Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Human Condition - Objectively Speaking!

If we look objectively at a human life, there are certain brute facts about existence that seem to apply to everyone:


1.   You were born into this life with no control over where you were born, to whom you were born, or in what social and economic conditions you were born.  You couldn’t decide to stay in the womb rather than being thrust out into the world naked and screaming, and once you were born, you pretty much were handed a dealt deck in terms of your genetic make-up and your environment.   If you were very lucky, you weren’t born in a war zone or to abusive parents or with a life-threatening disability or mentally incapacitated.

2.   For approximately 18-25 years of your life, you grew physically and developed, to a greater or lesser degree, the intellectual, psychological, and social skills needed to navigate your way through life and find your place within human society.  

3.   For much of the rest of your life, you put the skills you learned to use working in some kind of job—in all likelihood, one that you didn’t enjoy very much or that didn’t pay you the kind of salary that you thought you deserved.  The money that you earned from working, however, enabled you eventually to leave your parent’s home and pay for those items necessary for survival (food, clothing, housing) and those that contribute to human felicity (cars, Iphones, designer handbags, etc,).

4.   Like all animals, you have a built-in desire to procreate and to spread your gene pool as widely as possible to ensure the survival of the species.  If conditions were right, you may have found a suitable partner with whom to produce offspring.  You then spent the most productive years of your mid-life providing for those offspring, attempting to ensure their survival into adulthood, and training them—with greater or lesser success—to become autonomous individuals in their own right.

5.   If you were lucky, you didn’t die accidentally, perish from a disease, or be killed, and made it into old age.  At that point your body began to break down, you got sick, you suffered physically (and perhaps emotionally as well) and eventually died.  Within moments after your death, your body began to decompose, and within a few years, almost nothing was left of you at all.

6.   Within one or two generations of your death, you were forgotten by every other human being on the planet (unless you were one of the ridiculously small percentage of human beings who were skillful or lucky enough to make an impact on human history, in which case, you might be remembered a bit longer).  Your grandchildren will probably only have fleeting memories of you and their children will only know who you were through dusty, old photographs that have been left behind (if they haven’t already been tossed away by a careless descendant, that is).

7.   With a relatively short amount of time—planetarily speaking—humanity itself will be destroyed through some kind of global cataclysm or pandemic and nothing will remain of our species.  At some point in time a new species may evolve from the bugs that have managed to survive, but this species will probably have little or nothing in common with our own.  Eventually, the planet, and even the universe itself, will simply cease to exist, and all that will remain will be the infinite void. 

If there’s anything important that I’m leaving out of this narrative, or if you think that what I’ve written about the human condition is not universally applicable, please feel free to set me straight.

 How does it make you feel as you read this story—which is actually YOUR story?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Limits of Loyalty

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College

I’ve often heard students of mine say things like, “you’ve got to support your family no matter what” or “friends have got to stick together no matter what.” When I hear statements like this in class, I can’t help being impressed by how important the idea of loyalty to friends and family is among the members of the Millennial Generation. I certainly don’t recall members of my own generation—Generation X, if you must know—being all that loyal to anything other than the idea to have a good time in life. So, on one level, I’m greatly pleased that a virtue as important as loyalty is making a comeback in American society.

However, as a teacher of ethics, I find myself somewhat concerned about the “no matter what” clause that Millennials often attach to their commitments of loyalty. As worthy a virtue as loyalty is, I can’t help but believe that this virtue could never be absolute in the real world. There’s got to be some natural limits to our loyalty, or the fidelity that we show those we care about becomes a kind of blind fanaticism.

So when ought our commitment to support our friends and family members come to an end? I’m inclined to agree with both Aristotle and Cicero that an intimate relationship of any kind must be terminated if the other party involved turns morally bad or wicked—that is, if they begin to act in such a way that they are causing harm to themselves or to other people.

Let’s begin with the issue of harm to others, since that’s less controversial. Let’s imagine a friend that you’ve had since childhood suddenly becomes obsessed with money and has developed a scheme to rob UPS trucks of their packages when they are left unattended by their drivers. Your friend has become quite successful at this and has managed to make thousands of dollars from his crimes. He confides in you about his activities one night. What should you do?

 Assuming that you yourself have any moral standards, the answer would be that you should attempt to convince him that what he is doing is wrong and try to persuade him that, at the very least, he has to stop his criminal activities. But what if he chooses not to? I think at that point, were you to continue to remain loyal to your friend, you would be complicit in his crimes. Instead, you’ve got to tell him that, unless he stops what he’s doing immediately, you can no longer continue to see him or be his friend. Any obligations of loyalty that you have towards your friend subsequently would come to an end, until such time that you friend decides to change his ways.

This is a very dramatic example, of course, but I think that the principle holds in less dramatic ones as well. If your friend was a bully, a bigot, a chronic liar, a cheat, a manipulator—if he repeatedly engaged, in other words, in activities that caused harm to others, especially innocent others—then you would likewise have no choice but to end your friendship.

The example of self-harm is a bit more problematic, but I think that the principle I’ve laid out holds here as well. Image that you have a friend who has developed a serious substance abuse problem. His behavior is causing him to neglect his job and his responsibilities to his family. You try taking to him about his issues, but he refuses to even acknowledge that he has a problem. So what do you do at that point?

Certainly, there are those who would argue that it’s wrong to abandon a friend in a time of crisis like this one—that you ought to continue to stand by him and remain loyal for as long as he needs you. But I think that this just makes you complicit in his act of self-destruction. The right thing to do in a case like this is to try as much as possible to get your friend to change, but, when it becomes evident that he has no intention of doing so, you have to put an end to your friendship for the sake of your friend. And any loyalty that you have towards him must be suspended until he agrees to do something about his problem.

The examples I’ve used above involve friends, but what I’ve stated about the limits of loyalty apply to family as well. If a family member—a parent, a sibling, or a child—becomes to engage in activities that cause harm to themselves or others, I think that we have a moral obligation to terminate our relationship with these family members in order to help them become morally responsible individuals again. To think otherwise would be to imply that family relationships trump all moral duties and obligations that we have in life, and this is simply not true.

I also think that if we really care about people—whether they are family, friends, or less intimate acquaintances—we would be as concerned about their moral welfare as we are for their physical, financial or social welfare. And the closer individuals are to us, the greater, I believe, are our obligations to care for their moral well-being. In this sense, we should have even higher moral standards for our close family members and friends than we do for other members of society…not because we want to treat them harder than we do others, but because we care about them even more.

I know that there are those who would reject the position that I’ve laid out on the limits of loyalty. Some would probably argue that I am being overly ridged and moralistic and that no one could adopt the kinds of moral standards towards family and friends that I’ve argued for here. If that’s the case, feel free to challenge what I’ve said in this piece. But consider first how you would respond if you discovered that a friend or family member was involved in the kinds of situations that I’ve described above. And then reflect on whether the continuation of your absolute loyalty towards these individuals—supporting them “no matter what”—would be better or worse for them than the kind of tough love that I’ve argued for.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Religion: America's Drug of Choice

by Alex Romeo

In a recent post, Dr. Stephan T. Mayo explores the implications of Marx’s belief that religion functions as a kind of opiate, preventing the masses from changing society for the better by getting them to fixate on their future lives in heaven. Mayo, like many academic philosophers, feels compelled to offer a “fair and balanced” position on religion that avoids offending the delicate sensibilities of any believers who might read his piece.

