Morbid streaks

Two fascinating documentaries on how we respond to mortality.

To Tibetan Buddhists, sky burials are sacred. To tourists, they’re a morbid curiosity
Filmed in 2011, the US director Russell O Bush’s short documentary Vultures of Tibet offers a small window on to cultural tensions on the Tibetan Plateau. Set in the historically Buddhist town of Taktsang Lhamo, home to two monasteries, the film is centred on the practice of sky burials, in which the bodies of the Tibetan dead are fed to wild griffon vultures. For the town’s Tibetan Buddhist population, it is a sacred means of helping the dead’s spirit transition to the next life – a final earthly offering to creatures believed to have the wisdom of deities. However, for much of the rest of the world, the tradition is a morbid curiosity, and increasingly attracts unwelcome tourists, whose pictures end up in all corners of the internet.

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“If a group of Tibetans were to surround a Chinese funeral and watch, laugh, and take pictures, it wouldn’t be tolerated.”

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From the mountains of Tibet, to the miniatures of the US.

Dieorama
Abigail Goldman spends her work days as an investigator for a public defender’s office in Washington state, helping people who are seriously in trouble—which can mean hours of staring at grisly pictures of crime scenes, visiting morgues, even observing autopsies. By night, she dreams up gruesome events, which she then turns into tiny, precise dioramas. Rife with scenes of imminent death and brutal dismemberment, the fruits of Goldman’s painstaking labor would be adorable … if they weren’t so disturbing.

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In praise of pessimism #2

Here’s a nice companion piece to that post earlier about accessing mindfulness therapies via chatbot apps. It includes a reminder of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Want to be happy? Embrace being miserable
The path offers guidance on the elements of a principled existence, based on a cultivated perspective. But not necessarily a happy one.

Still, liberating yourself from the expectation of happiness lightens your load. It makes life a little easier when you are realistic but resolved, rather than deluded, desirous, and determined to have the impossible. By calculating discomfort and struggle into the mix, you can remain cautiously optimistic, knowing there’s surely trouble ahead, but that you will face it with grace.

As we saw earlier, there are a number of apps that can help us build up a solid sense of perspective. Here’s some more about Woebot.

This robot wants to help you control your emotions
A bot cannot really talk to you, of course, but it can call your attention to the way you converse with yourself, and perhaps in time shift your own relationship with angst. That’s the notion behind the Woebot, an app created by Stanford research psychologist Alison Darcy that aims to make emotional mindfulness available to the masses.

[…]

Next, it provided a brief lesson on the power of language in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This mode of treatment for anxiety and depression, CBT, calls attention to thinking patterns and teaches patients to recognize and address their negative tendencies and limiting beliefs with exercises.

It tries to literally change your mind by providing perspective and cultivating attention until you have replaced bad habits with better ones.

I loved the way that the closing paragraph from that first Quartz article above was both simultaneously downbeat and uplifting.

Know that you’ll fail, you will fall, you’ll feel pain, and be sad. You will be rejected. You will get sick. Your expectations will not be met, because reality is always more strange and complicated than imagination, which also mean something more interesting than you know could yet be on the horizon. Know, too, that even so, dull moments will abound. Yet it can always get worse, which is why it’s worth remembering that every day, at least some things have to be going okay, or else you’d already be dead.

And let’s not forget Will Self’s take on all this.

Looking East for answers

I don’t think we modern Westerners appreciate how easy it is for us to dip into Eastern philosophy. It’s all just a mouse-click away (and maybe feels a little superficial because of that?). It wasn’t always like that, of course.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis — David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment
But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

And here the detective story begins. It’s a great read, and crazy to think that in the early 1700s, when Hume was building up his body of work, the number of Europeans who had studied Buddhism could literally be counted on one hand.

Now, of course, Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques are big business, with apps like Headspace and Insight Timer on millions of phones. But are they really getting us any further forward?

Meditation in the time of disruption
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.

Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.

The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.

They’re not the only ones wanting a quick fix. Katie Bloom from the Outline enrols on a 10-week introductory ‘happiness’ course from the School of Practical Philosophy.

Enlightenment can be yours for just $10
The fine print reads: “Jobs come and go. Physical beauty fades, markets rise and fall. Even close relationships can end. But the benefits of philosophy last a lifetime.” These benefits — HAPPINESS included — can be gained, according to the ad, by attending the 10-week introductory course at a place called the School of Practical Philosophy.

The clichéd, Hallmark-y, feelgood pop-philosophy isn’t to everyone’s tastes, though.

The classes had more in common with my Catholic K-12 education than with the philosophy courses I took in college. It’s difficult to characterize what we learned, because none of it really cohered. Each week had a theme (“The Light of Reason,” “Beauty,” etc.), and consisted of cherry-picked ideas from eastern and western philosophies and religions, devoid of context and presented as fact. We had souls, we were told; the proof was that our bodies and thoughts and feelings changed, but something inside of us remained constant. There was beauty in everything, we learned one week, a banal-seeming claim that set off an agonizing half-hour argument about whether there was beauty in the Holocaust.

But maybe getting to the bottom of Truth and being one with the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence isn’t what it’s all about, as Katie muses at the end of the course.

Here’s what else I learned. Two Watches looked forward to class all week. His divorce had been awful, his kids lived with their mom, and he was lonely. (“Even close relationships can end,” goes one of the SPP’s subway ads.) He worked in maintenance at Yankee Stadium. He hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t belong to a church — his life was not teeming with opportunities to talk about the nature of wisdom. The lessons were fun, but the real appeal was community.

The students who stuck around until the final week reminded me of the many lonely people I had met while working in the service industry, people who often tried to turn a short, professional interaction into something lengthy and intimate. It was possible my classmates were not compelled by the notion that “three distinct energies governed the universe.” Maybe they just liked sitting in a room of people who would listen to them. The week before, an elderly widow had confessed in halting speech that it was hard to be kind to her husband towards the end of his life, because his illness changed his personality, made him mean. I watched as the woman sitting next to her, a stranger, squeezed her hand.

Rather than looking for answers, perhaps we’re just looking for people to ask the questions with.

Buddhify

Buddhify – mobile mindfulness meditation app for iPhone and iPad
Despite being a very modern approach to mindfulness in terms of presentation and delivery, buddhify is not superficial or frivolous. It is based on years of meditation experience, and a deep understanding of how mindfulness can be best expressed in the 21st century.”

Something to try, as I really need to crack on with my practice, but I’m a little sceptical of shortcut lines like it “teaches you mindfulness while you are doing the everyday activities of your normal day.” But then again I guess that’s the idea, to be mindful all the time, not just when you’re sitting. Interesting.