Monday, December 29, 2008

Miracles Explained

I've offered to give a couple workshops on meditation for my local Unitarian congregation, which gives me a bit of an incentive to write something about the subject.

As I see it, there are two sides to trying to explain an issue: what it is, and, what it is not. I'm going to start this discussion by describing what meditation isn't, because by doing so I hope to make it a little easier to understand just exactly what it is. And the first part of understanding what meditation isn't is to drop the some of the wild claims that are associated with it.

A significant, although minor,  fraction of the people who talk about meditation (especially Daoist) believe that if one masters it they gain the ability to have weird, supernatural powers. I suppose most of this comes from popular literature being filled with "mystic" teachers who have psychic powers. The character "Yoda" from the "Star Wars" trilogy comes to mind, but ancient literature is also filled with enlightened masters who were about do amazing things because of powers they gained from meditation. Take for example the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata. It has several examples of heroes that seek out religious holy men, or "sadhus", in order to gain magical powers or weapons that they can then use in their great war. It isn't surprising that the popular literature adopted this trope, because if you study most of the great mystical traditions you will find reference to miraculous powers that can be gained from intensive practices. The Yogic tradition of India calls theses "siddhis".

Personally, I don't really have a strong opinion about these things. I have had some very weird experiences while meditating that are pretty hard to explain away as just "hallucinations". But having said that, I think that the vast majority of references to miraculous powers are very easy to explain as manifestations of ordinary physics, human psychology or human society.

First of all, it is really important to understand the role that trickery has played in traditional spirituality. Any society that values holy men is bound to create a reason why people would want to mascarade as them. People want to believe, and if they do, they are quite willing to give wealth, power, and other forms of gratification to anyone that they believe has some sort of pipeline to God. And the quickest way to get people to believe that you are the "real deal" is to manifest some sort of super power. And the easiest way to do this is through some form of trickery. For example, take a look at this Christian evangelist who has already been exposed. I suspect that a great many of the miracles that have been presented in religious literature really boil down to this sort of thing---even if was not much more than a shaman figuring out how to confuse his followers with false teeth that he whittled out of basswood (complete with fangs and designed to show that he had transformed into a half-man/half-animal) and a bullroarer that he swung around his head to make an unearthly sound.

There is also a half-way sort of trickery that may actually have not been conscious. This involves learning how to do things that are perfectly explainable without recourse to miracles, but which most people would consider impossible. One example that everyone knows about is fire-walking.
This used to be a major mystery to people and was seen as evidence that someone had a magical power. But now it is a simple parlor trick that is routinely done by people at business retreats as a trust building exercise. The issue comes down to simple physics: even though a hot coal is very warm, it is a very poor conductor of heat. In contrast, the human foot has a lot of sweat pores on it, which give off moisture, which is very good at cooling the foot in such situations. The interior of the foot is also very good at cooling itself because of the flow of blood through it. So as long as the person fire walking doesn't stand still, have a coal stick to her foot, or steps on a foreign object with different conductivity (such as a nail or other piece of iron in amongst the coals), she can usually walk over the coals with no problems.

This sort of thing can be taught without the apprentice shaman or sadhu knowing how it works. This means that they may very well actually believe that what they are doing is miraculous. In this case, they are not consciously deceiving the public, but none-the-less a deception is going on.

The deception can also be based on a confusion between different cultural assumptions. To cite an example that surprised me, in Arthur Koestler's book The Lotus and the Robot he gives the example of a sadhu who was widely reported to be able to walk on water.  Koestler made the effort to go out to the countryside and find the man. It turns out that in this part of India the only water that the peasants would ever see was that in the local village reservoirs, or "tanks". In this context, no one had ever learned how to swim and it was universally known that no one could survive if he fell into water over his head. Along comes this sadhu who had learned how to control his fear and relax, which allowed him to float and dog paddle around in the tank---which seemed like a bonifide miracle to the local peasants.