I am not a “professional” philosopher, so, thankfully, I am under no such constraints. I’m a proud activist and an even prouder atheist. And in my mind, it is precisely my atheism that makes me so effective as a catalyst for social change.

There was a time, however, when I wasn’t quite so clear about my position on religion as I am now. As a naïve philosopher major at NYU, I dabbled at one point or another during my college years with most of the world’s major religions. I even had a stint as a Christian, having been persuaded by a classmate that I had the hots for to get involved for a year with the Catholic Worker movement in Manhattan.

But by my senior year I had been immersed in the ideas of Marxism and anarchism and had begun to realize that political activism was my true calling. After senior year, I moved into an anarchist community and began to work with other like-minded friends to change the unjust social structures in our society that condemn millions of Americans to lives of poverty, deprivation, and despair.

After ten years of doing this type of work, I can tell you without any hesitation, that the greatest enemy of social change is religion. Faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing God, and faith in the existence of some warm and fuzzy afterlife induces a kind of intellectual and moral inertia in the hearts and minds of believers that makes them simply incapable of acting collectively to fight against social and economic injustice.

Now, I’m not even talking here about mindless evangelic types, like the ones we have occupying most of the southern portion of the United States. These are people whose religious faith has literally turned them into zombies, rejecting reason, science, and most of the enlightened ideas of the past two centuries. These are people who dismiss climate change as some kind of liberal hoax, even though their communities have been hit hardest by droughts and wildfires that are directly attributed to climate change. And these are people who have placed their trust in the very right-wing politics that have driven them into the underclass.

I’m not talking about these types of believers who are, quite simply, beyond all hope and reason. I’m talking here about the average run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of believer. The kind of people who go to church or services on Sundays and who sincerely do their best to try to live according to the dictates of their own faith. These are not rabid reactionaries, racists, or homophobes. They’re decent, ordinary people, who feel badly about the poor and may even be involved in charitable activities, like working in soup kitchens or volunteering at homeless shelters.

They are the true enemy and need to be eradicated.

How can I say this, you might be wondering? Because the ordinary believers, no matter how compassionate they might seem, actually work against long-term progressive social change. They opt to engage in charity rather than activism, and aim at amelioration of unjust social structures rather than completely uprooting these unjust social structures And all their efforts do is perpetuate a status quo that has led to greater income inequality, worse working conditions for the poor and middle class, and the degradation of our planet’s fragile ecosystems.

This, I believe, is where Marx’s idea of religion as an opiate for the masses comes into play. The believer—by the very nature of his faith—is forced to see his ultimate destiny as transcending this world. This world is merely a way station on the journey to the believer’s true home—heaven. So no matter how committed the believers might be to social justice, there is always a limit to how far he is willing to go in his quest to fight for those who are the victims of injustice. Acts of charity are fine; political agitation and revolt is not. The very charity that stem from the believer’s faith act as a kind of opiate that eases the conscience of the believer (“At least I’m doing something.”), but at the same time prevents him from engaging in truly valuable forms of political activism (“That’s going too far for me”).

And, if things don’t work out quite so well in this world, the believer always has the consolation that the benevolent father-figure he calls God will make things turn out just fine in the next life.

In the end Marx was completely correct in his assessment of religious faith of all types. Once the idea of God is dead, and the delusion of an afterlife eliminated, then we have only this world to contend with. The fantasy world of the next life becomes just that—a fiction that I can contemptuously dismiss as a kind of insane temporary delusion.

In the end there is only one real choice: stay addicted to the opiate of religious belief and allow this world—my true and only home—to become a shithole, or I can work with others to change society and make it more just and humane.

What other option is there?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Examining Marx's Opiate of the People

Stephan T. Mayo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
The great architect of the international workers revolution, Karl Marx, set out as an objective to critique all of the societal props that were, in his view, maintaining the Middle-class capitalist dominance over the oppressed and exploited working class. Religion stood high on his list as a mythical appeasement mechanism wielded by the ruling class over the workers. It functioned as “the opiate for the people,” a kind of drug that eased the harsh pangs of the underlying reality of their subsistent wages, social alienation and enslavement. Religion provided “pie in the sky when you die” so that worker disgruntlement under capitalism would not break out into revolt due to the fact that their sacrifice now would be rewarded in the afterlife. This notion that religion is merely a sop to tamp down the reality of harsh and emendable current conditions has recently made a comeback. Recent studies show that religious belief and practices are highest in the poorest and least technologically developed countries and that the more developed a country is the least religious is its population.  These trends have been used to support the Marxist critique of religion.

Theistic criticisms of the Marxist analysis accuse him of reduction of religious belief to one of its manifestations, thereby missing the true essence of religion. Rather than denying outright that religion has the psychologically comforting effect of ameliorating harsh economic conditions, many theists grant this consequence of religious belief.  However, that leaves standing the actual evidence and reasonableness of the theistic position. These would still be present even if religion were more psychologically disturbing and anxiety producing than an atheistic outlook, as many of the scrupulous can attest.

Using the analogy of patriotism, it is quite clear that the patriot enjoys positive emotions when singing anthems, saluting the flag, celebrating national holidays or listening to patriotic oratory. She could also be comforted that, despite her personal struggles in the current economy, her Nation is great and doing well. However, patriotism does not necessarily mean that one is an uncritical jingoist (“my country right or wrong”) One could remain loyal to the country while descrying the excesses of patriotic fervor and while being highly critical of one’s nation’s foreign or domestic policies. To draw the analogy, the religious need not make the comfort they draw from their faith to be the primary basis of it. To be an enlightened citizen one can appreciate the strengths of one’s nation and its promise while recognizing its failures and weaknesses. For the faithful the affirmation of their religion may recognize its evidential reasonableness while acknowledging the emotional excessiveness and irresponsible complacency for bad and emendable social conditions that many religious believers fall into.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Different Sort of Wager

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
I remember reading Pascal’s wager as a freshman in college.  Even back then I thought there was something cold and calculating about the argument.  After the extraordinary leap of logic that Anselm makes in his ontological argument and the majestic cosmological vision of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways, Pascal’s wager seemed like a middle class banker’s approach to the question of God’s existence.  I wish that I could say that Pascal’s argument has grown on me over time, but, if anything, I hate the argument even more now than I did as a freshman. 
Let’s start with a brief summary of what Pascal claims are our options with respect to belief in the existence of God: 

Our first option, he says, is to assume that God exists and live our lives accordingly (i.e., with as much faith, hope, and love as we can muster).  If God does exists, says Pascal, we’ve won the big prize—eternal life with him in heaven; if he doesn’t exist, on the other hand, nothing much is lost.   

The second option is to live our lives assuming God doesn’t exist.  If, in fact, he doesn’t, then there’s no problem.  But there’s also the possibility that God does exist, and he may not take kindly to those who have rejected him (Just think about how hot the fires of hell must be and how interminably long they’ll last….Yikes!).   

