Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Stalin's Ghost: Arkady Renko #6 by Martin Cruz Smith

In reading a recent article about Russia and the Ukraine, the author noted that about one-half of those who support Putin do so because his strong leadership mimics that of Stalin. The other half support him because he doesn’t act like Stalin. Such is the enigma of Russia. It is this type of enigma in this culture that gives us Dostoevsky and Chekov’s characters, the nightmare of Soviet politics, and the Martin Cruz Smith novels about Russian detective Arkady Renko. 

In this novel, late-night riders going through a Moscow subway stop report a seeing Stalin. Superiors, eager to get Renko out of their way, assign him to the ludicrous matter. But as Renko digs deeper, we learn that more than an apparition of Stalin looms in a late night subway stop. The leader-butcher looms over Renko’s personal and family history as well as over elements in contemporary politics. Indeed, the digging in this novel becomes more than metaphorical when Renko is assigned out of Moscow to work in a town with old WWII battlefield nearby that locals search for military memorabilia. What they find is not what they want, but that’s often the way the past works. It is what it is, not what we want it to be, try as me may (and as Stalin tried) to re-write it.  

Renko’s work as a detective is set against the two persons in his life he seems to genuinely care about: the enigmatic Eva, the Ukrainian physician whom he met during his investigation around Chernobyl (Wolves Eat Dogs) and Zhenya, the mute boy whom he “adopted” (in a very loose sense) that runs his own course and who has become a chess prodigy (how Russian!). 

These novels work for me because they do what detective fiction can do better than any other genre: look at the underside of a society as well as its public face. One gets a sense of what it might be like to live in contemporary Russia (which was a part of the Soviet Union at the time that Smith wrote his first book in the series, Gorky Park). Smith is an American, and who knows if he’s accurate in his perceptions of contemporary Russian society, but he certainly gives a sense of verisimilitude that makes the story hum. 

Stalin’s ghost in the Moscow station is an apparition that only portends a much larger presence that looms over the story and that makes this another intriguing time spent following detective Renko along his dogged path. 

Published in 2007, this installment immediately follows Wolves Eat Dogs.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Fourth Turning: Imagining the Evolution of an Integral Buddhism by Ken Wilber

In this most recent (1914) publication by Ken Wilber, he explores the possibilities of Buddhism within his Integral framework. Neither Buddhism nor Integral are new to Wilber or those familiar with his work. While living and working in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1970's, he practiced Zen Buddhist meditation. Since the 1970’s, he’s become the framer of the Integral perspective in the contemporary world. (Sri Aurobindo, early in the 20th century, used the term, but no one in the contemporary world has done as much to gather and synthesize so wide a body of knowledge and practice as Wilber has.) Thus, for those familiar with his work will find nothing startlingly new here, but what he argues, because he's teaching and reaching for a new community, bears repeating. Sometimes I tend to skip over some of what I've learned before, but then I realize that his architecture and vocabulary, which becomes repetitious at times or reaches too far attempting to synthesize so many perspectives, is the best game in town and shouldn't be missed. What he says bears repeating, and in fairness, he's always refining and expanding his viewpoints, so what often seems repetitious is really a newer, finer view, or one that is now incorporating the work of another thinker to give the perspective new depth or breadth. Likewise, when his attempts to model and map a messy world seem too neat, I remember that we value models and maps because they clean-up messy reality in an attempt to allow us to deal with the reality more successfully. 

The term "The Fourth Turning" comes from the history of Buddhism, which is the subject of the first chapter. The First Turning is the teaching of the historical Gautama Buddha, who lived around 500 B.C. in what is now Nepal and northern India. His direct teachings and early legacy are preserved and practiced in the most direct way in the Theravada tradition found in south Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand). But during the time that Buddhism continued to thrive in India, new perspectives arose from these first teachings to add new perspectives to the Buddhist tradition. Thus, the Second Turning arose from the thought of Nagarjuna, the philosopher of the Madhyamika tradition. This line of thought led to the Mahayana tradition, or greater vehicle, which began to see samsara and nirvana as flip sides of the same coin. This is the tradition of Buddhism that traveled to China and blossomed most notably in the Chan tradition of China and then became Zen in Japan. It also traveled north into Korea and south into Viet Nam. Some refer to it as "eastern Buddhism". Finally, the half-brothers Asanga and Vashubandhu developed the Yogachara or "mind-only' school of Buddhism that traveled north into Tibet and Mongolia (and now into the West along with other Buddhist traditions) as the Vajrayana (Diamond Path) tradition or northern Buddhism. This tradition began in the 4th century CE and reached a climax around 1100 CE. Thus, the Buddhist traditions that we know today, all of which have active representatives in the West, hasn't changed in any significant way in almost 1,500 years. Wilber thinks that a new Turning is due. 

