December 29, 2013

When All Else Fails, Choose Gratitude

Posted in Inspiring Stories tagged at 3:38 pm by tiffanyannbrown

This holiday season there were so many things I came across that reminded me of the importance of practicing gratitude, that I decided it would be worth the time to write a post about this simple, yet overlooked concept.

From the logical standpoint, if you really stop to think about the unhappy people in your life, chances are they are only focusing on themselves and their problems. The more they focus on themselves and the more they focus on their problems, it’s almost as if their problems grow worse by the minute. And on the flip side, for the people who focus on being positive and seeing the best in life, they generally manage to keep their heads above water no matter what the circumstances. It’s what the book The Secret is all about.

One day while skimming my news feed on Facebook, I came across this video being shared by several of my friends, so I decided to watch it. It turned out to be an ultimate expression of one individual’s gratitude and how she placed the people she was grateful for, before herself:

Needless to say, I truly believe that practicing gratitude is the secret to a happy life. Being grateful for what you have, despite your circumstances, leads to appreciating the best in the world around you at any given moment, and results in a multitude of benefits including increased health and well-being, less overall stress, a longer life span, higher income, fewer fights, stronger ties within your local community, and better grades (for those in school obviously) … at least, according to this infographic:

Gratitude (Image Source)

However, it’s important to remember that being grateful and practicing gratitude are two different things. From an article I came across entitled “Six Habits of Highly Grateful People,” the author cautions that “gratitude doesn’t make problems and threats disappear.” Rather, it means that you increase your chances of psychologically surviving hard times and stand a chance to be happier in the good times.

People who practice gratitude regularly exude a sense of love, peace, and groundedness. They naturally draw people in rather than push them away. They’re nice to be around and they’re easy to please. Surrounding yourself with people who are grateful for what they have, helps you to pay attention to the things you are grateful for in your own life. So why not be grateful?

For some practical tips on cultivating gratitude, visit UC Berkeley’s page about The Expanding Gratitude Project.


August 10, 2013

Err in the Direction of Kindness

Posted in Experiences, Inspiring Stories, Philosophers at 9:08 am by tiffanyannbrown

kindnessI read a great piece this this morning from New York Times bestselling American writer George Saunders entitled  “George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates,” which has apparently gone viral.  In reading through the address, there was one section in particular that stood out to me:

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us. Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

What I enjoyed about this portion of the speech is that Saunders focuses on what luminaries like Gandhi, Lao Tzu, and Mother Teresa have known for centuries: that kindness expands to include everything.  Because that is such a large statement, below are a couple of quotes on kindness from notable people across the centuries, which offer some insights into this concept:

  • “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” ― Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” ― Lao Tzu
  • “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” ― Henry James
  • “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
  • “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” ― Aesop
  • “The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful then a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

The more wisdom achieved, the more likely it is for people to come to the realization that kindness plays a much more important role in this world that one might initially think. While this goes against most of which is unconsciously taught in American culture (“every man for himself”), kindness is something that I believe each person inherently knows has value, and is something each person must work out on his own and experience for his or herself before understanding the true rewards and dividends it pays.

An Amazing Example of Kindness

Of the many “enlightened” people I know who have caught on to the concept of and true importance of kindness, one example stands out above the rest. I have a co-worker currently battling her third round of cancer who has maintained a blog about her experience for years now. In a recent post, she discussed how she celebrated her 38th birthday. In light of cancer, the way she chose to spend her birthday was not with a fancy dinner or wild weekend getaway. Instead, she decided to perform 38 random acts of kindness for her 38th birthday. She writes:

Today was honestly the best birthday I’ve ever had! I realized that it is so easy to bring joy and smiles to other people. I’m so grateful that I was able to complete this list and I encourage everyone to try doing something life this. Today was the greatest gift of life!

And to better illustrate her continued plight toward incorporating kindness in her life and its unspoken benefits, just last week she wrote a post about attending a Dave Matthews concert in which she talked about the many neat things that happened at the concert. Despite being very sick and encouraged not to travel, she wrote: “on the ride I told everyone they had to give one random act of kindness at some point during the night to get our karma back in balance. Apparently that worked because I met a few random angels that night … more to come.” You can read that post here.

Kindness is Catching On

I’ve been fascinated for some time now about how the concept of  how “kindness” is catching on across America. First and foremost the concept of “conscious capitalism” comes to mind, which is a movement in the business world whereby companies have begun to incorporate as “Benefit Corporations.” According to the B Corporation web site, benefit corporations give business leaders legal protection to pursue a higher purpose than profit, and they offer investors and the public greater transparency to protect against pretenders. In short, benefit corporations are manifestations of corporate-level kindness and an example of how business leaders are realizing the importance of kindness at a higher level.

From the Conscious Capitalism web site, there is a quote that reads:

Pioneering naturalist John Muir observed that ‘when you tug at a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world.’ Such is the case with business, which is an intricate and interconnected web of relationships.

In short, businesses are recognizing the interconnectedness of the world around us and seeing that kindness, or giving back rather than taking from, is the basis of what makes the world go round.