When this story spread beyond this very limited milieu, it was sustained by a conflation of cultural assumptions. Because these rural, landlocked peasants didn't know about swimming, their definition of "walking on water" was slightly, but significantly different from those in the outside world. The villagers defined "walking on water" as "being able to consciously move around in the water without drowning", whereas the outside world defined it as "being able to stand upright on water and walk exactly the same way we do on land".   The issue is one of different expectations based on different types of experience, which leads to using language in a different way.  Once one gets one or two steps removed from the actual event being reported, then people make assumptions that dramatically change the information being transmitted. 

Having said all of the above, I think it is important to make a significant point about the interaction between meditation and what people call "miraculous".  The original sadhu who learned that he could walk on hot coals (or float in a village water reservoir) was manifesting something quite amazing in that he learned to control his very strong fears of being burnt or drowned.  Moreover, he probably did some observation about the world around him and did some experiments to find out what would and would not work.   The ability to control one's fear, look at the world in a new way and manifest creativity are all qualities that one can develop through a regular meditation practice.  And if one makes the effort to be able to develop these qualities all through one's life, you can start to do things on a regular basis that will look pretty amazing to people who don't understand this fact.  

At risk of appearing to be bragging, let me illustrate with a couple examples from my life.

I have learned through observation and reading that monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed.  I had a friend in my back yard one summer day and saw a monarch floating around, I told him that it would land on this particular plant (a milkweed), which it did.  He was absolutely dumbfounded that I could predict this.

Another time I was sitting at a table with a couple friends and one of them had the hiccups, which were really bothering her.  I told her that I was going to cure her, then started to could out loud backwards for long enough and with a threatening voice that got her beyond thinking I was joking to the point where she began to think I was getting "creepy" (which meant that she was taking me seriously).  All at once I yelled at her "your hiccups are gone"---which startled her. And indeed, they were gone.  The point was that I put her into a state of fear arousal and induced a startle response---both of which blanketted-out the feedback loop the neres in her diaphram were stuck in.   I could tell that both of my friends were very surprised and a little bit scared that I was able to do this.

If someone lived a long life in a community of people and chose to do things like this on a regular basis, you could see how they would begin to think of her as a "miracle worker".  But I would argue that these are nothing more than the fruits of being able to see the world more clearly and interact with it more completely as a result of meditation.  I believe that this is the root of most of the stories about the "siddhis".  I will admit that there are also very odd things that happen when you meditate.  But I would suggest that their oddity is more a question of our lack of current understanding about the world around us than evidence of some sort of supernatural.  If telephathy, for example, really does exist, I suspect that it will eventually be understood in a prosaic fashion---just like electricity and the periodic table---rather than be some sort of proof of an old man in the sky.   

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Response to Zhekai

My last post drew a significant response from a reader. Since it raises a lot of interesting points, I thought that I'd respond to it in some detail. His (I'm assuming the gender) statements will be in red, my responses in regular text.

I find it ironic that someone drawing on the wisdom of the Dao De Jing would criticise Christianity from such a modernist perspective.

Actually, I try not to "draw upon the wisdom of the Dao De Jing" so much as access the same source as wisdom as the people who's voices are recorded in the Dao De Jing. As I understand it, Daoism is an "inspired" religion, not a "revealed" one. The difference is that Daoists are taught how to connect with the world around them and find the truth that lies within it, not to follow a revelation that was given only once in the historical past and which can now be accessed only through an ancient and obscure book.

My specific Daoist practice consists primarily of following practices such as meditation, ritual, taijiquan, etc. Moreover, as befits someone who was initiated into a heterodox offshoot of the Quanzhen tradition, I have studied with a lot of people in other faiths---Buddhist, Catholic, Unitarian, etc. I also read a lot of books besides the Dao De Jing----the Daoist Canon is the largest of all the religions of the world. If a religion believes that someone can still gain wisdom from the wellspring of inspiration, then its scriptures will continue to grow just like any other library of literature. This is a very significant difference from the Abrihamic religions, which believe that the time of revelation has long past and no additions can be anything but heresy.

Oh, and I don't think what I wrote was a critique of Christianity per ce, just a form of very conservative Roman Catholicism.

I don't know enough about Mother Theresa to defend her, but I know enough about Catholicism to disagree with your criticisms.