Wilber has argued his entire career (beginning with his first publication, The Spectrum of Consciousness published in 1977) that the great spiritual traditions have value, but with an ABD in biochemistry, he also understands and appreciates modern science. Thus, he's sought to preserve and incorporate that which is viable and valuable in the great spiritual traditions, and he discards elements that represent ways of knowing and perceiving that no longer work (for instance, belief in magic). I won't go into the details—you should go to Wilber's works for his great synthesis—but humanity has grown in knowledge. While humans have known for eons how we might WAKE UP (his term—that is, how to reach higher stages of consciousness), cultural change has allowed us new ways to GROW UP, that is, to move beyond the magic, mythical, and rationalistic perspectives in the history of human culture that ground our consciousness. This is where he argues that Buddhism—and all of the world's great spiritual traditions—must make a “turning”. Buddhism has an advantage, he argues—and I agree—because it began with a strong streak of rationality in the original teachings of the Buddha. 

Thus, when I read this book, having a sense of what he would say and argue, I still came away with a new appreciation of his Integral project and perspective. My only qualm is that within his grand vision he sees humanity moving onwards and upwards, and I'm more cautious about the future of humanity. Yes, we could evolve into a rather nice species despite our abysmal past (and present). But rather than evolving into higher realms of culture and consciousness, we might just send ourselves to hell in a hand basket. For the first 40 years of my life, I lived in fear of what a nuclear Armageddon would bring. And while that fear has subsided (but not disappeared), new fears, such as massive problems arising from global climate change, economic,/ecological system collapse, or some like calamity might create a Cormac McCarthy world instead of the Promised Land of integral harmony. (I think that Wilber would acknowledge this and has done so in other works, but here it seems all too rosy.) I hope he's right, but we should work as if it's all hanging in the balance. He argues that even thinking integral helps bring about such a world, and in a sense, I think he's right, but I'm not sure that we'll get to the critical mass in time. Living in India and now in China, we have a whole lot of humanity that is desperately poor, terribly ignorant, or wanting most of all to enjoy the good material life. We humans can get very nasty when we're denied what we think should be ours or when we fear for our well-being. 

So read Wilber's latest and help in your own way to bring about the great turning that we all need.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton*

In this, another delightful book from Alain De Botton, of whom I’ve previously read How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy, De Botton once again adroitly mixes personal experience, paintings, literature, and famous figures to explore different aspects of travel. Each chapter is “on”: “On Anticipation”, “On the Exotic”, “On Habit”, and so on. Each chapter is a self-contained essay that explores its chosen topic through a representative figure from history, such as Flaubert, Wordsworth, and Ruskin, to name three of the more familiar figures. Each chapter uses paintings and photography to supplement the words of the essay. “On Traveling Places”, for instance, explores works of Edward Hopper, best known for his work “Nighthawks" (not used here), but who also explored trains, gas stations, and hotel rooms along his way. Finally, De Botton includes his own experiences to provide a contemporary perspective and to sometimes test the ideas of those upon whom he has drawn. 

Part of the pleasure of De Botton’s project comes from his ability to meditate on travel from many different angles. In the opening essay, “On Anticipation”, he tells the tale of J.-K. Huysmans, who decided upon a trip to London from his French residence, only to abandon it after having made all of the necessary arrangements and consulted all of the guide books. After consulting the guidebooks, he decided he’d seen enough! Sometimes, indeed, the imagination of anticipation exceeds the reality of even the most alluring of destinations. In “On the Exotic”, the French novelist Flaubert travels to Egypt to stay and experience an alien world, while Xavier de Maistre writes about his travels around his bedroom, and then his view from his bedroom window in De Botton’s “On Habit” chapter. (De Maistre travels abroad as well.) But even within the limited purview of a bedroom De Maistre finds, upon careful and leisurely inspection, more interesting things either he or we could have imagined. 

De Botton contrasts the city with the country. Samuel Johnson found the Scottish highlands a wasteland that merely created annoyance, while not long after Johnson, Wordsworth sang the praises of the Lake District. Our views of what’s worth visiting and experiencing changes with time and varies according to our temperament. The German scientist Alexander von Humboldt traveled the Amazon basin in the early 19th century to catalogue all that was new to European scientists, loving the challenge and uniqueness of the journey. 

De Botton uses the paintings of Van Gogh to illustrate what might go unnoticed or unappreciated in a region and that can be newly (or perhaps first) appreciated only after viewing a painted facsimile of the scene. Of course, Van Gogh didn’t take a realist perspective, his cypress trees look as if they are on fire and his building are often all akimbo, but he forces us to take a new and closer look at what some once considered the boring countryside of Provence. By abstracting reality, we obtain a better appreciation of it. In a similar vein, Edmund Burke argues that we benefit when Nature overwhelms us with its grandeur and power in a manner that we label “sublime”. 

