ramblings of an immigrant son

Archive for the ‘Huxley’ Category

Believers and Opportunists: A Personal Conundrum

In Activism, Ethics, Health, Huxley, Literature, morality, Opinions, Philosophy, Pop Culture, society, Spirituality on February 11, 2013 at 4:17 am

Are you a vegetarian and find yourself in awkward situations where for instance your meat loving friends, who organized a barbeque night, mix the tofu dogs with the beef patties? Are you an anti-establishment Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub by night; you know, the one with the overpriced big-brand beers, forever glowing big-screens, and over-worked-under-paid staff? Are you among the music aristocracy (you know who you are), that despite claiming to have a taste in music that is nothing less than critically-acclaimed, shamefully enjoy tuning in to the latest poptacular hit when you think nobody is noticing?

Well, for those of us that are committed to some belief or another, we’ve all found ourselves in a situation very much similar to the examples given above. As I approach my thirties, I must confess that when it comes to staying constant with personal values and beliefs,  I have certainly given more ground than kept. More often than not, I try to write this off as being a natural growth process, a coming of age even. It becomes all too tempting to romanticize these changes of heart as being akin to Kuhnian Shifts, regular but revolutionary transformations in the sort of problems and solutions I prioritize in my daily life. To a certain extent, this point of view finds validation and yet… when I consider to what extent I have remained a Believer vs. an Opportunist in different instances, it seems that I have fallen into the latter category far more than I would like to admit. This has especially become apparent in my consumer choices, where an affordable coffee and pastry has gained preference over the fair-trade-organic-environmental-conscious options.  It has also become noticeable in my attitude towards alternative and even opposing ideologies, where I am willing to accommodate and even sympathize with an individual or group’s insistence that animal consumption is an integral part of their cultural life.

So where does that leave me exactly? Am I being a fence-sitting hypocrite? A pathological cherry-picker? Dare I say it: a liberal? In his controversial work The Continent of Circe, cultural-political commentator Nirad Chaudhuri warns his readers that in Post-Independence India, the majority of the radical ‘modern world’ thinking college students become the staunchest of  traditionalists by their thirties. Much like the baby boomers that traded peace and love for financial success and stability or Gen X’s trade-in of Grunge ripped jeans for Gap Khakis, am I merely a fly on a web of an insidious ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ phenomenon? It’s a scary and unsettling thought.

Maybe I’m just making a big deal. I mean I can still say with confidence that I am personally a committed believer in Ahimsa (a Hindu ethic of non-violence), Human Rights, Environmentalism, Social Justice, and so on. Nonetheless, like the comedian Louis CK humourously pointed out about himself, there undeniably exists a gap between what I believe and what I practice. I’d like to say that I am fully committed to rectifying the situation and going back to living up to earlier expectations; however, all I would be doing is lying to myself. For one thing, as the author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, wisely cautions elsewhere, “too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” In craving an overall healthy, ethical, and dynamic existence, I’m inclined to agree with Huxley. Secondly, making such a promise is easier said than done. Even if I desired to turn back the clock and put opportunism aside, can all self-ascribed beliefs be sustained and even so, at what cost? Interacting with individuals from all walks of life, it would be reckless and possibly harmful to overlook complexity and compassion in the name of ideological commitment.

So here we are, no easy solutions or satisfying conclusions. Being mindful of a willingness to compromise on personal ideals and the pros and cons of doing so certainly seems promising. It may lead to certain changes that would at the very least decrease the gap between what I preach and what I practice. Nonetheless, it is difficult to proceed with a clear sense of what certain changes are desirable, let alone feasible. Perhaps too then, through encounters with different life experiences and unexpected circumstances, I will increasingly acquire a balanced approach. For now, at least, it may be all that can be hoped for.

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Let Personal Experience and Critical Thinking be Your Guide

In Buddhism, Culture, Globalization, Huxley, Lifestyle, morality, Nietzsche, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, society on September 1, 2011 at 5:31 am

Are you a vegetarian that finds yourself in awkward situations where, for instance, at a friend’s barbeque night, the tofu dogs are mixed with the beef patties? Are you a Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub with the ever-glowing big-screens, ample supply of big-corporate brand beer, and service of over-worked-under-paid waitresses by night? Are you a regular church or temple goer that finds your personal opinions are becoming heavily influenced by non-believers? Are you friends with someone whose sexuality, ethnicity, or belief system isn’t considered ‘right’ according to the values of your family or community?

For those of us that are committed to some personal belief or practice, we’ve all found ourselves in situations very much similar to these. Although at times they can be humorous and trivial, in other instances they can be unsettling and life changing. How are we suppose to deal with challenges to our way of thinking and living when they arise?

