Towards a More Altruistic Society – Matthieu Ricard

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Towards a more altruistic society

At the end of last week, Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme (The Case for Altruism), a 920 page-book on which I have been intensely working for 5 years, came out in French (the English publication is scheduled for January 2015).

Cooperation, wrote Martin Nowak, is “the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution”(1).

It seems that, today, we need to move to the next level of cooperation to face the many challenges that our times are confronted with. Each of these challenges has its temporality and priority. A major difficulty consists in reconciling three different time scales and three different types of preoccupations: the economy in the short term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and environment in the long term.

The economy and finance are evolving at an ever-faster pace. Life satisfaction is measured on the scale of a life project, a career, a family, a generation and a life time. The evolution of the environment used to be measured in terms of millennia and era, but the pace of environmental changes has now considerably accelerated.

We should not however give up the idea of reconciling these three time scales. Altruism is the vital thread that can link them together and harmonize their requirements. Altruism is not merely a noble, somewhat naive ideal; today, more than ever, it is a necessity.

If we have more consideration for others, we will not indulge in wild, self-oriented speculations with the savings of those who have placed their trust in us.

If we have more consideration for others, we will care for the quality of life of those around us, we will make sure that their situation improves.

Finally, if we have more consideration for future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice the world that we hand down to them in favor of our short-term wants and desires.

Altruism is thus the key to our survival and the determining factor of the quality of our current and future existence. We must have the insight to recognize it and the audacity to say so.

In its essence, altruism is a benevolent state of mind, consisting of feeling concerned for the fate of all those around us, and wishing them well, strengthened by our determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the most fundamental state of mind that leads to altruism. When it is our “default mode”, it expresses itself as benevolence towards anyone who might come into the field of one’s attention and translates itself as goodwill, readiness and willingness to care. As shown by psychologist Daniel Batson, when there is a need that is perceived in others, we readily develop empathic concern, bringing about the urge to fulfill that need. When the need is related to a yearning for happiness, valuing others and benevolence will foster the realization of that aspiration. When the need is related to suffering, valuing others and compassion will induce us to remedy the suffering and its causes.

On the individual level, collaboration between neuroscientists and contemplatives has shown that altruism and compassion are skills that can be cultivated with training. These studies have also distinguished the differences between empathy (the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others), loving-kindness (the wish that others may be happy) and compassion (the wish that they might be free from suffering).

At the society level, research in the field of cultural evolution has also shown that human cultural values can change faster than our genes, and bring about significant transformations in societies. How can we bring about a shift towards a more altruistic, compassionate culture? First of all we need to recognize the importance of altruism. We then need to cultivate it at an individual level and, from there, bring about cultural changes. Cultures and individuals mutually shape each other, just as two knife blades can be used to sharpen the other.

Ricard, M. (2013). Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme. Nil Editions.

Buy the book in French

(1) Nowak, M., & Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators (Reprint.). Free Press

Matthieu Ricard

Born in France in 1946 as the son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin, Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author, translator, and photographer. He first visited India in 1967 where he met great spiritual masters from Tibet. After completing his Ph.D. degree in cell genetics in 1972, he moved to the Himalayan region where he has been living for the past 40 years.

Written works
Matthieu Ricard is the author of several books, such as Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Why Meditate? (The Art of Meditation in the UK), The Quantum and the Lotus (a dialogue with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan), and The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father. His books have been translated into over twenty languages.Translations of Buddhist texts
Matthieu Ricard has dedicated his life to the study and practice of Buddhism following the teachings of the greatest Tibetan spiritual masters of our time. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. He is the author of several volumes of Buddhist texts translated from the Tibetan, such as The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, and The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva (teachings by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche).

Photography
For many years Matthieu Ricard has been photographing the landscapes, spiritual masters, and people of the magnificent Himalayan region. His work is exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the world. He is the author and photographer of a number of photography books including Bhutan: The Land of Serenity, Motionless Journey: From a Hermitage in the Himalayas, and Tibet: An Inner Journey.