For example, although it is wrong to baptise someone without their knowledge or consent, their is nothing wrong with the desire to convert people to the religion which you believe to be true.

If you say that it is wrong to baptise someone without their knowledge or consent, then you are agreeing with me that Mother Teresa was doing something very wrong. If the ex-nun is telling the truth, this is exactly what she was instructing her nuns to do.

In fact, it would be truly abominable if she believed in her religion, but *didn't* desire to share it with others.

So in fact, this motivation is higher than simply wishing to relieve poverty. You can disagree with her religious beliefs, but at least she is consistent with them.

There are a variety of issues here.

First of all, what does her religion consist of if it is possible to "share" it with another person by simply wiping someone's brow and mumbling some unintelligible words just before they die---and then telling no one else about it? This is a form of simplistic, "magical" thinking. My understanding of Christianity is that it is not about giving people a "ticket to heaven", but rather about changing the way people relate to each other in this world. This is why there is all that stuff in the Gospels about "the Kingdom of God", giving to the poor, etc.

Secondly, what does this deception say about Teresa's understanding of human dignity? It may be that a person can believe with all their heart that something is in another's best interests, but once one uses trickery or force to deny them the right to choose another option, you are denying them something exceptionally important. These dying beggars had only one thing left to them---their faith as a Muslim or Hindu---and Mother Teresa tried to steal it away from them. If she really valued them as human beings she would have to allow them the right to freely choose to die as Muslims or Hindus, no matter what she thought herself. That is what it means to respect someone else.

Yes, Teresa may have been, in some ways, consistent. But consistency is a pretty weak foundation to build respect upon. History is littered with thoroughly consistent fiends.

Moreover, I would argue that there is a basic inconsistency to the message of Teresa. She said that she loved the poor, yet she felt no responsibility to treat them as equals, nor any to defend them against the predators of the world that feed upon them, and even she admitted to her spiritual director that she felt like she was deceiving her nuns because she kept going on about the love of God in her public utterances while feeling nothing at all herself.

If you believe in the truth and value of Daoism, would you not desire others to reach an understanding or appreciation of it? If not, then how much do you really value and believe in it?

Your language undoes your argument. I am interested in helping others "understand" and "appreciate" it, but that is totally different from wiping a dying person's brow, mumbling under my breath and keeping the whole process a secret from the community. Understanding and appreciation comes from a genuine, two-way back and forth interaction---one where both sides enter in with the chance of learning. Teresa entered into her relations assuming that she was in a position of moral superiority and refused to engage the people she dealt with as equals. This is not a way to spread understanding but rather one of imposing your will on another.

Another point you criticise was her attitude to suffering. The idea of sharing in Christ's suffering is a profound element of Christian theology. It may sound strange to 'modern' people, but that isn't necessarily a problem is it? ;)

The problem isn't that it "sounds strange", but rather the reason why it sounds strange. Again, it is magical thinking. The idea is that God requires a scapegoat to deal with the consequences of a set of rules and regulations that he set up in the first place. If God is all powerful, why can't he simply forgive people's sins without the whole idea of his son being tortured on the cross? The concept of scapegoating is fairly well-understood by anthropologists and has existed in a great many societies---ranging from the Jewish ritual where the term "scape goat" comes from to the Indian and African tribes that used to torture people to death in order to ensure a good harvest. It may be that there is something in humanity that creates this sort of activity in primitive human societies, but its presence in conservative Christian theology seems to be unnecessary in this day and age. I might also add that there is a very significant school of Christian theology that rejects this form of thinking.

Beyond my questioning of the scapegoat theology, I might also point out that what I was most repelled by was the way Teresa seemed to revel in pain. I'm no psychologist, but it seemed really unhealthy and masochistic in nature. It strikes me that a spiritual director should have tried to wean her off of this simply for her own good. But the issue becomes much more problematic when we realize that she was running an order of nuns who mission included dealing with the dying. People who are dying often have very significant pain issues, and it shows profoundly bad judgement (and a real lack of compassion) to have someone in charge who thinks pain has some sort of intrinsic value. This attitude explains why---even though there seems to have been lots of money in the bank---she ran homes for the dying where there was no better pain killer than aspirin on hand. There are people who get off sexually through sado-maschocism, but in that case it is consensual. What Teresa was doing was non-consensual, and as such, was criminal.

