Monday, August 23, 2010

The Facts of Life, part 1


Humans, known taxonomically as Homo sapiens (Latin: "wise man" or "knowing man"), are the only extant species in the Homo genus of bipedal primates in Hominidae, the great ape family.

The human brain is the center of the human nervous system and is a highly complex organ. Enclosed in the cranium, it has the same general structure as the brains of other mammals, but is over three times as large as the brain of a typical mammal with an equivalent body size. Most of the expansion comes from the cerebral cortex, a convoluted layer of neural tissue that covers the surface of the forebrain. Especially expanded are the frontal lobes, which are associated with executive functions such as self-control, planning, reasoning, and abstract thought. The portion of the brain devoted to vision is also greatly enlarged in human beings.

Humans are physiologically at a disadvantage compared to many other species, but use their brains (as a leverage), and the resultant technology, in order to win the war of resources over other species and over other groups of humans. (Inter-specific and Intra-specific competition)

This war for resources is the fundamental war. All other wars and conflicts result from this underlying state of competition. "Resource" can be defined as something which enhances the possibilities of one's genetic survival.


This war for resources has continued since the advent of history. There was no golden period when there was no threat to one's genetic survival.

This war takes various forms: an actual war involving killing, as well as politics, society, law, career, industry, etc.

To be engaged in a war for resources with other species or other humans is a situation of stress. Let up, and you lose. Fight, and you have a chance of winning.

Since mind is the foremost tool of humans, "psychological stress" is the most common side-effect of engaging in this fight. "Psychological stress" can also be called "Suffering". This "suffering" can result from either the very engagement in battle (fear, anxiety, insecurity, etc.), or from having lost (sorrow, discontentment, ego-hurt).


Living in the civilized world leads to a different kind of stress than that of the uncivilized world. While in the uncivilized world, there is threat of physical injury, in the civilized world, there is the apprehension of being a "nobody".

This new problem, the problem of the "self" instead of that of the body, has been created over centuries of creating structures where symbols have become increasingly more central to our life. As one's strength in the competitive arena has become more and more symbolic (status symbols, property rights, bank figures, fashion), achieving success has also become a pursuit of symbols, which in many cases is a misguided pursuit (genetically speaking). For example, getting into debt to buy fashionable clothes or a larger television.

The socioeconomic forces have emphasized symbolic success so much that it has become second-nature for humans to want it, to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is after all a success which is recognized by one's civilized peers, but which may be meaningless in a jungle or in a tribal region.

Instead of genetic survival, something else seems to be driving the most daring of the civilized humans these days. People are racing cars, injecting drugs, jumping from cliffs tied to a bungee, having umpteen affairs with a sheath between their bodies, creating art films, etc.

As soon as technology solves the most pressing problems of biological survival in a population, psychological problems seem to enter the picture.

While it is easy to say that these are "higher" needs (cf Maslow), or "surrogate" needs which fulfill the need for a "power process" in man (cf the Unabomber Manifesto), or an indulgence in memetic reproduction (cf Dawkins), or the result of boredom, the fact is that many civilized humans are in a state of crisis, perverting the pursuit of their own biological/genetic success with dangerous activities. Dangerous to themselves, to their genetic future, to the environment, etc.

Why? And is it possible to reverse this?


There are various "paths" for those who are unwilling to fight it out for status and symbols in the civilized world. Their unwillingness may be due to a genuine seeing of the hollow nature of the symbols and of the perversity of the fight, or due to introversion or due to psychological weakness.

In many cases, they can, for having a purpose in life, completely turn to "inward" goals (which are also surrogate goals which do zilch for one's biological/genetic survival) and which are therefore perverse in their own way.

In most cases, however, inner goals are mechanisms for coping with the stress and frustration in the outer world.

Most people in the civilized world strike a path of compromise: having a few symbols to win the respect of one's peers, living a personal life of genetic/biological propagation (the householder life), having a secondary inward goal (praying everyday, taking a pilgrimage once in a while) so that outer frustrations do not overwhelm oneself, ...