According to Pascal, the sensible betting man, then, will always choose option 1 (belief in God), since the rewards for belief are great and the penalty for unbelief is too horrible to even consider.   

In an attempt to show where Pascal goes wrong, I’d like to offer my wager-like argument.  My wager makes the exact opposite point of Pascal’s, but I think that it stands up much better than the French logician’s argument does.    

Once again, let’s assume we have two options:  (1) believe in God and live out our lives with faith and devotion or (2) reject the belief in God and live out our lives as atheists.   

Let’s start with the second option first.  If we reject belief in God as a silly superstition of a bygone era, there are certainly consequences to holding this belief, as Pascal maintains.  But what exactly are those consequences?  If God doesn’t exist, then we are free to live out our lives with enlightened self-interest.  There would be no rules we would be forced to follow, except those leading to our own happiness and the happiness of those we love, no transcendent commands hanging over our heads, no life lived in fear of damnation.   Certainly, all this will come to an end with death, but at least while we’re alive we’d actually be living, instead of postponing our ultimate happiness to the next life.  And our lives would probably be a heck of a lot more fun while we’re here, because we’re living for ourselves instead of in observance of some antiquated religious precepts.   

But what if God does exist and we’ve opted not to believe in him?  Isn’t the danger involved in this choice so great that it is best to be avoided at all costs?  That may be true, but only if we believe in a very nasty and vindictive sort of God—a petty potentate who punishes his followers who fail to acknowledge his greatness by unceasing acts of submission and groveling.  Is that the kind of God who really can claim the title “Supreme Being”?  He certainly doesn’t sound all that supreme to me.  I like to think that a Supreme Being, if he does in fact exist, would be at least as moral as the most moral human being imaginable—a Gandhi or an Albert Schweitzer, for example.  It’s hard to imagine our most moral human being behaving like a petty potentate when he encounters those who refuse to acknowledge his greatness.  Rather, our most moral human being would probably respond to resistance the way a bemused parent does towards difficult children—with tolerance, sympathy, and, ultimately, forgiveness.  So, if our God is actually more like Gandhi than Benito Mussolini, the consequences for not believing in him—if we are following our consciences, at least—would probably not be all that horrible.   

Now back to the first option: we opt to believe in God.  If he exists, there seems to be no problem—no problem, that is, if he really is the petty potentate who demands obedience, even at the cost of the conscience of his followers.  That sort of God would certainly reward blind faith.  But again, let’s imagine that our God is at least as moral as the most moral human being that we can imagine.  Would such a superior being reward his followers for believing in him and groveling over him out of fear, or ignorance, or the desire for reward?  I think not.  In fact, if our God were at least as enlightened as the most moral human being he would probably respect the conscientious atheist much more than the groveling sycophant who simply is covering his bets in order to reap the big reward (eternal life in heaven).  

Finally, let’s say we believe in God and he doesn’t really exist.  Pascal would say that this is no problem really, because we’d still be living a much more moral and decent life than the non-believer.  But one could argue that possessing faith in the absence of a legitimate object of faith is the height of folly.  You’d be wasting much of your life praying, going to services, doing devotions, and following commands, duties, and obligations that don’t make any sense in the absence of our petty potentate-like God.  Even if you only spend three hours a week engaged in worship and acts of service—and this would seem to be the bare minimum amount that any serious deity desiring the devotion of his followers would expect—that would mean that you’ve spent 11,520 hours over the course of your life focused on appeasing a being who doesn’t actually exist.  In that amount of time just imagine all the wonderful things that you could have been doing instead—spending more time with family and friends, enjoying nature, working to make the world you live in a better place, or just sleeping an extra 42 minutes a day (some people would kill to have that extra time in bed!). 

Now, I am certainly not arguing that God doesn’t exist; nor am I arguing that the life of an atheist makes more sense than that of a believer.  The point of this exercise is to show that if we opt to follow Pascal and use a wager-type approach to religious belief, the argument for unbelief is as strong—if not stronger—than that for belief.  In the end, the gambler’s approach to matters of faith is as foolish an exercise as playing roulette by always putting all your chips on black rather than red, because you’ve heard that black has a higher probability of winning than red.  Even if you do win in the end, the experience of playing this sort of game is simply not all that much fun.  If, however, you actually derive some deep satisfaction from the act of gambling itself, if you leave a casino feeling like you life has a greater meaning and purpose, than by all means continue to gamble.   

Of course, my analogy here is that religious faith makes sense if it brings greater meaning, purpose, and happiness to one’s life.  And this is true regardless of whether or not God exists.  So believe and enjoy, believe and find peace, but please, don’t believe simply to hedge your bets.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On the Existence of God

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
As a young student of philosophy, I remember reading St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and being simply amazed by the majesty and elegance of his “proof” for the existence of God.    “The being greater than which none can be conceived”—That’s Anselm’s idea of God, and the reality of this being is so self-evident that one would have to be an utter fool to think that God does not exist.  Anselm’s argument is, in fact, so elegant that, as an 18 year old, I could only think, “That’s it, man.  All questions about God’s existence now must be put to rest.”
But as the years passed, I changed—as young men always do—and my certainty about the existence of a Supreme Being like the one Anselm talks about became somewhat less certain. 
I imagine that if I were living in Europe in the 11th century, I really would have had to be a fool not to believe that the universe was governed by an all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing God.  Go to any town in just about any country in Europe today and the first thing you will see, rising above all the other buildings and smack in the center of town, is a massive church or cathedral of some sort.  And when you walk inside one of these European churches, you can’t help but be impressed by their scale: these are simply monstrous buildings that aim at inspiring awe and devotion in anyone who enters them.
In the 11th century, when Anselm lived, just about every aspect of life was centered around the Church and on religious practices and devotions.  In every country there were mystics and saints who claimed to have experienced the vision of God and, as a result, were given incredible spiritual gifts to reward their faith.  Medieval Europe, in short, was a God-centered place where miracles abounded, and you truly would have to be a fool not to believe that there was a pretty powerful God behind everything.
But we’re not living in the Middle Ages any more.  We’re living in the 21st century and are products of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution of the 20th century.  We have alternative narratives now that do a pretty good job explaining the origin and nature of the universe.   God, it would seem is no longer needed to account for why we are here (evolution does that) and where we are ultimately heading (the answer:  biological decomposition).
Now there are those—evangelicals and religious conservatives, in particular—who seem to have made it their mission to reject any and all scientific evidence that contradicts the “sacred truths” they read in the Bible.  For these men and women the existence of God is as self-evident today as it was in the 11th century.  And , if scientific fact disputes any “truths” contained in Sacred  Scripture, then the answer is to reject science rather than attempt to understand Scripture in a less literalistic light.   
No, the existence of God can by no means be considered self-evidently true any longer, and we must acknowledge that modern science does provide us with a quite plausible way to explain reality without bringing the idea of God into the discussion.  But that doesn’t mean that the belief in God’s existence is unreasonable.  There is nothing logically contradictory about believing that the universe was created by an all-powerful being, who has existed for all eternity, and who, for one reason or another, is interested in the well-being of puny creatures like ourselves.   A contemporary scientist might find this idea implausible, but, if he were truly objective, he would be forced to acknowledge that God’s existence, at the very least, is not completely and totally outside the realm of possibility.
I prefer to treat the question of God’s existence with a healthy balance of skepticism and openness.   We ought to be skeptical about religious beliefs for the same reason that we ought to be skeptical about all truth claims—because there is a heck of a lot of nonsense in our world that is being passed off as “objective” or “eternal” truth and we ought to be suspicious of it all.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t at the same time be open to the possibility that such “truths” could actually turn out to be quite true.  
“Skepticism + openness.”   That should be the philosopher’s motto.  And, when it comes to religious questions like the existence of God, that same motto should be our guide and our yardstick.   “God exists;” “God doesn’t exist.”  Show me the evidence for either proposition and then let’s argue about this point the way real philosophers should: passionately, objectively, and, preferably, over a nice cold pint of beer. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Quiet Time

