Tuesday, September 30, 2014

All Men Are Created Equal?

In my writings, I often refer to this iconic phrase from the Declaration of Independence, together with its companion language setting forth our unalienable rights and the statement that government’a purpose is to secure those rights, as the touchstone against which all acts of our government should be judged.  

Yet this very phrase, when viewed as hypocritical because of its obvious disconnect with what was actually happening at the time in the halls of government and in people’s lives, has called into question the intent of the framers and signers of the Declaration.  Was this merely a bold rhetorical flourish to gain acceptance both at home and on the world stage. or was it a deeply held conviction which was meant to chart the future course of the nation?

Not surprisingly, much research and writing has been done on this topic.  And the answers provided are by no means uniformly in one direction or the other.  In truth, the answer is often foretold by the politics of the researcher.  

Because of the enormous importance and potential of these words, to my mind, in redirecting our government and our citizens to a stronger, more just society and nation, I wanted to survey the literature to see what answers I would draw from it.  As objectively as I could, despite my admitted liberal bias.  

First let me restate the obvious.  Slavery was present in the country, both in the south and the north.  The Constitution codified slavery in the “3/5 compromise,” which stated that each slave shall be counted as a 3/5 person when the census was taken to establish the population of each state and thus its representation in Congress.  Thomas Jefferson, who crafted the phrase, was a slaveholder and remained a slaveholder to his death.  All the signers from the South were slaveholders.  

And the problem does not just lie with the fact of slavery.  Women were legally little more than chattel under the total control of their husbands; they had virtually no rights. And in fact, it would take women longer than African-Americans to achieve legal equality and the right to vote. The evidence arguing for a finding of hypocrisy could and has filled up books.

But that is not where this question ends.  Thomas Jefferson and most of the men who were present at these debates and signed the Declaration were men of the enlightenment.   They were men of ideas, and ideas are not always ... actually almost never ... a reflection of the reality of the moment.  Ideas, by their very nature, are meant to chart, to influence the future, whether in science or in human affairs.

In looking at various writings and notes of Jefferson and others, some researchers have thus concluded that what this phrase relates is their belief that all men and women are created equal in the sight of God.  Yet they were all well-aware that the kingdom of God is not to be found on Earth.  And so. like many ideas, it’s inclusion in the Declaration was meant to be an aspirational statement, something to guide the future of the nation.

In our current age, in which the paucity of ideas is reflected everyday in the halls of Congress, in our schools, and in corporate and government offices throughout the country, it is hard to fathom the age of enlightenment and the role that ideas played in bringing about changes in all areas of human activity.  To understand that Jefferson was neither hypocritical nor schizophrenic when writing “all men are created equal,” but rather a man caught in his time who knew, however, that there was something beyond the exigencies of the present, something larger, that needed expression and preservation.  There was no intellectual dishonesty here.

And so the power of the words of the Declaration of Independence remain undiminished.  They should be used to repurpose, to redirect our government and our citizens ... not to something new and unfamiliar, but to something deeply embedded in our founding documents, waiting to be put into action by a nation grounded in social consciousness.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

Friday, September 12, 2014

Stop Complaining - You Do Have a Choice

In my previous post, “Changing Free Will from a Harmful Illusion to a Life-Affirming Fact,” I argued that we are programmed by our learned experience to act, and react, in certain ways and thus do not have free will in the way that term is normally understood.  But, if we were properly nurtured, even as adults, we would be able to free ourselves from this programming.and act with real free will in a way that would be of benefit both to ourselves and to the rest of society.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of such a fundamental change happening in our society is next to zero  Instead, it devolves to the individual to become aware that they have been programmed and to free themselves from that programming.  You can’t change the world around you, but you do have a choice to change how you relate to yourself and that world, and thus end your doubts and confusion, your fear and anxiety, your anger and negativity.  This is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism.

To free yourself from this programming, to change your habit-energy, is a choice we can make.  Without question, it is a choice that is very difficult to make and carry out because our ego will fight making that choice with all its power and cunning.  But it is a choice that people have made and that we can all make.

Let me restate two critical steps.  First, one must come to recognize that you, and all others, are a function of the environment of your upbringing, all your learned experience, and that this experience has programmed you to act in certain ways.  That is something that most people can accept after some thought.

It is the second step which is the kicker.  You must come to an awareness that all your learned experience, being dependent on what you’ve been taught, is thus empty of any intrinsic existence ... the point being that you think the way you think because you were taught that way, whereas another person thinks quite differently because they were taught quite differently.  Where does reality then lie?  