What is a man, who considers this fight as perverse and futile, and considers the very notion of a "compromise" degrading, to do? Living in a village does injustice to his developed brain (where most problems are simply solved with a little bit of technology, and art films are probably not appreciated), and he abhors living in the city because he considers the pursuit of status symbols as absurd. If you live in a city and do not value status symbols, you will inevitably get very severely isolated. The city is a city of symbols.

For the developed brain which has managed to de-condition itself from the influences of culture, the world is a place of empty living, not of fulfilling engagement.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Few Quotations

(Culled from

It will be generally found that those who sneer habitually at human nature and affect to despise it are among its worst and least pleasant examples. (Charles Dickens, "Nicholas Nickleby")

The price of hating other humans is loving oneself less. (Eldridge Cleaver)

It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others. (John Andrew Holmes)

Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. (Susan Ertz)

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. (Stephen Weinberg)

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together. (Isaac Asimov)

[Kepler] preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions, and that is the heart of science. (Carl Sagan, "Cosmos")

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it. (George Bernard Shaw)

Remember, beneath every cynic there lies a romantic, and probably an injured one. (Glenn Beck)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Utility of Identity, part 2

Ego, as I understand it, is the emotionally invested persona that one feels and expresses in one's interpersonal relationships. Arrogance, humility, pride, self-esteem, insults, affirmation, rejection, etc. pertain to this phenomenon of our psychological world.

Before condemning something, it is generally worthwhile to consider the reasons for its existence. Ego has been condemned most vociferously by spirituality and religion, and to abnegate one's ego, to surrender it to a higher power has been considered a noble virtue.

If a child manages to jump across a manhole, if a man wins an award for a scientific breakthrough, if a professor knows that he understands a particular subject very deeply, they may feel proud and their "chest may swell".

On the other hand, if one is called a fool in public, if one discovers that one's wife is cheating on oneself, if a professor's paper is rejected by a journal, they may feel insulted, let down, and may feel depressed.

It must already be clear to astute readers that, in the evolutionary sense, ego and the feelings related to it are cues for us to gain status and respect of our peers.

Ego is only meaningful in a relationship with other human beings. Imagine a child growing up on a secluded island. It intuitively sounds correct that he will not have stored insults and would not have self-esteem issues.

The formation of the ego is also not very difficult to understand. As soon as one starts interacting with humans other than one's nourishing and caring mother, a challenge-response feedback loop is set up. One may justify a sole claim on one's mother (unfortunately one's father competes for that resource as well), but other resources in life are claimed by numerous competitors.

To thwart the competitors by physical force is one way, to deter them with social force (with the threat of physical force if they don't get the hint) is another.

Ego is the weapon of interpersonal intimidation which provides me with the power to psycho-socially subjugate others.

This weapon can be "rightly" gained in various ways. Through inheritance and association, through achievement, through hard work, through intellectual and artistic recognition, through wealth, through having an asset which is the envy of others, and so on and so forth.

Ego is the psychological marker of my worth and status in my peer group. I feel it, and others feel it.

And needless to say perhaps, a diminishing of one's ego is, simultaneously:

(a) Painful to oneself,
(b) Painful to those who are positively associated with oneself,
(c) Pleasant to those who stand to gain by my demotion,
(d) A trigger for the desire to regain the earlier state (e.g. by revenge)

Now, why do religions and spirituality condemn this phenomenon?

First of all, being egoistic makes one less inclined to defer to others' wishes, so it is a control tactic by the priestly classes, ruling cliques and the various gurus, etc.

Secondly, it can be counterproductive to be too egoistic in a group where one's interests align with others (e.g. in a family or clan). Hence, within certain limits, it may pay to "swallow one's pride" and therefore it may be considered a virtue in those contexts.