There was an excellent piece this Sunday in the New York Times about the importance of silence:
I'm Thinking. Please. Be Quiet
George Prochnik
SLAMMING doors, banging walls, bellowing strangers and whistling neighbors were the bane of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s existence. But it was only in later middle age, after he had moved with his beloved poodle to the commercial hub of Frankfurt, that his sense of being tortured by loud, often superfluous blasts of sound ripened into a philosophical diatribe. Then, around 1850, Schopenhauer pronounced noise to be the supreme archenemy of any serious thinker.
His argument against noise was simple: A great mind can have great thoughts only if all its powers of concentration are brought to bear on one subject, in the same way that a concave mirror focuses light on one point. Just as a mighty army becomes useless if its soldiers are scattered helter-skelter, a great mind becomes ordinary the moment its energies are dispersed.
And nothing disrupts thought the way noise does, Schopenhauer declared, adding that even people who are not philosophers lose whatever ideas their brains can carry in consequence of brutish jolts of sound.      
continue reading...
As I write this post, a helicopter is circling over my house, dogs are barking outside, cars are rumbling down the street.  It's not the same intensity of noise that people in big cities often experience on a daily basis, but it's damn distracting nonetheless. 
Most people I know, don't seem to mind the constant noise and bustle around them.  They may even feel comforted by it--a sign that they are not all alone in the universe.  In fact, they probably feel strangely unsettled by the experience of silence, because they are so unused to it.  Perhaps this is why we willingly choose to inflict ourselves with unnecessary noise from the moment we enter our homes to the moment we drop into sleep at night.  I even know people who need to keep the TV going all night long just to be able to fall asleep.
Our inability to appreciate and enjoy quite, doesn't bode well, I'm afraid, for a discipline like philosophy.  Philosophy demands that we have ample quite time to ponder the big questions of life in an environment free of distractions.  No great ideas, I would argue, could ever spring from a mind that is inflicted with incessant noise.
No silence, no wisdom; no wisdom, no progress; no progress....Well, I'll leave it to you to finish the rest of this thought.  I'm afraid that I'm far to distracted by all the noise all around me to continue. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Skeptic's Way

By Michael S. Russo
I’ve been teaching philosophy now for over 20 years, and it always amazes me at how gullible students are.  Every year when teaching my philosophy of Leadership course, I come in the first class and inform the students—in a very bad Irish brogue—that I am Fr. Liam McCarthy from County Gallway in Ireland.   I then go on with the prepared script:
“Dr. Russo, I’m afraid, has been deemed ill-suited to teach this class and I’ve been asked to take his place.  What I plan to do is examine the leadership styles of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, his blessed Mother Mary, and the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church, including, but not limited to Saints Perpetua and Felicity, St. Odo of Cluny, and, of course, the blessed Barengarius of Tours.  Our text will be the Bible, which I plan to teach to you in the original Greek.  Many of you, I fear, will not do well in this course, because you are weak of mind and prone to the frailties of the flesh.  I want you to know that I have no problem failing every one of you, if you fail to meet my exacting standards.  Does anyone have any questions?  Good.  Then let’s begin our class with a prayer taken from the Catholic rite of the dead.”
I say all this with a perfectly straight face, while at the same time trying to the best of my ability to maintain something like a Barry Fitzgerald-style brogue from The Quiet Man.  It’s a ludicrous performance, and no one with any sense at all could possibly believe that Fr. McCarthy could be real.  But the students all do.  And when I can no longer sustain my performance, break out in laughter, and inform them that they’ve been had, most of my freshmen still don’t know how to react:  They sit paralyzed for some time, trying to figure out how they could have believed something so patently absurd to be true.
I know what you’re thinking: how stupid can these freshmen be?  But they’re not stupid at all.  In fact, only honors-level students take my leadership class.   And I would bet that, if you were in this class, you would buy into the reality of Fr. McCarthy, even with his abysmal brogue and his absurd 1950s Catholic worldview.   You would accept that Fr. McCarthy is for real, because, like most human beings, you’ve been trained to accept many things on faith that you have no real evidence for at all.  
For instance,
  • you believe that you were born in a certain place at a certain time to certain parents. 
  • you believe that the world you experience with your senses exists as you perceive it.
  • you believe that this planet that we are on is part of a larger universe that is very, very large and contains many other solar systems.
  • you believe in God and that when you die your personal identity will live on in some form.
  • you believe that when you look into the mirror every morning that the person you see staring back at you is the real you.