If you travel or you contemplate travel, De Botton’s book will serve as a meditative preparation, one that you can dip into at leisure, as each chapter constitutes a self-contained essay on some aspect of travel. We humans have been traveling and exploring our world for tens of thousands of years, and now, with travel easier than ever, we need to reflect upon its benefits and pitfalls. And in this, De Botton serves as an excellent guide. 

*First posted in SNG Abroad blog

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson

Some books of the Bible are full of “begats”, such as “Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob” and so on. The genealogy of a family or of an idea can tell us a lot about the nature of a family member or an idea and how members of the linage have changed through time. Thus, Nietzsche investigated The Genealogy of Morals. Darwin understood the whole of life on earth as a genealogy. The same can be said of ideas. 

As someone who is been interested in health and wellness for the most selfish of reasons—I like being healthy and well—I’ve read and tried a lot in that field for a long time. My current line of thinking is most prominently influenced by the paleo/primal lineage. For me, that lineage began when I read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. In that book, he cited the economics work of Art De Vany, and as an aside, he also mentioned De Vany’s work on nutrition and fitness This led me to art De Vany’s website, which was a treasure trove of information about how the developmental environment of human beings, especially during pre-agricultural times, shaped how our bodies function. This is especially true in areas of nutrition and exercise. De Vany pointed me to Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. While Taleb comments on these issues from within his larger project, and De Vany has written an excellent book summarizing his thinking (The New Evolution Diet and reviewed again here), it’s been Mark Sisson at Mark’s Daily Apple and in his books who has provided the most continuous update of information and encouragement along this line of thinking.

If you’re new to primal (or paleo) thinking, it’s based on the idea that since human beings evolved in an environment that involved great variation in the availability of nutrition and demands for exercise, the re-creation of a pre-agricultural way of life—insomuch as that is possible within the contemporary context—is the best road to health. Most thinkers and writers in this tradition agree that this involves avoiding grains, which really came into human use only about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago during the Agricultural Revolution that allowed for civilization (cities) to exist. Grains provide a lot of carbohydrate and some proteins, but some of those proteins, like gluten, can cause serious problems. In addition, other forms of simple carbohydrates, especially immense amounts of sugar, are bad because of the insulin load they place on the body. In pre-agricultural times, food was often scarce, and when human beings came upon sources of sweet items, our bodies told us to eat up and our insulin signaled for us to store this source of calories. In our contemporary world, where calories are almost as easily available as the air we breathe, we just get fat. In addition to this type of nutritional advice, intense exercise comes as a standard recommendation, but not “chronic cardio” (long slog runs done repetively).  Lots of sleep, mental stimulation, and other changes are standard recommendations as well.

Sisson’s book outlines all of these factors and presents them clearly. Sisson does good job of mixing the science with practical recommendations. Sisson understands that being a purist isn’t likely to work for many people, so he underlines the importance of the 80/20 rule for persons attempting to follow the primal way of life.

I have been trying with varying degrees success to follow this regimen for health and wellness for several years. It hasn’t been easy in India, where it’s hard to get a clean piece of meat or a decent salad. Many persons here are vegetarian, but vegetarianism isn’t primal and probably isn’t all that healthy. If you don’t order a chapatti (flatbread) or rice with a meal, waiters will look at you with stunned silence waiting you for you to come to your senses. Similarly, sweet are big thing here. (And so is type II diabetes.) It’s hard to resist the mangoes (my goodness, they are sweet!) and so on. Let’s be honest, I suffer from a certain weakness of will in these areas, but when I saw myself tipping the scale too far, I got back on the wagon and used the occasion to read Sisson’s book (again). There couldn’t have been a better coach and advisor.

If you are interested in developing an effective, fun, and healthy way of life, I don’t think I could suggest a better blueprint. In the popular press and in nutritional literature, advice about nutrition and eating is freely given and poorly supported. It’s easy (I know because I’ve done it) to try to alter your eating habits with every new article you read in the press, but the more I consider it, the more I think it’s so much nonsense created by poorly designed studies, confirmational or pecuniary biases, and a failure to appreciate how the complexity of the human body and the human environment. The primal way seems to work for me, to work for others, and to make a great deal of sense when looked at within the context of evolutionary biology. Of course, I think any of the primal/paleo thinkers that I mentioned here would recommend empirical verification of what they’re talking about. In other words, try it seriously and see if it doesn’t work for you. I think it’s worked for me reasonably well, the only limits I found so far are that I don’t adhere to the recommendations as well as I should. But with the likes of Mark Sisson behind me at Mark’s Daily Apple and in his books, I still hold out some hope.