Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The anything-goes culture, philosophy, chess, and yoga

It is the end of the semester here at the university that I teach at. For a professor like me, it is that time of the semester when one gets to grade lots of exams in a very short time, post the exam grades online, and then (at least in my case) get a few unhappy/angry emails from students who think that they deserve a better grade on the exam. Why do they think they deserve a better grade? Well, here are a couple of fairly typical reasons that these students offer: "I have answered all the questions on the exam, so I deserve to take A" [note: the grammatical error here was in the student's original email, so I have preserved it here in its entirety for maximum dramatic effect], "I have been getting As or A-minuses for the earlier papers in the course, and I need a better grade on this exam in order to get an A in the course, so I deserve a good grade for this exam." 

If you are not a millenial or younger (actually, even if you are...), you should have no problem hearing the tone of entitlement that practically saturates these "reasons." Apparently, there exists a universe in which one is entitled to a good grade in an exam just by virtue of having answered all the questions in it, no matter how irrelevant to the question or--let's be honest here--bad those responses are. Of course, it probably doesn't help my case that philosophy has a reputation among some undergrads (and probably many members of the public as well) for being an anything-goes discipline. As one of my former students recently put it to me, "If philosophy is just about your opinion, how can there be a wrong answer? If there is no wrong answer, how can one possibly get anything less than an A in a philosophy course?"

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a wrong answer in a philosophy exam (I'm going to set aside the question of whether there are wrong answers in philosophy as it is done outside of academic exams; that is too much to go into here). Simply put, the wrong answer is whatever answer it is that fails to provide the information that the question is asking for. For instance, if the question asks you to explain Sartre's view of the Other, and how the appearance of the Other affects your freedom, and you go off on some big rant about how you and the Other are One, and how this Oneness shows that everything in the universe is connected, then your rant, no matter how beautifully written a rant it is, simply fails to answer the question, and you will get a D on that response. (It's a D and not a F, because I simply don't have the heart to outright fail somebody who has taken the time and effort to write a long response).

Perhaps this is not obvious to many people, but in the serious academic study of philosophy, there are right and wrong answers, just as there are right and wrong answers in the serious academic study of mathematics (or in the serious academic study of anything else, for that matter). Perhaps this point is not obvious to many people because unlike the concise signs and formulas and equations that make up the language of mathematics, the language of philosophy is simply ordinary English (or whatever other human language it is that one chooses to study philosophy in). As such, perhaps people get the impression that philosophy is just words on a page, and since anybody can write words on a page, anybody can do philosophy well. Therefore, anybody can get an A on a philosophy exam just by putting words on a page. (Does this argument follow? I don't know, you figure this out for yourself :-)).

In any case, I believe that it is because of everything I have said above that philosophy gets a reputation (a bad one, on my opinion) for being an anything-goes discipline. And somebody like me who argues otherwise tends to be dismissed as an elitist, undemocratic, crusty ivory-tower academic.

But I beg to differ. I think that philosophy done properly (as in, philosophy that has right and wrong answers) is more profoundly democratic than any kind of anything-goes version of it ever could be. For instance, if one does not get Sartre right, and instead thinks that anything one says about Sartre goes just because one says it, wouldn't that run the risk of committing the injustice of misrepresenting Sartre's thoughts and ideas? And what good is democracy without justice? More broadly, what I am trying to say is that in an anything-goes culture, nothing significant or important will ever get said, because in such a culture, people will progressively lose the ability to discriminate and understand what is important and what isn't. You can call such a culture "democratic" if you like, but again, what good is this kind of democracy if it does nothing to help people to discriminate and understand what is right or wrong or what is important or not? What good is a democracy in which one is allowed to say whatever one likes, but in which one no longer has the tools with which to understand what is worth saying and what isn't? In such a "democracy", it is only a matter of time before we get to the point where the only people who are listened to are those with the loudest voices or those with the most resources/money. Unfortunately, these two groups of people tend to be the same individuals (ever heard of Donald Trump?). Such a "democracy", in other words, quickly degenerates into an authoritarian society in which individuals are judged not by the worth of their ideas, but by how loudly and flashily they present themselves and appeal to others.

The paradox, as you can see, is that an anything-goes culture which tries so hard to be democratic quickly gets to a place where it becomes very, very undemocratic. Perhaps we are already there (again, Donald Trump...). I don't have any solutions to this paradox. I am only a blogger/novice philosopher, not a pundit. But there is some reason to hope. Two of the things in my life right now--yoga and chess--are the very antithesis of this anything-goes spirit. If you claim to be good at chess, for instance, and you aren't, your lack of ability in chess will quickly be exposed. There is no such thing as anything-goes in chess; the only thing that "goes" is whatever strategy or combination of tactics it is that enables you to win. Similarly (and perhaps less obviously) in yoga, whatever goes is whatever combination of yoga practices and lifestyle that allows you to live a more fulfilled and productive life in your community. If it doesn't help you to do that, either you are doing it wrong or whatever it is that you doing is wrong in the first place. And actually, this applies even to something as mundane as asana. Despite all the bad press about "asana-fixation" that have been published in the yoga blogosphere in the last ten years, the fact still remains that there are productive (and therefore "correct") ways to do an asana, and less productive and even damaging (and therefore "incorrect") ways to do the same asana. Forcing your knees into padmasana when your hips aren't yet open enough is an example of the latter.