Unlike the reality of Father McCarthy, these are all somewhat plausible beliefs, to be sure.  You’ve probably embraced many of these beliefs most of your life and people that you trust and love undoubtedly hold to them as “gospel truth.”  But how do we really know that any of these so-called “truths” are actually true at all? 
Mind Games
Let’s play a few mind games.  For these games to work, you’ll have to put aside all the beliefs about your life that you have taken for granted are true.
We can start with your experience of reading this very text.  Your assumption, I’m sure, is that you, __________________ (fill in your name), are sitting down in front of your computer reading the words that appear on the screen.  But can you really be certain that this is what you are actually doing?  Haven’t you had the experience of thinking that you were enmeshed in some activity—hanging out with your friends, visiting a strange, exotic place, making love to a desirable partner, only to wake up and discover that everything you thought was real was actually nothing more than a dream?  But while you were dreaming, the dream seemed totally and completely real to you, didn’t it?  Well, how do you know that something similar is not going on right now?  Perhaps instead of reading this text on your computer, you are, in fact, in deep REM sleep, dreaming about reading this text.  Can you really be 100% certain that this is not the case (remember, while you are in a dream, everything seems completely real to you)?
Let’s try another mind game, just for fun.  Once again, you are reading this text, imagining that what you are experiencing is real.  But I’m here to tell you that the you that you think is you is not really you, and the world that you think is really real is not real at all.  You are actually a being of a much more highly evolved species than homo sapiens (You have a body only about 4 feet tall, four fingers on each hand, a huge cranium to support your impressive brain, and no icky genitalia, since reproduction of your species is done purely through mental contact).  Every 150 years members of your species go into a coma-like state, called “The Phase”  in order to regenerate, and remain in this state for about five years.  During that time, it’s not uncommon for beings like yourself to imagine themselves as completely different sorts of creatures on strange new worlds.  For example, while you are in your coma-like state, you’ve imagined yourself as _______________ (fill in your name) living in a place called ___________ (fill in your town and country), on a planet called Earth, in a period described as the early 21st century.  You’ve even created a bizarre physical form for yourself that is totally unlike the “real” form that you actually possess (pubic hair…yuck!).  The further along you are in The Phase, the more elaborate the dream becomes until you no longer even begin to question that it’s real.  You establish relationships, develop a career, beget children, etc.  But—and here’s the kicker—you are now approaching the end of your five year sleep cycle and very soon will be ripped from the fantasy reality that your mind has created.  When that happens, everything you experience in that dream-like state will become nothing more than a vague memory that you will eventually forget completely as you resume your “real” life. 
I know that you are probably thinking that both scenarios that I’ve described are completely implausible.  You know exactly who you are, and you know damn well that what you are experiencing at this very moment is precisely what it appears to be.   But can you really be certain that is the case?  In fact, the “certainty” that you possess about just about every aspect of your life is actually more like a belief or conviction—something that ultimately can’t be proven or disproven.  You could, in fact, be sleeping or you could be an alien creature in comma-like state.  How could you ever prove that you’re not?
The Way of the Skeptic
What’s the point of all this, you’re probably asking by now?  The point is to set you on a path that some philosophers have called the ultimate road to self-realization.  It’s called the path of skepticism, and its practitioners—called, not surprisingly, skeptics—argue that true liberation comes from embracing the uncertainty inherent in human life.  Dubito”—I doubt—is the motto of all skeptics, and a truly radical skeptic doubts every aspect of his experience. 
The way of the skeptic is the opposite of that of the dogmatist.  Dogmatists believe they have certain knowledge about the nature of reality, the right way to live, how to organize society, etc.  Their supposed certainty leads to conflict with other dogmatists who also believe that they hold the truth. Aggression, violence, war, and genocide are the end results of embracing a philosophy that holds that one’s own truth is absolute and everything else is error, lies, and heresy.
The skeptic, in rejecting the idea of universal or transcendent truth, avoids the tension and conflict that the dogmatist inevitably experiences when his views run counter to the views of others.  When the skeptic encounters someone with an alternative perspective on reality, he simply acknowledges the beliefs of the other and moves on humbly and graciously. He doesn’t get angry or frustrated, because he has no personal stake in the debates dogmatists love to have among themselves.
The total suspension of judgment that the skeptic has about what is true or false leads to a kind of inner peace that dogmatist can never possess.  Things may “appear” or “seem” to be true to the skeptic, but when he’s shown that this is not the case, there’s no psychic rupture that occurs within him.  His beliefs are recognized to be beliefs, and nothing more, and when new beliefs come along that are superior to the ones he’s previously held, he’s capable of embracing them with a cognitive flexibility that the dogmatist could never even imagine.
Not convinced?  Try suspending judgment for just a week on matters that you’ve always assumed to be true.  For just a week, instead of reacting dogmatically when your beliefs encounter opposition, make an effort to remain open to conflicting viewpoints.  You just might find that your life has become much more pleasant by giving up some of your certainty about the truth…and you also might find that the world around you becomes a much nicer place as a result.


Dr. Michael S. Russo is a Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Molloy College in New York, the manager of The Sophia Project, an online repository of educational resources in Philosophy, and the author of That's Right: An Introduction to Ethical Theory.  He can be reached at

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's The Problem with Pleasure?

It amazes me that in the 21st century, there are still those who honestly believe that there is something wrong with living a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.  Not so very long ago, Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University, was basically called a slut and a prostitute by Rush Limbaugh for arguing that her university had an obligation to provide contraception as part of its student health coverage.   Fluke was honest enough to admit that she had an active sex life, but wasn’t looking for marriage or to have a family any time soon.    Apparently, in the United States in the 21st century that acknowledgement alone is enough to merit public condemnation. 
But, whatever right wing pundits like Limbaugh might think, Sandra Fluke is not alone in her desire to seek pleasure without attachments.  In a recent New York Times article, it was reported that more and more college-aged women are looking for sexual relationships without any long-term commitments.   It’s interesting to note, however, that none of the 60 women interviewed by the Times would allow their names to be used in the story.  Why?  “Because they believed that talking publicly about sex could come back to haunt them—by damaging their reputations at [their college], their families' opinions of them or their professional future."
But what, may I ask, is so unhealthy or unnatural about the desire for physical pleasure for its own sake?  As a species, we’re hardwired, after all, to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  It’s because sex feels good that homo sapiens were able to reproduce to the point that we now inhabit virtually every corner of this planet.  Our primitive ancestors were also hardwired to seek out tasty sweet and fatty foods that provided them with the nutrients they needed to survive in a fairly inhospitable world.   And, alcohol and opiates, of one form or another, have been part of every primitive society’s rites and celebrations since the beginning of recorded history. 

We human beings, it seems, have always liked our sex, yummy food, and mind-altering substances.  The difference is that our primitive ancestors didn’t have the kinds of hang-ups that we seem to have about the pursuit of physical pleasure.   In fact, prior to the rise of Christianity in Europe, a person would have been looked upon as abnormal if they didn’t have a healthy appetite for things physical.  Various forms of hedonism were prevalent throughout classical society, and the Greeks were so devoted to food, drink and sex that they celebrated the pursuit of these pleasures in poetry and song  (see The Greek Anthology). 

It’s interesting to note that in his discussion of self-control , the philosopher Aristotle considered the inability to enjoy the pleasures involved in partaking in food, drink, and sex, something so unnatural than he hardly thinks that this vice is worth discussing.  As he puts it in the Nicomachean Ethics, “People who fall short with regard to pleasures and delight in them less than they should are hardly found; for such insensibility is not human.”  Say what you want about our pagan ancestors, but most of them took for granted that one of the primary goals of life was to suck as much pleasure out of the marrow of human experience as they could.

So when did we start to develop such a hostility to the pleasures of the body?  The villain here would have to be Plato, who introduced a kind of body-soul dualism that was not before found in such a virulent form in Greek thought.   For Plato the body and its desire for pleasure was a prison for the soul, keeping it trapped in the sensible realm.   Plato thought that it was only by rejecting the sensual lures of the flesh that the soul could achieve its ultimate goal—living in a purely spiritual state, freed from the nasty temptations of the body.

 Naturally, this kind of body-soul dualism greatly appealed to the repressed—and highly repressive—society that sprung up in the Middle Ages.  In Christian Europe the goal of life was complete freedom from the body and its temptations.   As Peter Brown points out in his groundbreaking book, The Body and Society, the medieval Church viewed the body as the root of evil and the pursuit of bodily pleasure as the cause of all sin.   Better to remove an offending organ—as the Church Father Origen did—than to allow the lures of the body to cause one to reject God and his laws.

But we’ve come a long way as a species since the rightly-called Dark Ages, haven’t we?  Apparently not.  There are still those in contemporary American society who would like nothing more than to return us to the kind of society that they naively believed existed in the “good old days” (usually defined as somewhere between 1945 and 1960).  They want all drugs—even innocuous ones like marijuana—kept illegal, women back in the kitchen where they supposedly belong, homosexuality condemned, and sex reserved solely for procreation.  Keep in mind that 40% of Americans describe themselves as social conservatives or Evangelicals, and ascribe to just these sorts of views.