Think Kindness 

In a similar fashion, there is an organization based in Reno, Nevada known as “Think Kindness” that also continues to intrigue me. The founder recently gave a TED talk where he talked about how he went from working a “suit and tie job” to founding a non-profit based on the concept of “kindness.”  You can learn more about his story, here (begin at 4 minutes and 25 seconds):

While the goal of the Think Kindness organization is simply to inspire acts of kindness around the world―of which you can read more about the many ways in which it is doing so through its web site―there are also now tangible ways of tracking kindness for those wanting to incorporate more kindness into their lives, or for those wanting to track the ripple effect that random acts of kindness have throughout the world for themselves. Learn more about “kindness cards,” here.

Practicing Kindness

There have been many studies done recently linking the practice of kindness and compassion to such health benefits as less stress and anxiety, a strengthened immune system, lower levels of harmful stress hormones, and increased vagal function, which has been associated with efficient regulation of glucose and inflammation, as well as lower incidence of heart disease and diabetes.  For these reasons and all of the others listed so eloquently in  the George Saunders speech noted above, why not kindness? When all else fails, err in the direction of kindness.

June 4, 2013

Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday Series

Posted in Experiences, Inspiring Stories, Philosophers, Science and Relgion, The Mystics, Theologians tagged , at 7:51 pm by tiffanyannbrown

It’s been nearly two years since I last wrote a post on this blog – hard to believe. Around the time I wrote my last post, I recall that Oprah was just getting ready to launch the first episode of her new self-help and spirituality series known as “Super Soul Sunday,” which premiered on the OWN Network back in October of 2011. At the time, I had been listening to her Soul Series podcast on iTunes and thinking about how neat it was that Oprah was giving some air time to such interesting and progressive thinkers as Eckhardt Tolle and Jill Bolte Taylor. But I didn’t realize how soon she would be taking everything so mainstream (and to her credit, for these are important topics).

As might be expected from any modern day media mogul, in approximately two years time, the original podcast has extended into an extremely popular TV series supported by a flashy web site that includes a blog and catalog of videos, which has also led to a strong social media following with nearly 50,000 followers on @SuperSoulSunday’s Twitter account and 119,000 likes on the Facebook page. She also has a great list of books that have been featured on the series, which you can explore in more detail here.

Super Soul Sunday FB

According to a recent press release about the series, Super Soul Sunday features exclusive interviews and all-new conversations with top thinkers, authors, filmmakers and spiritual leaders. Exploring themes and issues including happiness, personal fulfillment, wellness, spirituality and conscious living, Super Soul Sunday presents an array of perspectives on what it means to be alive in today’s world.

If you haven’t had the chance to check out the show yet, I highly recommend that you do. As of today Oprah has hosted dozens of speakers on her series, people I originally first heard about mainly through Tami Simon’s “Insights at the Edge” podcast and other non-traditional avenues like the Omega Institute and the Institute of Noetic Sciences. The discussions she hosts not only raise important questions and new ways of thinking about the world, but bring certain well-accomplished, lesser known, and thoroughly inspiring individuals to the forefront of mainstream dialogue.

August 25, 2011

Insights at the Edge

Posted in Experiences, Inspiring Stories, Science and Relgion, The Mystics tagged , at 11:31 pm by tiffanyannbrown

Earlier this year I came across a goldmine of content when I happened upon the web site located at While searching for podcasts related to school assignments on iTunes, I stumbled upon some episodes of “Insights at the Edge” with Tami Simon that caught my attention and eventually found a link that provided dozens of free podcasts showcasing some of the world’s foremost authorities on the topics of health and healing, self-empowerment, and spirituality and consciousness. According to the web site:

Sounds True is an independent multimedia publishing company that embraces the world’s major spiritual traditions, as well as the arts and humanities … Sounds True was founded in 1985 by Tami Simon with a clear mission: to disseminate spiritual wisdom. It is in this spirit that we present this podcast, a series of interviews with the world’s leading spiritual teachers, visionary writers, and living luminaries about their newest work and current challenges—the “growing edge” of their inner inquiry and outer contribution to the world.”

Whether it be driving to and from work, running errands, shopping at the grocery store, or on a walk, I’ve managed to log countless hours of listening to these thoroughly introspective and addicting interviews.

Some of the aspects I have most enjoyed about Insights at the Edge have included the caliber of the speakers, the quality of the discussions, and the range of content. While some interviews focus on more practical subjects, others can be highly obscure and complex, bordering on the realm of “out there,” but Tami always has a way of bringing the conversation back to a level of common understanding. Never have I come across such a wide range of specialists, spanning so many disciplines, providing such an array of provocative thinking in one place.