Thirdly, it is obviously painful to suffer an ego wound, and spirituality is a balm for those who, once humiliated and suffering from inferiority, have no urge to fight in the social arena and get back their ego status. It is an "inward" solution for those for whom the "outer" solutions are too stressful.

A true spiritualist will therefore not feel passionately inclined to do something which gains him status amongst his human peers. He will not be interested in inventing a new drug, or in winning an award, in building a great bridge or building, in proving a new theorem, etc.

A spiritual seeker may say that he doesn't value "status", but it may very well be that he cannot handle the battle-heat for winning it from his peers. And of course, spiritual leaders must necessarily be supremely egoistic (they are leaders more than they are spiritual). Buddha engaged in tough arguments with Brahmins for intellectual status (he didn't hope to enlighten them, now, did he?). Osho was immensely touchy to any hint of criticism. Krishnamurti's aristocratic air and intimidatory dialectic in conversations is well-known.


And of course, the battle for ego-status (to get it, to regain it, to hurt the other who hurt me) is going to continue as long as humans have a power structure where greater power leads to one being a more valuable member of society and leads to better resources for oneself and one's associates.

Ego and status can be ill-gotten and can be enforced via fear and the threat of physical force (common amongst third-world politicians), it can be ill-gotten by faking one's accomplishments (common amongst university professors), it can be ill-gotten by cunning and deceit (common on Wall Street), but in each of these, it requires ingenuity. One may say that skill in exploiting the loopholes of a social system is eligibility enough for one to gain dominion over others. As the world becomes more democratic, these loopholes are sought be closed by the lowly masses against their oppressive masters. The battle continues.

Now, to give up one's ego is a refusal to participate in the social battle. It is, and there is no other way to say it, an escape. Such people (i.e. the enlightened) will always be a rare minority precisely because it is not an evolutionary-stable-strategy. If a man engages with the rest of society in a truly egoless way, he won't get the prettiest lady or the biggest house, to put it mildly.

In short, such human beings have no genetic future and are therefore should be considered aberrations and not the "perfect humans" which average mortals must seek to emulate. The rest of humanity is engaged in a do-or-die struggle, full with ego, and insults, and hurts, and battles, and such enlightened people are best to just bow to for their blessings for victory in one's personal battle.

If you are hopelessly incapable of fighting it out, egolessness is a viable option. However, interestingly, the arena of egolessness (spirituality) is again full of status anxiety and competition these days.

Hence, true seekers work it out in solitude. To be part of a religious group is not to seek egolessness, but to seek status in a different game.

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Checklist for Narcissism

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself?

Do you spend a lot of time worrying how others perceive you?

Do you wish not to be judged for your actions and thoughts?

Do you look down upon humanity and consider yourself much better than average, even though others think of you as no better, or even worse?

Do you regard others as fully responsible for the hurt or pain they feel in their interactions with you?

Do you have a significantly tangible secret persona whose deeds and thoughts you will never tell anybody?

Do you feel that though in some "socially conditioned", "biological", "tangible" ways you are inferior to others, your inner glory compensates for it all?

Epidemic, contd.

From Berardinelli's review of Eat, Pray, Love:
In many ways, the central philosophy of Eat Pray Love (the movie), which may or may not be governed by the guiding principles spelled out in Elizabeth Gilbert's book, fits well with today's "me-first" attitude. The story focuses on self-gratification, self-fulfillment, and self-discovery. It's all about "self," even though there are times when a little self-abnegation is needed to get to the finish line.
The cues for narcissism are all around us and becoming more insistent.

For just two examples: BeYounique, I am what I am.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Offering

Page 2 of

To be human, a limited, interconnected being, at one's highest, is to offer something to this ephemeral world, knowing that death awaits. And to offer it gratefully, as if the opportunity of creating something wonderful is something which only a few receive.

The furthest reaches of our potential lie not in abhorring our limitations and living in a void away from suffering, but in creating happiness, joy and fulfillment.

Not in pessimism and negation ("I am not", "I will not", "I must not"), but in affirmation and creation ("I am", "I will", "I must").