Scientific Contributions
Matthieu Ricard is an active member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to broadening the understanding of how the mind works by exploring the intersection between contemplative traditions and contemporary scientific inquiry.
He contributes to the research on the effect of meditation on the brain at various universities in the USA and Europe and is the co-author of several scientific publications.Humanitarian commitment
All proceeds from Matthieu Ricard’s books, photographs, and events are donated to Karuna-Shechen (www.karuna-shechen.org/), the humanitarian association he created. Based on the ideal of “compassion in action”, Karuna-Shechen develops education, medical, and social projects for the most destitute populations of the Himalayan region.

For more information on Karuna-Shechen : www.karuna-shechen.org

The Neophyte – Diligence In the Face Of The World

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Gustave Dore: Le néophyte. (The Neophyte). c. 1877. Etching.
Awareness and vigilance in the midst of despair and death. Having the ability to look clearly at the world as it is and to work with it to achieve a balance and harmony of being, To give and receive in kind. This unique ability that only a few are able to attain – most are shrouded in darkness, myopia, despair and tunnel vision. And the massive amounts of intelligence, the billions of humans that have these characteristics, the capabilities that are lost to inwardness without a release, without an outward expression that connects, that is vibrant , that shares in the give and take.  This absence is a veil, a curtain, a fog that encapsulates the being, and limits awareness, precludes an ability to see how everything is connected and to give the connectiveness value — one person at a time. Zen calls the neophyte a person who possess the beginner’s mind. – rlw

A Brit Blows America’s Horn – “America The Marvelous”

July 2013

America the Marvelous

At any liberal-establishment dinner table in London, say, or Paris, the U.S. will figure as a big, fat, dumb child. Enough, says the author, in an adaptation from his new book: America is Europe’s finest invention—and ultimate aspiration.

By A. A. GillIllustration by Barry Blitt
KING OF THE WORLD The author has had it with European antipathy toward America.

Adapted from To America with Love, by A. A. Gill, © 2011 by A. A. Gill. Originally published in Great Britain in 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson; to be published in the U.S. next month by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

‘Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.” I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback-educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can’t remember specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don’t need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I’ve heard this cock crow so often I don’t even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.

Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief—no, the knowledge—that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soul-less, naïve oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, and ingenious American invention, will demand America’s medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a Fascist, totalitarian, racist state.

Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It’s embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It’s about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized Continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world’s best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren’t everything, and America’s aren’t all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)

And are Americans emotionally dim, naïve, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn’t understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It’s not irony that America lacks; it’s cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony. And what about vulgarity? Americans are innately, sniggeringly vulgar. What, vulgar like Henry James or Eleanor Roosevelt or Cole Porter, or the Mormons? Again, it’s a question of definitions. What Americans value and strive for is straight talking, plain saying. They don’t go in for ambiguity or dissembling, the etiquette of hidden meaning, the skill of the socially polite lie. The French in particular confuse unadorned direct language with a lack of culture or intellectual elegance. It was Camus who sniffily said that only in America could you be a novelist without being an intellectual. There is a belief that America has no cultural depth or critical seriousness. Well, you only have to walk into an American bookshop to realize that is wildly wrong and willfully blind. What about Mark Twain, or jazz, or Abstract Expressionism?

What is so contrary about Europe’s liberal antipathy to America is that any visiting Venusian anthropologist would see with the merest cursory glance that America and Europe are far more similar than they are different. The threads of the Old World are woven into the New. America is Europe’s greatest invention. That’s not to exclude the contribution to America that has come from around the globe, but it is built out of Europe’s ideas, Europe’s understanding, aesthetic, morality, assumptions, and laws. From the way it sets a table to the chairs it sits on, to the rhythms of its poetry and the scales of its music, the meter of its aspirations and its laws, its markets, its prejudices and neuroses. The conventions and the breadth of America’s reason are European.

This isn’t a claim for ownership, or for credit. But America didn’t arrive by chance. It wasn’t a ship that lost its way. It wasn’t coincidence or happenstance. America grew tall out of the cramping ache of old Europe.

