' or in Chogyam Trungpa's memorable phrase, 'idiot compassion'. But I am not sure that 'retaliation' or 'punishment' is the answer. I think that we need to find ways of stopping violent, oppressive, or exploitive behavior without retaliation or punishment. I'm thinking about things like non-violent resistance. But this a place I think we are going to need to look at more in the future.

Wikipedia points out that Tit for Tat has parallels to the concept in evolutionary biology called "Reciprocal Altruism". Here biologists look at how cooperation may have evolved and what the advantages of it are. (Some of this is covered in my post on Original Virtue.)

What is clear to me from reading some of the studies done with Prisoner's Dilemma is that cooperation is more likely in a small group where people know one another and there is some long term commitment. In these cases, trust is more likely to build and people are more unlikely to do something to hurt someone they will be dealing with in the future. This is a good case for building community. It also helps to surround yourself with cooperators. (The Stanford site looks at this possibility toward the end in the section entitled 'Spatial PDs'.)

Looking at Prisoner's Dilemma for me is about trying to see what stops us from being more cooperative and looking at ways to get beyond that. Turil has a very nice post that I just discovered as I was about to post this on 'escaping from the prisoner's dilemma'. She has a much better take on PD and Tit for Tat than I put here.

I see all this as part of the bigger question of educating (see my post on 'Creating Social Change', 7/2/08) and creating a paradigm shift or a 'Shift in Consciousness' as Joanna Macy puts it (see my post of 11/15/09). I know I've said that I want to look at that--it's just pretty daunting for me right now. Maybe at some point I'll be inspired to take that on.

Quote of the Day: "What makes it possible for cooperation to emerge is the fact that the players might meet again. This possibility means that the choices make today not only determine the outcome of this move, but can also influence the later choices of the players." - Robert Axelrod