People generally claim to have access to the truth, to reality ... they know ... whereas they don’t in fact because all they know is what they’ve been taught and reality cannot be taught.   It can only be experienced directly, which means free of the intervention of the ego’s thinking mind.  NOTE:  I am talking here about how we view ourselves and the world around us, the judgments we make, not the facts of the physical world or mathematics.

All your feelings, perceptions, mental formations ... indeed your entire consciousness ... are empty of any inherent existence.  It is just in your head.  Strange though it may seem, despite the all-too-real problems in your immediate and the larger world, the direct cause of your suffering, your unhappiness or frustration, is not the state of things you must contend with, but how you relate to yourself and the state of things.

Are you unhappy with the way things are?  Are you suffering because of that unhappiness?  Do you want your suffering to end?

The first thing you must do then is decide, if in fact what I posit is true ... that all your suffering is a function of how you relate to yourself and the world around you, not the actual state of things ... do you really want to change, not who you are, but how you relate to yourself and others.   I emphasize the word “really” because the next question is whether you are willing to go deep within yourself, to do the work which has been hinted at above, in order to free yourself from the way you’ve been programmed?  If the answer is “yes,” read on.

How does one bring about this change in oneself?  How does one unlearn the lessons of a lifetime?

The first thing one must do is find a mechanism to enable you to step outside of yourself.  To be able to look objectively at yourself and the world and how you relate to things.  Slowly, you will begin to discern the disconnect between your learned experience and reality and begin to see things as they really are, free of labels, thus bit by bit freeing yourself from your programmed mind.  Ultimately, you will be able to make the choice to find peace and happiness and end your suffering.

This is not surprisingly a complex process that demands discipline and commitment over an extended period of time ... years.  Such awareness does not come in a flash.  But there is a path to follow.  It is set forth in detail in my various books and discussed further on my Buddhist blog.  For a summary, you might want to read the post, “End of Suffering Cheat Sheet.”  For more information please go to, www.thepracticalbuddhist.com.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Changing Free Will from a Harmful Illusion to a Life-Affirming Fact

Underlying many of the social systems and moral perspectives that govern our society is the concept of free will.  Whether stated as the ability to know right from wrong or whether it’s the belief that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps, our system of laws, both criminal and civil, and government’s approach to helping those in need is founded on the concept of free will.

But do we really have free will?  Does each person really have this broad range of options from which he or she can choose?

The answer, in short, is “no.”  We are, each of us, a product of our upbringing, in all its many aspects ... from our experience in the womb, to the nurturing we receive in our early formative years, to everything we experience and learn at the hands of our family, peers, and the larger culture.  How all those different factors impact each person results in the multifaceted nature of humanity ... literally, no two people are the same, not even twins, and certainly not siblings.

While this statement should not be controversial, the further implications of it will likely be viewed as highly so.  The environment of our upbringing programs us (our minds are like extremely complex computers) to act the way we act. This is not to say that we are like robots.  Because we have minds and the ability to think, each of us has a range of actions that we can take.  But it is a much smaller range than assumed by the concept of free will.

Whether someone has ambition or has none, becomes a criminal or not, is kind or ruthless, and the list could go on and on ... regarding almost every area of human activity, most of the “decisions” we make are not really decisions, because decision implies a real choice.  Instead, these “decisions” have been made for us by the way we have been programmed by the environment of our upbringing.

Let’s take the example of two individuals growing up poor in the ghetto in similar circumstances and with a similar lack of educational achievement.  One takes the path of crime to provide money for the basics of life; the other rejects that route and takes a low-paying job.  The conventional view would be that the first individual makes a conscious decision to do what he knows to be wrong, while the second one makes a choice not to do what he knows to be wrong.  

But that is false.  The first individual, by virtue of his upbringing, does not think crime is wrong; he knows it’s illegal, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong as far as he is concerned.  The environment of his upbringing programmed him to disregard the larger society’s morality and to believe he had no other options for making it.  The second individual, on the other hand, had something in his upbringing ... possibly a parent or church ... that taught him that crime is wrong.  He could no sooner do that than chop off his hand.

Then there is the well known example of the child or wife abuser.  As research has clearly shown, these individuals do not choose to abuse their children or their wives.  They themselves were typically abused as children and their minds equate abuse with love because as children that’s how they coped with being abused by a parent.  And so, they are programmed by their past to abuse their loved ones.  They have no choice, absent intervention and therapy.