But, thankfully, the pleasure haters among us are becoming a minority in American society.  Younger men and women (those under 30 in particular) don’t see any problem at all with pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.  Coincidently, this is the same group that includes the largest number of individuals who claim no religious affiliation at all.  The death of reactionary religious superstition, it would seem, goes hand in hand with a more progressive and positive attitude towards the natural needs of the body. 

So the next time you feel guilty about eating that extra piece of chocolate, engaging in a night of hot, passionate romance with a good-looking guy (or woman), or having a few drinks with your colleagues after work, just remember:  these simple pleasures are really all we have in life and we might as well enjoy them while we can.  One day, and that day may come sooner than you think, you may not be able to partake in these sorts of exquisite pleasures.   And how incredibly sad your life will be at that point.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Science of Contempt


There are basically two types of people in the world. 

First, there are the vast majority of human beings who both Plato and Nietzsche refer to as “the herd,” because they live out their lives like glorified cattle.   These sorts seek pleasure at every turn and avoid discomfort at all cost.  They dress well, look cute, live in tastefully furnished homes in the right sorts of neighborhoods, and sincerely enjoy the company of their equally shallow family and friends.  They love their gods—but not so much that their devotion gets in the way of their pleasure-seeking—and they are convinced that they are good men and women who will be deservedly  rewarded after death.

The herd listens only to the most popular music, reads only the most popular books, and assents to only the most popular ideas.  Because members of the herd are completely unreflective, they have no original ideas of their own and instead parrot whatever truths and ideals are fashionable at any given moment.  They are detestable because they are so smugly satisfied with their lives that they couldn’t imagine living any other way than they do.  And when they die, even their corpses look and smell great.

The herd is all around us.  Its members are omnipresent, like roaches, scurrying to and fro, buying, consuming, gorging themselves, fucking, shitting, and spawning future generations of fat, self-satisfied morons like themselves. 

Although most members of the species Homo sapiens belong to the herd, there is another type of human being that is far more rare.  This type goes by the name “underground man”—to use Dostoyevsky’s terminology.  Unlike the common rung of humanity, underground men (or women) are characterized by a heightened sense of self-conscious awareness.  They understand their own human motivations, and, because of this, they know that they are shits—weak selfish, vain, petty, and immoral.  But they also know that all human beings are shits.  The only difference is that underground men are AWARE of just how loathsome and despicable they are, even if they lack the will or the courage to do anything constructive about this fact.

It might not seem like much to recognize one’s own limitations, but in fact, such self-conscious awareness is precisely what separates real men from beasts.  An underground man may be just as morally corrupt as a member of the herd, but at least he KNOWS that he is corrupt.  And this knowledge offers some slim chance at redemption, even if an underground man never chooses to take advantage of it.

Whereas members of the herd are typically filled with smug self-satisfaction, underground men are always characterized by their fundamental contempt—contempt for themselves, to be sure, but even more so for members of the odious herd.  Jesus admonishes his followers to love others as they love themselves.  But underground men are filled with such self-loathing that it is impossible for them to feel anything other than pure, unadulterated disgust for all of humanity. 

I know what you’re thinking: It sounds a bit pathetic to spend ones time snidely bitching about the foibles of ones fellow human beings.  It is petty, to be sure, but underground men don’t really have much of a choice.  If they could just zone out from reality the way members of the herd do, they might be capable of some degree of compassion, or at least tolerance.  But the heightened self-consciousness that underground men possess makes it impossible to ignore the gross stupidity and immorality of their fellow human beings.

Perhaps you think that such a wholesale condemnation of humanity is too harsh—that human beings really aren’t as vulgar and shallow as an underground man believes them to be.  In fact, they are much worse.  The very attitude of smug self-satisfaction that characterizes a herd mentality is responsible for all of the evils that we experience as inhabitants of this fragile world.  The herd needs to live in complete comfort, so we have endless wars to secure the natural resources—fossil fuels in particular—needed to ensure their comfort.  The herd plunders the planet’s natural resources, spews tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and renders the planet inhospitable for future generations.  But does anyone really care about this?  Of course not!  That kind of realization would get in the way of all the fun we are supposed to be having; it would inject a note of reality into the sublime fantasy in which all members of the herd desire to live.  An attitude of unmitigated contempt is the very least that one should have for a species so unenlightened, so selfish, so cruel that it would subject its own future generations to a harsh struggle for survival in a world debased by human greed. 

Underground men are no better than their counterparts in the herd, but, as I have said, at least they recognize their own hypocrisy and weakness.  They hate themselves for it, and as a result are endlessly conflicted and tortured.  The suffering that comes from authentic self-awareness, however, at least offers the slim chance of redemption.   When despair becomes horrific enough, underground men will either be forced to take decisive action to change their condition in life or be forced to terminate their own lives.  The despair that comes from self-awareness, I’m afraid, offers no other options for those who have the fortune—or misfortune, depending upon how you look at it—to reside in the underground.

Even in death, however, the underground man is superior in every way to a member of the herd.  The total lack of self-consciousness possessed by members of the herd may seem like a blessing, but in fact it is the ultimate curse.  There is no escaping death.  And when death comes to one who has lived his life completely immersed in the pleasures of the world, you can be well assured it will be a horrific death indeed.  

If one has a choice, then, one ought to choose the underground every time over the lush grazing fields of the herd, despite the suffering that comes from dwelling in the underground.  But, if you are able to read this, you’ve probably already chosen.  And more likely than not, you’ve chosen to belong to the herd. 

I would tell you how sorry I am that you’ve made such an unenlightened choice, but you probably wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about anyway.  That, after all, is precisely what it means to belong to the herd.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Logic of Faith

by A.J. Grunthaler
In the 21st century, it seems as though the belief in a supreme being is destined to become a quaint and slightly silly artifact of a bygone age. In an age where technology and science have become so advanced, we think that we can simply do away with antiquated ideas like God and religion, because it seems as though we now have all the answers to life’s most perplexing questions—who we are, where we come from, and where we are ultimately going. But the more advanced we become as a species, the more we realize that the ultimate answers to our deepest questions are as elusive as ever.

What we’ve discovered is that it is easy to kill off God. It’s much more difficult, I’m afraid, to replace the idea of God with some other concept that can provide us with the kind of ultimate meaning and value that all human beings desire. In a world devoid of a Supreme Being, we are simply one species among the many that inhabit this planet of ours (our brains, after all, may be larger than that of a chimpanzee or baboon, but not by all that much). And without God, our lives become little more than the same kind of struggle for brute survival that we witness among all other life forms in the animal world. In such a world, to dominate others for ones own gain and to maximize ones own pleasure and wealth, even at the cost of the happiness and well-being of others, becomes the sole point of human existence. Peace, cooperation, and the pursuit of justice are merely values promoted by the weak and foolish—those who lack the fortitude, the courage, or the intelligence to triumph over their fellow human beings.

