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, sweets 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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Happiness: A Guide to LIfe's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard

“Happiness” is a word, like the word “love”, that seems to have as many different meanings and nuances as there are people to utter them. For a writer to do it delve into the subject of happiness requires either a large degree of foolhardiness or a lot of courage. Matthieu Ricard, the author of this book, has a lot of courage.

My immediately preceding post reviewed a book by B Alan Wallace, one of the most interesting and persuasive teachers in the Buddhist tradition today. I have to say that if he has a challenger within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it would be Matthieu Ricard. Like Wallace, Ricard came from a privileged background. His mother was an artist and his father the well-known French intellectual Jean-Francois Revel (author of Without Marx or Jesus). Matthieu grew up in the artistic and intellectual milieu of Paris in the 1960s. He eventually entered into the study of biology and received a post at the prestigious Pasteur Institute. There he was a graduate student of the Nobel prize-winning biologist François Jacob. However, despite his fast track to a successful career in Paris, he ventured to India and studied in the Tibetan tradition. After finishing his doctoral work, he moved to Tibet and undertook the life of a Buddhist monk. Since then he has served as French language translator for the Dalai Lama, and he serves as another bridge, like Alan Wallace, between the intricate and sometimes daunting world of Tibetan Buddhism and Western culture.

Ricard’s East-West pedigree makes Happiness work. Ricard undertakes a survey and appreciation of happiness from Western traditions and from Buddhism. The book considers a number of different possibilities for the source of happiness, and each perspective receives fair consideration. However, like any sensible person, he is quick to distinguish between mere pleasure, the fleeting happiness of a desire fulfilled, and something that runs much deeper. As you follow Ricard through the book in his consideration of the elements and possibilities that make up happiness and that can destroy it, you are in the hands of someone who has drunk deeply from wells both East and West.

As one considers the Buddhist project as a whole, from the time that the Buddha set forth the Four Noble Truths, you can fairly summarize it by saying that it seeks the path to happiness. The First Noble Truth speaks of dukka (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and its pervasiveness, and the remainder of the Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path are Buddha’s prescription for overcoming unhappiness. The flip is to say if we are not suffering, we should be happy. The Buddhist tradition from the Buddha himself to Ricard supports this assertion. Ricard carefully considers all of the ways in which our attitudes can get in the way of happiness. Ricard is not promoting some mindless idiot’s conception of happiness, but one that is deeply rooted in the workings of the mind and the values of compassion and loving-kindness. As a comprehensive path to happiness, the Buddhist tradition is as rich (if not richer) than any path that I know of. Ricard carefully lays forth this path while comparing it to Western conceptions that sometimes challenge it, but quite often complement it.

If you want to consider how to develop “life’s most important skill”, then you can’t expect to do better than this book. It is the equivalent of sitting at the feet of a wise sage who discourses about happiness in a well-organized, systematic, and accessible manner. Once again, Ricard uses his knowledge of the Western tradition and the Tibetan tradition to draw out the insights of each for the benefit of all.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice by B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan Wallace is among the foremost practitioner-teachers of Buddhism today. He reports “while brought up in a Christian household, and even though I found great meaning in the teachings of Jesus, some of the church’s doctrines made no sense to me”. (Kindle Locations 71-72). He grew up in California, Scotland, and Switzerland. He started as an undergrad at UC San Diego and then he transferred to Göttingen in West Germany, moving from an ecology major at UCSD to a primary interest in philosophy and religion at Gottingen, where he studied the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. Then, instead of finishing his degree (great message for the parents, no doubt), in 1971 (I’m just transitioning from high school to college), he heads to Tibet. For the next 13 years he studied and meditated in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in India and Europe, and he came to serve as a translator for the Dalai Lama. After this phase of his life, he returned to academia to complete a degree at Amherst College in physics and philosophy of science. After another meditation retreat, he entered graduate studies in religion at Stanford University. He completed his doctorate, focusing his studies on “the interface between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy”. (B. Alan Wallace website). Since then he has taught, written a number of books for both academic and popular audiences, and he continues to teach meditation. Having read several of his works and now in the midst of listening to podcasts of his meditation retreats, I find him one of the most intriguing, no-nonsense, and persuasive teachers of Buddhism active today. 

This book, his most recent “academic” book (2011), addresses topics important to him. One of the attractive aspects of Buddhism to me and to many others, especially those of us coming from Western traditions, is its radical empiricism and willingness to undergo scrutiny. Wallace scrutinizes the Buddhist tradition, but the main target of his skepticism is Western materialism. Wallace is especially critical of academic psychology for its abandonment of the legacy of William James, who valued and promoted introspection as important source of data about the mind. (Indeed, James is obviously in intellectual hero to Wallace, as well as a great many others—including me.) Instead of following the lead of James, psychology turned to Watson’s behaviorism (no mind, just observable behavior), which was wedded to the ideas of 19th century physics. Wallace is uniquely qualified to challenge the citadel of materialism from his background in physics and philosophy of science combined with his experience in Buddhism. 