It is the mind’s programming that causes those who are abused to become abusers themselves.  As hard as it is for us to understand and accept that fact, as incomprehensible as it may seem, it is nevertheless a fact.

The implications of this analysis is significant.  There is no such thing as a bad person; that is to say, no one comes out of the womb a bad person, no one is an inherently bad person.  But people do come to do bad things because of what they’ve been taught by the environment of their upbringing.  

While that should and can have no impact on the laws of what is socially allowable behavior.  And those who violate those laws must take responsibility for their behavior, even if they in reality had little or no choice ... that is necessary for the stability of society ... how we treat such individuals is another matter.

Based on this analysis, how we deal with those who violate the law needs to change drastically from current and past practices.  For example, the goal of the criminal justice system is to increase public safety.  We know all too well from experience though that fear of incarceration or even death does not act as a deterrent and change people’s behavior.  Such is the power of their programmed minds.

Thus, while the criminal justice system would still determine guilt or innocence, the driving goal of the sentencing process would be rehabilitation not punishment.  Not just sentencing, but the whole prison culture would be totally transformed because in order to rehabilitate, a person’s thought process must be reprogrammed.  This is a complex process, but first and foremost it involves building someone’s feeling of self-worth and his sense of oneness, his interconnectedness with all people.  Only then will a person stop treating others badly, whether family, peers, or strangers.  (See my post, “Prisons as Monastery not Dungeon,” 11/20/14.)

The latter lesson will be very controversial for most readers because our whole system of social interaction, from the micro to the group to the nation is based on an us v them analysis, which in turn is based on our insecurity.  Virtually every conflict that man has been involved in has been a result of this insecurity and his us v them perspective.  Even the three great western religions have an us v them perspective at their core.  But this human weakness must be eradicated wherever it appears if we are ever to achieve peace at any level.

This analysis of the programming that robs us of free will also should impact the function of our public schools.  It is not enough to teach people job-related skills (yes, I know that many schools do a poor job of even that).  Schools must teach people what they are all too often not taught at home or by the media ... to be ethical human beings, regardless of the circumstance.  (See my post, “Schools as Educators of Citizens,” 3/10/14,)  Only then will children see beyond the immediacy of their environment and have a real chance to exercise free will

The goal of these changes I’m suggesting is to provide a real opportunity for people to exercise free will, to free themselves from the straight-jacket of their mind’s programming.

I stated in the beginning that for the most part, our systems are based on the invalid assumption that we have free will.  But in one critical arena, the injustice suffered by many results from the opposite assumption ... that they have no free will.  Schools, especially inner-city schools, mostly accept as given that children from bad backgrounds are hopeless, s lost cause, and nothing but trouble.  And that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,

Let’s take two people of equal talent and intelligence,  One is born in an upper middle-class family with all the attendant privileges and supportive parents. One is born into a drug-addicted family living in poverty on the fringes of society.  There is no difference in the two children regarding their genetic-based talents and intelligence.  

In the one case the talents and intelligence are recognized and nurtured, sometimes obsessively, the talent and intelligence blossoms and the person goes on to become a productive person.  But in the other case, the talents and intelligence are neither recognized nor nurtured ... the seeds that are within are not watered ... and so that talent and intelligence atrophies and the person goes on to the life that is more or less typical for people raised in those surroundings.  Free will was not a factor in either case.

This is a huge waste of human potential and a crime against humanity.  Children indeed do not have free will, but they are young and their minds are malleable enough that they can more easily be taught to feel self-worth than adults.  Thus, all schools must instead function with the goal of making the most of each child’s potential and from the perspective that a child’s background and SES group does not predetermine that potential.  Just as our criminal justice system ideally follows the maxim “innocent until proven guilty,” our schools should follow the maxim, “talented and intelligent until proven otherwise.”

Our system of justice and social engineering based on the assumption of free will, or in the case of many inner-city schools, the lack of free will, has done an injustice to untold millions of people to the detriment not just of their lives but of the health and stability of our society.  We assume that people have free will when convenient for us, when in fact they do not; but at the same time believe that people have no free will, when that is what’s convenient.

What we must do is reform our systems so that all people develop a sense of self-worth, of opportunity, and thus in fact can exercise free will.  Only with such reforms will we ever see the full implementation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence ... that all men are created equal, have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are instituted to secure these rights.