In a God-emptied world, our role models really should be those who are able to put aside antiquated notions about morality that stem from religious ideas and do what is necessary to insure their own long-term prosperity—successful gangsters, wily dictators, corrupt politicians, and dishonest businessmen. These are individuals who understand (to use the language of Dostoyevsky) that, if God is dead, then anything is permitted. In fact, if there is no God, then it makes no sense at all to be concerned with others, since our fellow human beings are nothing more than competitors for the increasingly dwindling resources that make life on planet Earth worth living. A gangster or dictator gets this fact completely; a naïve and foolish proponent of justice and morality, not at all. In the end, the gangster or dictator triumphs and the man or woman of faith ends up in the garbage bin of human history.

Gangster-logic, as I said, makes perfect sense in the God-emptied world. But I think that it’s somewhat premature of us to announce the death of God. Even in the 21st century, there are some fairly good reasons to believe that God exists. In the 14th century, the great Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas came up with five ways to prove the existence of God, and I think that these ways hold up as well today as they did in the Middle Ages. Aquinas’ “proofs” for God’s existence basically hinge on the idea that nothing comes from nothing. If there’s no first cause of existence, then there’s no reason for contingent beings like ourselves to be here at all. In a universe of infinite possibilities, the fact that self-conscious, rational beings like ourselves would come into existence purely by chance is an extremely unlikely possibility at best. We have absolutely no evidence, after all, that other intelligent forms of life exist anywhere else in the universe. So the very fact that we exist at all, as Thomas Aquinas understood, seems to indicate the existence of some Higher Being that is the first cause of our existence.

While I think that Aquinas’ arguments make a good case for the existence of a First Cause that is itself uncaused or a Prime Mover that is unmovable, I think that it takes a second leap of faith to infer that this being is the God we read about in the Old and New Testaments—one that has entered human history and cares deeply about our collective and personal destinies. After all, a Supreme Being could be the god of the Deists—one who creates the universe and everything in it and then steps out of the picture completely.
That the First Cause is also the God who loves humanity as a father loves his children—with a constant, abiding, and unassailable love—must remain a matter of faith for most human beings. But our faith in this regard can be bolstered by the long line of saints and mystics in all the great religious traditions who have been blessed with the beatific vision and who have encountered God as Pure Love and Supreme Goodness. And the bliss, joy, and happiness that these great spiritual exemplars have experienced as a result of their God-encounters should be a consolation for the rest of us who strive to achieve what those men and women have achieved, despite having to live out our lives in a world that keeps telling us that God is dead and faith is for fools.

Logic tells us that God exists; faith assures us that He loves us and has a plan for our lives. This is the reason why it makes more sense to strive be more like Mother Teresa than like Donald Trump. If the First Cause of our being is also the God who views us as his beloved children and who has a plan for our salvation, we defy Him and His plan at our own peril. Such defiance means that we have missed the whole point of our human lives. What could be more tragic than that?

And this is precisely why gangster logic is really not very logical at all. In the end, the logic of faith remains the best way to ensure happiness and peace in this life as well as in the next.
A.J. Grunthaler is a formers classics instructor and the  author of The Art of Persuasion (SophiaOmnis Press, 2012).

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

10 Days Alone with the Mind

by Michael S. Russo
I’ve been practicing various forms of Buddhist meditation now for about 7 years, but I’ve always thought that Vipassana (aka Insight or Mindfulness Meditation) made the most intellectual sense to me. About five years ago I picked up a copy of The Artof Living by William Hart, which described the Vipassana technique taught by Burmese meditation teacher S. N. Goenka.  That led me to some of Goenka’s own discourses, which I found extremely compelling.  I later discovered that Goenka founded about two hundred centers for the teaching of Vipassana all around the world, and that one of the largest of these centers in the U.S.—the Vipassana Meditation Center—was located only a few hours away in Shelburn, Massachusetts.
For three years, I’ve been trying to find the 12 days needed to do one of the retreats offered by this Center, but my work schedule always got in the way.  Then one of my colleagues, Janet, happened to tell me that she had a wonderful Buddhist retreat experience at—you guessed it—the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburn, Massachusetts.   I promised her that I would commit myself to doing a Vipassana retreat the first chance I got.
This semester I was on sabbatical, so it seemed like the ideal time to do the retreat thing, if ever I  was going to.  I certainly experienced some degree of trepidation at the thought of having to meditate continuously for 10 straight days (the hour and a half I spend at my local zendo once a week is normally more than challenging enough for me), but I signed up online for the first available course that they had, which happed to be May 1-12.
What impressed me most about the ethos of the Vipassana Centers started by Goenka is that the programs they offer are completely free.   Donations from senior students pay for the retreats of newbies like me.   Those same senior students volunteer to act as servers for those on retreat, providing meals and keeping everything running smoothly.   The goal is to allow anyone who is interested to experience intense meditative practice without having to worry at all about mundane concerns.   It is a testament to the sincerity and idealism of Goenka and his teachers that they are willing to offer the dharma for free when so many other places are charging abundantly for similar experiences.
I arrive at The Vipassana Meditation Center at about 2pm on May 1st, after a leisurely drive from New York.  The place was attractively situated amidst rolling wooded hills and was extremely well maintained.  I was shown to my room, which thankfully was a single, and I couldn’t have been happier with it.  The main house, the dining room, the dormitories and the meditation hall exuded a kind of orderly tranquility that certainly is conducive to meditative practice.    The sexes are strictly separated, so I can only speak about the men’s facilities, but I’m assuming that the female quarters are similar to those of the men. 

One thing that was evident to me immediately was that this was a place that was in serious expansion mode.  Hundreds of meditators come each month to do the ten day meditation course that I was there for.   Apparently, enough of these meditators liked what they experienced enough to provide millions of dollars to upgrade the facilities.  While I was there, the Center was building a teachers’ house, a second women’s dormitory and finishing work on their new pagoda.  Again, this growth appears to be a testament to the positive benefits that participants have experienced through the meditation technique practiced at the Center. 
Before embarking on ten days of “noble silence,” I had the opportunity to chat with some of my fellow male meditators.  I was struck by the fact that almost two-thirds of the men that were present seemed to be in their mid-twenties (the rest averaged in age from about 30-70).  The ones I chatted with seemed bright, enthusiastic, and sincere.  Some had done numerous Vipassana retreats before this one; others were coming for their first experience, inspired by the benefits reported by trusted friends and family members.   
After chatting for about an hour, we were asked to proceed to the meditation hall, where our retreat would officially begin and all conversation and contact with one another would end.  Two preliminary requirements had to be gotten out of the way, before the course could begin.  First, we all had to agree to stay for the full ten day period of the course and to strictly abide by the code of discipline (sila) that is at the heart of all Buddhist practice.  This included:

1.       abstaining from killing any being
2.       abstaining from stealing
3.       abstaining from all sexual activity
4.       abstaining from telling lies
5.       abstaining from all intoxicants

These rules actually make considerable sense if one considers that the goal of a Vipassana retreat like this one is to purify the mind, and one’s mind can hardly be purified if one is going around stealing or lying.  In fact, it’s fairly easy to keep all these rules while on the retreat,  though admittedly some would be rather hard to put into strict practice in one’s normal life.
Participants also have to agree to follow the Vipassana method taught by Goenka and refrain from any other form of worship or spiritual practice during the ten days of the course.   Finally, each individual also has to agree to abide by the fairly strict schedule set up by the Center, which includes about 9 hours of group and individual meditation per day:

4:00 am                        Morning wake-up bell 
4:30-6:30 am              Meditate in the hall or in your room 
6:30-8:00 am              Breakfast break 
8:00-9:00 am              Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am            Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions 
11:00-12:00 noon      Lunch break 
12noon-1:00 pm        Rest and interviews with the teacher 
1:00-2:30 pm              Meditate in the hall or in your room 
2:30-3:30 pm              Group meditation in the hall 
3:30-5:00 pm              Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm              Tea break 
6:00-7:00 pm              Group meditation in the hall 
7:00-8:15 pm              Teacher's Discourse in the hall 
8:15-9:00 pm              Group meditation in the hall 
9:00-9:30 pm              Question time in the hall 
        9:30 pm               Retire to your own room; Lights out 

Each person attending the course probably would find some difficulties with different aspects of the schedule. Certainly, the amount of continuous meditation required would discourage all but the most determined individuals from even attempting the course. Waking up at 4am is also no great pleasure. One also has to contend with the having no real meal after 12:00 noon (new students get a tea break at 5pm, where they can eat some fruit, but senior students can only have water after their noon lunch). I personally didn’t find abstaining from real meals at night too difficult, but I know that for some of my fellow meditators this sort of abstinence may have been a bit challenging.

The meditation schedule itself varied very little during the course of the ten days. At exactly 4am the gongs chimed to wake us up and we were expected to be meditating by 4:30 sharp either in the meditation hall or in our rooms. There were three formal group sittings each day that lasted about an hour. Each sitting began and ended with an audio chant from Goenka and instructions on how to proceed. Hearing Goenka’s voice for the first time reminded me a bit of Bella Lugosi and I had to refrain from chuckling at the thought of that. I personally found all the chanting and the repetitious instruction a bit tedious at times, but I know that many of my fellow meditators got much more out of these than I did.

 At the end of the evening, we were able to relax (a bit anyway), while watching a video of Goenka’s daily dharma talk. Unlike the audio instructions, these dharma talks are actually very inspiring and I could understand why so many people feel that no one else could teach the method of Vipassanaa quite like Goenka. Although he looked a bit like an older Jonathan Winters, Goenka’s teaching method is actually quite good. At the end of each talk, I felt I understood exactly why I was doing what I was doing each day and how it fit in with the teaching of the Buddha.

For the first four days, meditation practice basically focused on what Buddhists call samadhi—attempting to achieve some degree of mental concentration. For the first three days all we did was focus on the experience of air flowing in and out of the nostrils (or “no-strils,” in Goenka’s audio instructions). On the fourth day, there was a liberation of sorts, when we actually started the practice of Vipassana per se by moving from the rings of the nostrils to the area between the nostrils and the upper lip. The idea was to focus on a very small area of the body and try to detect as much sensation as possible in that area.

 By day two I thought I would go out of my mind from all the meditation I was doing and the thought that I still had eight days to go. My knees were also killing me from sitting on a cushion in the half-lotus position for far longer than my body was used to. I was determined, however, to tough it out, no matter how crazy the monkey mind got or no matter how severe the pain in my knees was. But by day four, I knew that there was no possible way that I was going to be able to remain absolutely still and not shift my position on the cushion at all during the formal meditation sessions. This would be required beginning on day five. So I asked the assistant teacher if I could move to a chair, and he agreed.

The practice of Vipassana itself was actually quite interesting. Beginning on day five we began to scan our bodies “from head to toe; from toe to head.” The idea was to become aware of sensation in every part of the body. At first I was a bit dubious about this practice, because I could only feel sensation in about half of my body parts. But by day seven I was feeling sensation in every part of my body (although my ears, surprisingly, were trouble throughout the ten days of the course).  
It might seem somewhat ridiculous to spend so much time searching for sensations in the body, but this is the heart of the practice of Vipassana or mindfulness practice. As one becomes aware of sensation, one also becomes aware of the most important insights attained by the Buddha:
  • Dukka (suffering): that attachment to pleasant sensations in the body or aversion to unpleasant sensations is the cause of all of our misery in life. If we can just treat all these sensations with equanimity, liberation from suffering occurs naturally.
  • Anicca (impermanence): sensations arise and fall away. There is nothing permanent about any sensation, so there’s no use clinging to them as “mine” or “belonging to me”. This leads one to understand the basic impermanence of everything in reality, including oneself. 
  • Annata (no self): there is no permanently enduring, independent self. This realization is the highest wisdom a Buddhist can achieve and is the key to ultimate liberation.
I have to confess that there were times I thought that I would go crazy with all the meditation we had to do. As Goenka predicted in his video dharma talks, days two and six were particularly difficult for me. By the end of day two, and after 18 hours of meditation on the breath, it began to dawn on me that I still had eight full days to go (believe me, that realization was not a happy prospect for me, especially given the pain that I was experiencing in my knees each time I sat on the cushion to meditate). But there were also moments of peacefulness and serenity that I’ve never experienced before in my life that enabled me to deal with the arduousness of the experience. 
On days 9 and 10, while I was sitting in my 3 x 4 foot meditation cell in the new pagoda, I even experienced jhana states that I couldn’t even imagine while doing my less intensive zen practice. My normal practice is one of dealing with the aversion that the meditation produces in me; the idea that meditation could also produce extremely pleasurable states was certainly not part of my own reality as a meditator. Of course, once I experienced the total absorptive quality of these states, it was almost impossible for me to treat then with the equanimity that was expected. But that, I suppose, was a good lesson for me too.
Although I was relieved on day 10 when “noble silence” ended and I could converse during certain periods with my fellow meditators, there was definitely a part of me that misses the focused atmosphere that continuous silence produces. Some of the younger guys—the meditation hot shots, who unlike me, had absolutely no trouble sitting on a cushion for hour upon hour without moving—couldn’t wait to talk with one another about their experiences on the retreat . Surprisingly, I think that I would have been perfectly content to have continued the silent atmosphere that pervaded the Center for the previous nine days. It was certainly interesting, however, to hear the personal stories of my fellow meditators, all of whom struck me as even more sincere and intelligent than I had initially thought. That there were so many young people who were willing to put aside their normal lives to practice intensive meditation for so long a period also gave me hope for the future of our species. 
As for what I got out of my own Vipassana experience, that’s difficult to say at this point. I certainly think that the retreat pushed my own meditative practice into a more focused and serious direction than had been the case before. Several people told me that I seemed much calmer after the retreat. If that was indeed the case, it was a transient effect and didn’t last all that long.  
In the end, however, I was just happy to know that I could make it through an experience like this without going completely insane. Being totally alone with one’s mind is an experience that most 21st century people try to avoid at all costs. I may not have made friends with my own” monkey mind”, but, after 10 days alone with the old fellow, it was certainly nice to know that the two of us can get along well together under the right circumstances. And that insight alone made ten days of pain and suffering well worth it for me.

Dr. Michael S. Russo is a Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Molloy College in New York, the manager of The Sophia Project, an online repository of educational resources in Philosophy, and the author of That's Right: An Introduction to Ethical Theory.  He can be reached at