I appreciate your understanding that life is an 'ocean of suffering', but i disagree that her views are merely a 'coping mechanism' any more than meditation and detachment are.

My apologies if I was not clear enough in my explanation. Meditation, detachment, and diverting your gaze are all coping mechanisms. My concern about her "faith" is not that it is such a thing, but rather that it is such a profoundly awful one. I was arguing that her "leap of faith" removed any opportunity for her to grow as a human being and that it was why her life was one of such profound misery and has done very little to make the world a better place.

The image of the crucifixion is one of suffering and death - which were seen as unavoidable flaws in creation - meeting with the incarnation of the Creator himself, someone who is completely free of such flaws.

The whole thing is regarded as a 'mystery', which means it is true, but hard for us to understand. It is regarded as the key to life itself. I don't think this should be too hard to appreciate at least on a symbolic level, given that you are familiar with the concept of the Dao lifting up the lowly and lowering the great.

It is not "hard to understand", it is incomprehensible because it doesn't follow the rules of logic. There is a famous anecdote in physics where a person said of another's theory that it was so bad that it wasn't even wrong. That is to say that the theory not only didn't accord with experimental facts, but it didn't even make any sense. When you say that there were "unavoidable flaws in creation", you are suggesting that God is either not omnipotent or totally good. Moreover, you suggest that suffering and death are flaws yet then go on to say that the Creator---who is free of flaws---was incarnate. So what is it? Is incarnation unavoidably flawed? If so, how could Jesus be flawless? (The Muslims get around this by having Jesus commit one sin, he stole a pin.) If Jesus was flawless, then how is creation "unavoidably flawed"? And if death and suffering are flaws, then how could a flawless God end up suffering and dying on a cross?

With all due respect, this sort of theology is not much different than the sort of meaningless "speaking of tongues" that happens at evangelical revival shows. It is the result of strong emotions that are divorced from reason. As I pointed out before, it makes more sense to see this theological position as simply a manifestation of classic scapegoating behaviour. And again, there are quite popular Christian theologies that reject this "cross-tianity" in favour of a social gospel based on transforming society according to the teachings of Christ.

With regard to the Dao "lifting up the lowly and lowering the great", I don't know the context you are referring to, but my take on Daoism is that it is a very practical religion that is talking about the way the world really works. In the case of Mother Teresa I would suggest that one particular way this rule is operating is through the idea that "the truth will out". The lowly street person who was complaining about the pain of his cancer who was quoted by Hitchens has been raised by the book (and my blog), whereas the mighty Mother Teresa has been lowered by showing her lack of compassion when she told him that the pain was the "kisses of Christ". Other than that, I can't see the reference as being much more than a non-sequitur with regard to Christ.

Mother Theresa, i cannot comment on her personal state of mind; but if you look at the writings of great Christian mystics, you will find that contemplation of this mystery brings them into a state that contains great detachment and self-lessness without erring on the side of emptiness.

Well, that's the whole point isn't it? When I read the letters she wrote to her spiritual advisor, all I saw was a person suffering in torment but who was too enmeshed in her cultural matrix and too cowardly to admit that what she was doing had granted her neither detachment nor serenity. Religion is supposed to liberate a person, not enslave them. That is the tragedy here. With regard to Christian mystics, I think that you would have to refer to specific individuals as there is a huge difference between, for example, Nicholas of Cusa and St. Ignatius.

I'm sorry, but your criticisms sound like those i have heard directed against buddhists...from christians who call them 'nihilists'. Or who in the past thought of the Daoists as guys who just ran away to forget the world.

Actually, I don't think that my criticisms are anything like the ones you mention. I was suggesting that Mother Teresa's life was a tragedy because her concept of "faith" stunted her spiritual growth. The critiques you are suggesting tend to suggest that Buddhists and Daoists are not engaged in the world.