So, at the risk of sounding very immodest, perhaps there is a solution to this paradox of the anything-goes culture, after all. The solution lies in this question: What do yoga, chess, and philosophy done properly have in common? Answer: An attitude of humility, informed by the awareness that the only thing that goes is whatever works to address the problem at hand. Anything else simply won't cut it.             

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Might chess have something profound to teach us about life?

I made the above video yesterday on a spur of the moment after a chess game with a friend. Is chess some kind of mental aikido? Or is it simply a very complex but ultimately useless intellectual pastime? Or both (i.e. might the most profound things in the universe be things that are ultimately useless)?

Who knows?

As you can probably tell, this video and this post have absolutely nothing to do with yoga... unless one takes into account the fact that chess is commonly believed to have originated in India, where it was originally called Chaturanga.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ashtanga, being beautiful in an 80s kind of way, yamas and niyamas

Earlier today, I had just finished teaching my morning class at the University. Walking down the hallway toward my office, I overheard one student telling another student that her sister has a flat butt, and that somehow made her beautiful "in an 80s kind of way." I, of course, have no idea what it means to be beautiful in an 80s kind of way, although I think having big hair might come into the picture at some point.

I also just read Erica's latest post at Ecstatic Adventures of the Exuberant Bodhisattva. In it, she talks about how her pen pal is worried that practicing Ashtanga will make her butt disappear. I now have this mental image of a person with a missing butt wandering the streets of some major Canadian city. (Headline in a major Canadian daily:" Ashtanga did this to me...").

But anyway, put what I said in the last two paragraphs together, and what do you get?... Ashtanga makes you beautiful in an 80s kind of way! Now, do I have a flat butt? Is it disappearing? I'll go look at the mirror after this...


Speaking of Erica, I skyped with her on Monday night. It was very pleasant. From her, I learned a lot about her wonderful time in Mysore, and about Sharath's charismatic presence. She updated me about a lot of the gossip that is going on in the Ashtanga Facebook-Twitter-sphere. A lot of this news is really new to me, as I don't have either a Facebook or Twitter account. No particular reason for this; I just never felt motivated enough about being a part of either social media community to make myself sign up for an account.

Anyway, the gossip was interesting, and it showed me that we Ashtangis like to gossip just as much as anybody else on the planet. In fact, we can probably hold our own against the most vociferous marketplace/workplace-water-fountain gossipers. Nothing wrong with that. I think gossip is like the verbal equivalent of junk food; indulge, but don't indulge too much, and certainly don't consume only that to the exclusion of all other sources of intellectual nutrition.

But since this is (still officially) a yoga blog, I also need to play the being-a-PC-yogi card, and pose the eternal question: Does gossip violate any of the yamas or niyamas?... Argh, how the hell would I know? Am I a yogic sage? And speaking of which, what is so bad about violating some of the yamas and niyamas at least some of the time anyway? Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was really into bullfighting and drinking a lot. I don't know about drinking a lot, but bullfighting certainly violates ahimsa. Now imagine if Hemingway were to take up yoga during his lifetime and then decided to give up watching or writing about bullfighting because he wanted to be a good yogi and observe ahimsa... wouldn't that be a loss to the world? Can you imagine The Sun Also Rises minus all the bullfighting and bullfighters?

So what am I trying to say? Maybe the yamas and niyamas are a bit overrated? Ha! That's probably why I've kinda stopped blogging seriously about yoga for such a long time... maybe, in some corner of my mind, I've always had this suspicion that as wonderful as yoga may be in many ways (which is why I am still practicing), there's really such a thing as too much of a good thing, even with yoga. Maybe a universe with some ahimsa violations in it is a better place than one in which everybody is a perfect ahimsa-observer?...

What do I know? :-)   

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Has anybody out there seen Sense8?

If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm referring to the new Netflix original scifi series that premiered on June 5th, written and executive-produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski (yes, the people who brought us the Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski. In a nutshell, the story is about eight previously unconnected people from different parts of the world who suddenly find themselves connected to one another telepathically, becoming capable of sharing one anothers' thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious quasi-governmental organization that is trying to hunt them down, for some reason that is not made clear in the series.  

I have been somewhat binge-watching this series over the last few days (by "binge-watching", I mean an average of two episodes a day, which, I'm sure, is a very conservative rate of media-consumption by the standards of most binge-watchers....), and have watched 10 of the 12 episodes in Season One thus far. I've been really enjoying it. I think it does a really good job of using the theme of telepathy to explore empathy among individual human beings--in particular, individuals who are LGBTQ--in a way that does not exploit or make light of these individuals' lives or experiences. I really think the Wachowskis and Straczynski are breaking new narrative ground here; with Sense8, they are doing for millennial politically-aware-character-driven drama what the Matrix did for sci-fi action movies.