When I was a child, there was a lot of talk of a “brain drain”—commentators, professors, directors, politicians would worry at the seeping of gray matter across the Atlantic. Brains were being lured to California by mere money. Mere money and space, and sun, and steak, and Hollywood, and more money and opportunity and optimism and openness. People who took the dollar in exchange for their brains were unpatriotic in much the same way that tax exiles were. The unfair luring of indigenous British thought would, it was darkly said, lead to Britain falling behind, ceasing to be the pre-eminently brilliant and inventive nation that had produced the Morris Minor and the hovercraft. You may have little idea how lauded and revered Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft, was, and you may well not be aware of what a noisy, unstable waste of effort the hovercraft turned out to be, but we were very proud of it for a moment.

The underlying motif of the brain drain was that for real cleverness you needed years of careful breeding. Cold bedrooms, tinned tomatoes on toast, a temperament and a heritage that led to invention and discovery. And that was really available only in Europe and, to the greatest extent, in Britain. The brain drain was symbolic of a postwar self-pity. The handing back of Empire, the slow, Kiplingesque watch as the things you gave your life to are broken, and you have to stoop to build them up with worn-out tools. There was resentment and envy—whereas in the first half of the 20th century Britain had spent the last of Grandfather’s inherited capital, leaving it exhausted and depressed, for America the war had been the engine that geared up industry and pulled it out of the Depression, capitalizing it for a half-century of plenty. It seemed so unfair.

The real brain drain was already 300 years old. The idea of America attracted the brightest and most idealistic, and the best from all over Europe. European civilization had reached a stasis. By its own accounting, it had grown from classical Greece to become an identifiable, homogeneous place, thanks to the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity. Following the Dark Ages, there was the Renaissance and the Reformation, and then the Age of Reason, from which grew a series of ideas and discoveries, philosophies and visions, that became pre-eminent. But at the moment of their creation here comes the United States—just as Europe was reaching a point where the ideas that moved it were outgrowing the conventions and the hierarchies that governed it. Democracy, free economy, free trade, free speech, and social mobility were stifled by the vested interests and competing stresses of a crowded and class-bound continent. Migration to America may have been primarily economic, but it also created the space where the ideas that in Europe had grown too root-bound to flourish might be transplanted. Over 200 years the flame that had been lit in Athens and fanned in Rome, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, and Vienna was passed, a spark at a time, to the New World.

In 1776 the white and indentured population of America was 2.5 million. A hundred years later it was nearly 50 million. In 1890, America overtook Britain in manufacturing output to become the biggest industrial economy in the world. No economy in the history of commerce has grown that precipitously, and this was 25 years after the most murderous, expensive, and desperate civil war. Indeed, America may have reached parity with Britain as early as 1830. Right from its inception it had faster growth than old Europe. It now accounts for a quarter of the world’s economy. It wasn’t individual brains that made this happen. It wasn’t a man with a better mousetrap. It was a million families who wanted a better mousetrap and were willing to work making mousetraps. It was banks that would finance the manufacture of better mousetraps, and it was a big nation with lots of mice.

One of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done in public was to appear—against all judgment—in a debate at the Hay Literary Festival in the mid-90s, speaking in defense of the motion that American culture should be resisted. Along with me on this cretin’s errand was the historian Norman Stone. I can’t remember what I said—I’ve erased it. It had no weight or consequence. On the other side, the right side, were Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, and Salman Rushdie. After we’d proposed the damn motion, Rushdie leaned in to the microphone, paused for a moment, regarding the packed theater from those half-closed eyes, and said, soft and clear, “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love.”

It was the triumph of the sublime. The bookish audience burst into applause and cheered. It was all over, bar some dry coughing. America didn’t bypass or escape civilization. It did something far more profound, far cleverer: it simply changed what civilization could be. It set aside the canon of rote, the long chain letter of drawing-room, bon-mot received aesthetics. It was offered a new, neoclassical, reconditioned, reupholstered start, a second verse to an old song, and it just took a look at the view and felt the beat of this vast nation and went for the sublime.