You may be right that MT was struggling to deal with her suffering, and used her work with the poor to make sense of it. But then this - if we can risk saying so - is a problem for her, not for the religion you criticise. She may be like some peasant buddhist who recites 'omitofo' thinking it will make their life easier...but i don't think that is grounds for criticising buddhism itself.

Do you?

You forget that Mother Teresa was not a peasant. She was the head of an order of nuns, the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, and will probably soon be declared a saint. She is being used as the pre-eminent icon for the promotion of a specific form of ultra-conservative Roman Catholicism. Moreover, my greatest criticism is not for her---she was an ignorant Albanian peasant girl---but for her spiritual advisors and the hierarchy of the church. They used her to promote the church instead of guiding her to a deeper understanding. It probably is the case that they were just as deluded as she was, which means that we need to dig deeper in order to find culpability. Ultimately, everyone who refuses to make the effort to seek the truth wherever it may lay---and that includes all the people who simply "buy into" the myth---should take some responsibility for her sad and tragic life. We are all interdependent elements of the universe.

It would be interesting to find some buddhists and daoists in similar situations and see how they express their understanding of suffering.

This isn't the place to discuss Buddhist and Daoist ideas of suffering. But it certainly is the case that many words have been written on the subject. Indeed, Buddhism is pretty much in total a meditation on the issue. And some Buddhists and Daoists have been engaged in social work that has placed them face to face with suffering. Moreover, I would suggest that those elements of Christianity that reject the scapegoat theology are the ones most committed to the alleviation of suffering. After all, if you believe that suffering has some sort of grand metaphysical value, why would you try to end it?

Finally, I think you hint at ideas about the roots of poverty, and the significance of abortion which are completely a product of the present age. I don't think it is necessarily a Daoist attitude, and it is certainly not a Christian attitude to think that we can eradicate poverty and suffering by getting to its root causes. Or rather, for christians the root cause of poverty - like all evil - is fallen human nature. I suspect for Daoists it is likewise the flaws in our originally pure nature.


Well one thing that needs to be understood is that abortion is a modern issue through and through. It wasn't all that long ago that church doctrine was that the soul of a child did not enter it until birth. (Which is a position than that even the most extreme pro-choice advocate would reject.) Abortion simply wasn't much of an issue before it became a safe, therapeutic procedure and large families became a liability instead of an asset. Infanticide was the option of choice for people who could not afford an extra mouth to feed.

Yes, poverty is a modern issue too. Up until the modern era most people did not see the world in terms of social and economic systems. Instead, there was just the "world" and people who were either "good" or "bad". Now we can see through the study of sociology that there are ways that the world operates, and very good people can end up following "the rules of the game" and thereby create a great deal of misery. Because Teresa had been so isolated from the hard-won gains of modern learning, she was oblivious to the way people like dictators and financial swindlers abuse people that they never even meet. She could meet Charles Keating Jr. and think "what a nice man" and not be aware of the people he had driven into poverty through his phoney businesses. (Teresa not only accepted money from him, but even wrote a letter to the judge who was trying him asking for forgiveness for his swindling.)

Incidentally, one of the things that I find appealing about Daoism (and some elements of Confucianism) is the way various thinkers do meditate on the roots of poverty. For example, Daoist writers do think about things like the way regulations impact on people's lives, and how the increase of desperate people who become bandits is related to the level of taxation in a society. Daoists tend to see the world in terms of impersonal processes rather than that of sinful people willfully breaking God's laws. Indeed, the Celestial Master suggests that good people should not be prideful because much of their good comes from their personal history and social context, and bad people should not be totally condemned because much of their evil comes from similar sources.

It may be that individual people have specific psychological drives that keep them from seeing the evil they do---such as psychopaths---but society as-a-whole can work to limit the damage that they do. And people who are being put forward as exemplars of spiritual attainment should have the discernment to be able to avoid being used to by these individuals. If the discernment is lacking, then what exactly is the spiritual value that people like Teresa are supposed to have?

Finally, again with all due respect, I don't think what you are saying about Daoism is comprehensible. If our original nature is pure, how can it have flaws? If it has the potential to be flawed, isn't that a flaw in itself? I can hear Zhuangzi in the background chuckling and tossing in the comment "Now, how would I know that?"