While critical of Western materialism (we’re just stuff & consciousness a mere by-product of brain activity), Wallace unabashedly asserts the traditional Buddhist view, which includes an emphasis on mind and consciousness as more than just brain activity and where the paranormal (not magic) exists. Wallace makes these assertions as one who has been on the other side of reality from the majority of Western scientists and philosophers who adhere to the simple materialist paradigm. Wallace also notes the importance of ethical behavior in Buddhism and its effect on our perception of the world. This, too, contrasts markedly with the value-free attitude of Western science. Wallace discusses phenomena like “the placebo effect”, which Western science shunts aside without addressing the implications that physically inert substances can effect with body when combined with the non-physical world of information (even false information). Many in the West know to reject Descartes’s dualism of mind and body, but they attempt to go around it by going all body, no mind. But mind—as in the form of information—is a part of our reality. 

In addition to criticizing the materialists, Wallace also criticizes those who sell “mindfulness” as simply the practice of observing what passes through the mind. This is not Buddhism. Buddhist mindfulness involves mindfulness of right conduct, effort, and livelihood, among other things. It’s not just “whatever”, but an attempt to monitor the contents of the mind. 

All of this simply touches the surface of all that Wallace addresses and argues. His appreciation of the history and enterprise of Western science, Western philosophy and psychology, and traditional Buddhism make him a formidable author. Yet, for all of the depth of his analysis and argument, the book is well written and argued so that it’s easy to follow. In short, he’s an outstanding teacher whom I can’t recommend highly enough (this comes from listening to his podcasts as well). If you want to come into the deep end of the pool, you not find many guides as worthwhile as Wallace.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sweet Tooth: A Novel by Ian McEwan

 Sweet Tooth is my second Ian McEwan novel, having read Saturday (item #21) a couple of years ago. I must say I’m taken with these two works, and I’m not quite sure why. The prose is solid and sensible, not showy or intrusive. The characters are mostly ordinary persons, neither remarkably good nor evil. In the course of reading this book, which attracted me because of its espionage setting and my prior good experience with McEwan, I asked if it was worth going forward after I was well into it. Not that the writing wasn’t good. But the central character (the narrator) wasn’t doing anything all that intriguing or engrossing. Yet I couldn’t leave it. I’m glad I didn’t give it up. McEwan built the suspense slowly and subtly, and while nothing spectacular happens, we receive regular doses of insight from the characters. It’s almost a sleight of hand trick. In the end, we have quite a cleaver and provocative dénouement that worked for me. 

The setting of the novel is Cold War, 70’s-turbulent Great Britain. Domestically, the country is a mess. Yet its secret service, MI5, yearns to remain a part of the Great Game of fighting Communism. This backdrop works well for anyone who remembers those times (even here in the States): spiked oil prices, unions, tired leadership, betrayals (Fourth and Fifth Men) were all a part of the scenery for any personal drama in those times. To all this add the turbulence of a young woman finding her way in the world. Serena Frome (rhymes with plumb) is the center the action. She’s an effective and perceptive narrator without betraying her limitations. She gets pulled into the secret world of MI5 after having grown up the daughter of an Anglican bishop who's tucked away in the countryside. She moves through the world by fits and starts, neither superlative nor lacking in basic good sense. Her problems, however, mount as she becomes involved with an author whom she meets as a professional target. The basic perfidy of spying and espionage—even of the friendly sort—inevitably takes a toll on her. 

I won’t go further, but if you’re looking for an adult read, one that constructs a world set in the not-too-distant past with characters with whom you can sympathize, then this book is for you.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bounce: How Champions Are Made by Matthew Syed

I have to say that Bounce was a bit like taking a refresher course, having already read Geoff Covlin's Talent Is Overrated, Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code (entry #6), and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, all three of which Syed acknowledges as worthy predecessors. So I didn't learn a great deal new from reading Bounce. But a refresher, with some new information added, is worthwhile, and so I found this book. I should also note that all four books draw on the pioneering work of academic psychologist Anders Ericsson.

If you want to develop a talent or a skill, practice deliberately (with a focused intention) for 10,000 hours, and you'll have gone a long way toward achieving your goal. Throw in outstanding peers and quality coaching, and you'll really go far. This formula for success replaces that idea that some are simply "talented". None of these authors gives much credence to genetics. It's about learning. Deliberate practice—practicing to improve specific skills and to cure weaknesses-is what allows real learning and significant improvement. Drive a car with no special thought to the matter and you'll be the same driver after 10,000 hours of driving. But do it in deliberately challenging ways and environments with the intention of improving and you could be the next Mario Andretti. (I know. I date myself.)

Seyd does go into some topics that his predecessors didn't, such as placebo effect, in other words, the power of belief. (Although he doesn't delve into it, the placebo effect raises some really interesting issues about the mind-body relationship and causation.) I also enjoyed his chapter on "choking", which any athlete or other performer has experienced. What it amounts to is that we "think" when we shouldn't. We try to teach the centipede to walk when it should (and does) just walk. This ties in to the power of ritual in performance, which is another fascinating subject full of bizarre anecdotes. As an old jock, I can attest to the power and command of rituals. In the last section, Seyd touches on drug enhancement, what's good and fair and human and what isn't (not clear) and genetics (are blacks better runners?). On the latter topic, Seyd takes down the idea that blacks, specifically sprinters from west Africa via  the U.S. and Jamaica and distance runners from Kenya (and later Ethiopia) have any special genetic endowments. It's simply the outlier effect—chance, environment, reward, opportunity, etc.—that makes all of the difference.

It was a fun, easy, and instructive book, valuable for anyone who has to perform. Like us humans.