Well, the way I see it, there are three options:

Option 1: If a belief or practice is no longer meaningful to you, discard or replace it. When giving up a belief or practice that you truly felt committed to, there is of course the implication of hypocrisy to consider. However, as the author of Brave New World, A. Huxley, aptly warns elsewhere, “too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” This point of view, by no means a new one, is eloquently encouraged in the verses of the Tao Te Ching:

When people are born they are gentle and soft.

At death they are hard and stiff.

When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.

When they die, they wither and dry up.

Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.

The gentle and soft are the followers of life

From this point of view, changing opinions, lifestyle choices, and even group loyalties that no longer satisfy you is quite normal and healthy. Confining yourself to a particular ideology or cause can become counterproductive to personal growth, and in more serious cases, even threaten your very wellbeing.

Option 2: Fight for who you want to be. As F. N. Nietzsche outlines in his work Beyond Good and Evil though, it all too easy to conform to social and political pressures that seeps into our lives and very difficult to be a person with a mind of his or her own. This is especially true in a day and age where most human beings live in densely populated societies that are increasingly becoming culturally homogenized on a global scale. Living in a technological “flat” world doesn’t even begin to describe it. For example, what teenagers typically prefer to eat, drink, read, play, buy, listen to, and watch in Yunlin Taiwan isn’t all that different from what youths generally like in Alberta Canada.  Living during a time of unprecedented economic, social, and political integration himself, Nietzsche was aware of how difficult it can be for one to deviate from family, community, and societal expectations. He knew only too well what was at stake. As he admits elsewhere, “[t]he individual has always to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened.” Nevertheless, he confidently adds “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Option 3: Let personal experience and critical thinking be your guide. As the musician-poet Bob Dylan simply put it, “all I can do is be me, whoever that is.” Those that sincerely strive to live by certain principles, know that upholding beliefs and practices is a lifelong work-in-progress. Sooner or later, they discover that attempting to force conviction that isn’t there can be just as disastrous in consequence as hastily swinging from one way of thinking or acting to another. They risk not only hurting themselves, but those they care for as well as the very world they live in. So, when, more often than not, you are not sure whether to pursue option one or option two, take option three.

Here are four pointers on how to do so:

  • Prioritize what you personally want and need first. At first glance, this may seem like an awfully selfish thing to do. However, when you try to appease those you love, be they family, friends, or community by adopting ideologies and activities that you do not believe in, there is a huge risk that they may erode your happiness. If this happens, you will not only come to resent them, but the very people that sincerely embrace them. So rather than allow yourself to get suffocated by ideas and practices that aren’t your own, do everyone a favour and prioritize being truthful to yourself.
  • If your conduct becomes at odds with your beliefs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to throw in the towel. No matter what ideal you pursue, do bear in mind that you are only human. We all say or do certain things that we later wish that we had not. A lapse in faith or conviction does not need to inevitably result in a permanent situation. Admittedly, real world events, unforeseeable incidents, and dramatic changes in health can have an powerful influence upon our lives. Nonetheless, if you are able to read this blog post, then you most likely can think for yourself. So if you let yourself down for whatever reason, don’t lose heart. It is ultimately in your power to decide just how life’s various surprises can impact your thoughts and actions in the present.
  •  Don’t just take someone else’s word for it. As Buddha insisted to his disciples, they should trust their own personal experience and not just accept his teachings, or any other, at face value. In my humble opinion, truer words have been scarcely spoken. No matter whether it is an ancient scripture, popular belief, or a life-long held custom, it should have a unique meaning for you. If you eventually find it lacks any relevance or connection to your own life, then you may want to consider doing some self reflection and self exploration. But only do so if you feel it is necessary and even more importantly, when you feel ready.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a step out of your comfort zone. As the Scottish Philosopher David Hume cynically points out in An Enquiry of Human Understanding, those with religious belief tend to surround themselves with images, rituals, symbols, and figurines in order to sustain their faith. Although there is most certainly an anti-Catholic bias that shades his observation, Hume’s logic is not without merit and can certainly be extended beyond the God fearing. After all, those that associate themselves to some ‘-ism’ or another, be it spiritual or worldly, tend to be surrounded by literature, objects, symbols, customs, audio-visuals, and people that reinforces their belief in a chosen creed or lifestyle. It is very easy to get conditioned to a way of thinking or living that has almost become nearly habit. However, if you find that it is not useful to your life, don’t be afraid to expose yourself to a great big world full of new experiences. They can just as much reinvigorate your old worldview as transform it.