There is in Europe another popular snobbery, about the parochialism of America, the unsophistication of its taste, the limit of its inquiry. This, we’re told, is proved by “how few Americans travel abroad.” Apparently, so we’re told, only 35 percent of Americans have passports. Whenever I hear this, I always think, My good golly gosh, really? That many? Why would you go anywhere else? There is so much of America to wonder at. So much that is the miracle of a newly minted civilization. And anyway, European kids only get passports because they all want to go to New York.

James Rhodes: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you’

My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.

James Rhodes

‘Isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way?’ Pianist James Rhodes. Photograph: Dave Brown 2012

After the inevitable “How many hours a day do you practice?” and “Show me your hands”, the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m a pianist is “I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up”. I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they “always had a book inside them”. We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.

Do the maths. We can function – sometimes quite brilliantly – on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?

What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gould claimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece – these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you’re very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.

What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you’ve always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?

What if rather than a book club you joined a writer’s club? Where every week you had to (really had to) bring three pages of your novel, novella, screenplay and read them aloud?

What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist.

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time.

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to becauseHarry Styles has done it.Charles Bukowski, hero of angsty teenagers the world over, instructs us to “find what you love and let it kill you“. Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2013/apr/26/james-rhodes-blog-find-what-you-love

Zarathustra – My Time Has Come

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Have you learned my song? Have you guessed its intent ? Well then, you higher men, sing me now my round. Now you yourselves sing me the song whose name is “Once More” and whose meaning is ” into all eternity” – sing, you higher men, Zarathustra’s round!

 

O man, take care!

What does the deep midnight declare?

“I was asleep-

From a deep dream I woke and swear:
The world is deep,
Deeper than day had been aware.
Deep is its woe;
Joy- deeper yet than agony :
Woe implores : Go!
But all joy wants eternity-
Wants deep, wants deep eternity.

 On the morning after this night, Zarathustra jumped up from his resting place, girded his loins, and came out of his cave glowing and strong as a morning sun that comes out of dark mountains.

Going To The Sun

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The Stranger by Albert Camus – Impressions

1942

Prose that is crisp and spare and precise. Fragments of humanity that are turned this way and that to develop a character in time and place.

Meursault is detached and self-sufficient. His social needs are minimal. He is authentic and sure of his senses and is comfortable with his emotions. He commits to actions and takes responsibility for them. He is lucid and balanced.

Those who are social will say he is shut down; those who are not social see his basic health. He does not fake nor see the need to fake emotions he does not have.

He is intimate with the real world: sun, sky, heat, the ocean, colors.

His literalness allows for associations with people who are dangerous or marginal; his orientation demonstrates his authenticity without regard to a social self-defense.

It goes unanswered as to his relationship with Raymond who places him in a position of being complicit in Raymond’s hostilities which are not his own, but he feels a need to play out the service, for him to be a defender in the midst of the group aggression. He could have backed out but he chose to defend a pal. This more than anything put him in a position to shoot the aggressor when he was in a circumstance that was unclear and in his physical confusion he defended himself and added a layer of aggressiveness that ensured his safety – the murder and the extra four shots.

His authenticity dooms him in a society that requires conformance, a christian conformance that is blatantly surface and rote. His life and death are tragic and deeply human.

Celine, Reading and Neural Networks

Today I read an article and have a hard time getting through it since I check all of the sources, people, images and so on. ( A 1977 Paris Review interview with Celine and he talks about Paul Morand, Ramuz, and Barbusse and the fall of Stalingrad – so I’m looking up each writer to get a sense of who they are and what they have done and the whole kernel of Stalingrad – the turning point of WWII. This is in addition to all of the associated images of people and events. )

I am lucky to finish the piece.

Reading near the internet is now like living inside a neural network that is firing continuously right at your: eyes, head, brain, ears, emotions, sex.

I get caught up in the neural experience, the electricity, the emotion, the speed, the rush…..

I look over to my list of “Zen Things” on the wall and read ” Do one thing at a time. Do it well”.

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