The main characters in Sense8
[Image taken from io9.com]

As is hopefully very clear from the above, I am a great fan of this series. I hope there will be a Season Two, and I can't wait for it to come out. But there's one thing that kind of disturbs me about the series. There are three non-Caucasian characters (played by Tina Desai, Aml Ameen, and Bae Doona). While I think that the story arcs of these three characters are really compelling, engaging and real, I also notice that they all have one thing in common: They don't seem to have much of a sex life. I mean, yes, it is true that two of these characters (Desai's young Hindu woman character, and Bae's character, a Korean woman brought up in a patriarchal family) hail from very traditional Asian households. But coming from a traditional upbringing shouldn't deprive one of a sex drive, should it?

 [Warning: Spoiler alert coming! Read no further if you do not want to be spoiled!]

This sexuality disconnect between the Caucasian and non-Caucasian characters becomes very glaring at the end of episode six, when five of the eight main characters (namely, the Caucasian ones) engage in a psychic orgy. What is a psychic orgy? Well, you know, having sex with somebody via telepathy, without having to actually be in the other's physical presence... how is this possible? The hell would I know, I'm not a psychic! But I digress. My point is, why aren't the non-Caucasians in that orgy? And this isn't just a sexual issue: If this orgy is not just a melding of bodies, but of minds and consciousnesses, could the absence of the non-Caucasians in this scene be interpreted as a sort of political statement about non-Caucasian consciousnesses?

What do you think? Any thoughts on this?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hell is... Hawaii?

"Hell is other people."

Jean-Paul Sartre

In my Introduction to Philosophy class this morning, I discussed the Problem of Evil with my class. Over the centuries, it has been formulated in various ways by various people, but the gist of it is simply this: If God exists and He is all-powerful and morally perfect, how could He allow evil to exist in this world?

Before I could get very far into the discussion, a middle-eastern student jumped in and proclaimed, "Evil has to exist, because God created this life as a test for us to see if we will do evil and go to hell, or if we will do good and go to heaven!" Well, here's a little bit of background information: There are many students from the middle east who are taking my class presently; in fact, they form the majority of the students in the class. They are devout Muslims (or at least appear to be), and I think some of them take pity on the fact that I, an atheist (they don't really see Buddhism as a religion, since Buddhists are Godless people), am doomed to burn in the fires of hell, and so they see it as their God-given mission to speak to me about God whenever possible, and hopefully save me from eternal hell-fire.

Anyway, back to the student. I replied with one of the standard responses to this line of thinking: "But if God is really all-powerful, you would think that He would create us to be better people, so that we would all pass the test with flying colors and go to heaven, wouldn't He?" But that didn't get me anywhere. He insisted that a test wouldn't be a real test if God made us all passers. Somebody has to fail and burn in hell for the test to be truly meaningful; there have to be real consequences, you know.

After some more back-and-forth and a bit of meandering here and there, I decided to try a different tack. I said to the class, "Okay, here's the deal. In order for things to be fair, a punishment must be proportionate in degree and kind to the crime or sin committed, right?"

The students agreed to this.

"Unlike, say, murder," I continued, "going against God is not a physical sin, but a mental or spiritual sin. If this is so, then the appropriate punishment should also likewise be mental rather than physical, right?"

The middle-eastern students looked dubious (I actually suspect that some of them may not even have thought of this mental-physical-punishment distinction before today), but nodded their heads anyway.

"So if going against God is primarily a mental sin, then God should punish us not by sending us to burn in hell (which would be physical punishment), but by sending us to... Hawaii!"

As you might expect, the Middle-eastern students, none of whom have been to Hawaii, were totally flummoxed: Why would Hawaii be hell? Why would lazing on the beach and drinking pina coladas all day and going to Luaus at night (not to mention the sight of bikini-clad female bodies all the time) be hellish? I explained, "Well look, no matter how wonderful the beach and pina coladas and Luaus are, you can only do that for so long before you start getting bored and wanting to do something different. And if you are sentenced to be there and can't ever leave, then sooner or later, you will come down with what the islanders call 'Island Fever'. [Five-minute segue to explain Island Fever] So the suffering will not be physical, but purely mental or spiritual. Now, don't you think that would be a good place for God to send non-believers to?"

None of the Middle-eastern students bought my argument. They all left class feeling even more puzzled than before ("Hawaii? Hell? Really?"). By the way, I am actually speaking from personal experience here. Back in the summer of 2007, I actually spent a month in Hawaii while studying with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane at their studio on Maui. I really enjoyed studying with them, but maybe because I am really not a beach-and-sunshine person--and maybe also because of my fellow campers at the farm I was staying at, whose uncritical quoting of Eckart Tolle-esque new-agey sound-bites really got on my nerves--I got really, really bored after about a week or so. I looked forward to yoga class every morning, and then retreated somewhere to read a book after class was over. So I probably would, like, die of Island Fever within three months if I were to actually live on Hawaii permanently.   

My first post in more than five months, and I'm blogging not about yoga (not directly, anyway), but about philosophy. Or more precisely, the teaching of it. Ah well. Cest la vie.

* "Waikiki Beach, Honolulu" by Cristo Vlahos - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waikiki_Beach,_Honolulu.JPG#/media/File:Waikiki_Beach,_Honolulu.JPG