In addition to interviews with such speakers (that I already know and love!) as Peter Russell, Bruce Lipton, Stanislov Grof, Gregg Braden, and Fred Wolf, below is a sampling of some new individuals I came across through this show and would like to hear more from in the future:

  1. Ken Wilber – Ken Wilber is the author of over a dozen books, including The Spectrum of Consciousness; Up from Eden; and Grace and Grit. The Spectrum of Consciousness, written when he was twenty-three years old, established him as perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical thinker of our times. Credited with developing a unified field theory of consciousness—a synthesis and interpretation of the world’s great psychological, philosophical, and spiritual traditions—Ken Wilber is the most cogent and penetrating voice in the recent emergence of a uniquely American wisdom.
  2. Caroline Myss is a five-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally renowned speaker in the fields of human consciousness, spirituality and mysticism, health, energy medicine, and the science of medical intuition. After completing her Master’s degree, Caroline co-founded Stillpoint Publishing and headed the editorial department, producing an average of ten books a year in the field of human consciousness and holistic health.  Caroline developed the field of Energy Anatomy, a science that correlates specific emotional/psychological/physical/spiritual stress patterns with diseases.
  3. Sandra Ingerman – Sandra Ingerman, MA, is the author of eight books including Soul Retrieval, Medicine for the Earth, Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner’s Guide and How to Heal Toxic Thoughts. Sandra is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and Professional Mental Health Counselor. She is also a board certified expert on traumatic stress as well as certified in acute traumatic stress management.
  4. Anodea Judith, Ph.D. is the founder and director of Sacred Centers, and a groundbreaking thinker, writer, and spiritual teacher. Her passion for the realization of untapped human potential matches her concern for humanity’s impending crises — her fervent wish is that we “wake up in time.” She holds Masters and Doctoral degrees in Psychology and Human Health, is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher, with lifelong studies of healing, mythology, history, sociology, systems theory, and mystic spirituality. She is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on the combination of chakras and therapeutic issues and on the interpretation of the Chakra System for the Western lifestyle.
  5. William Buhlman – William Buhlman is America’s leading expert on out-of-body experiences. The author’s four decades of extensive personal out-of-body explorations give him a unique and thought provoking insight into this subject.

While it’s important to take each interview with a grain of salt, there is always wisdom to be uncovered and connections to be made when listening to new and engaging perspectives. What have you got to lose?

March 7, 2011

Eckhart Tolle and The Power of Now

Posted in Philosophers tagged , , , at 1:01 pm by tiffanyannbrown

I recently came across Eckhart Tolle while listening to an Oprah Soul Series podcast. I was instantly intrigued for two reasons 1) Oprah mentioned that everyone who visits her home automatically receives a copy of Tolle’s book, The Power of Now and 2) prior to writing this book, Tolle was a depressed vagrant living on the streets of England, contemplating suicide until he decided that “he” could no longer live with “himself.” Upon making this statement, he suddenly realized that the “I” and the “himself” were at the same time one but not one of the same. This realization spurred an “inner awakening” and transformed his way of thinking, allowing for him to break free of his negative thought processes and embrace that which he essentially was. Tolle states:

I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void. I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness,” just observing and watching.

Tolle writes that “the most significant thing that can happen to a human being is the “separation process of thinking and awareness” and that awareness is “the space in which thoughts exist.” Tolle says that “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” Below is an introduction from Jim Carrey:

According to Tolle’s web site, at the core of his teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists of transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. Below is an interview with Tolle from ABC News:

Tolle mentions that 98 to 99% of our thinking is repetitive and in fact, a lot of our thinking is negative. He says that the ego is habitual and compulsive; many people live habitually as if the present moment were an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment. Therefore, people who are lost in their thoughts not only consumed by the ego but inevitably unable to fully and consciously enjoy their lives. He writes:

The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not ‘the thinker.’ The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.

Though nothing Eckhart’s really telling us is new, I recommend this book for anyone who needs a fresh perspective on how to achieve genuine peace and happiness in their lives. Borrowing heavily from the concepts of Buddhism, Tolle meshes together wisdom from a variety of different religions to piece together a clear and modern-day approach to understanding spiritual enlightenment.

Link to the webcasts from Oprah’s Soul Series are located here.

March 6, 2011

Positive Thinking’s Impact on our Biology

Posted in Current Issues, Science and Relgion tagged , , , at 4:51 pm by tiffanyannbrown

A new, long-term medical study found that hospitalized patients diagnosed with coronary artery disease who had a positive outlook about their recovery were less likely to die over the course of a 15 year period and had better physical functioning after one year. According to an article from the Duke University web site entitled “You’ve Gotta Have Heart: Positive Outlook Increases Heart Patient’s Survival,”

Cardiac patients with optimistic expectations about their recovery were 30 percent less likely to die over the next 15 years than patients with less optimistic expectations, regardless of the severity of their heart disease, according to researchers at Duke University Medical Center. This study is unique because it shows that a patient’s attitude toward their disease not only impacts their ability to return to a normal lifestyle but also their health over the long term and ultimately their survival,” said John C. Barefoot, PhD, the study’s lead author.

So is this just another obscure medical study citing heavily-skewed statistics, or could there really be some science behind this finding?  For more information, click here to view the ABC News clip interviewing Dr. Redford Williams, Division Head of Behavioral Medicine at Duke University.

According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, PhD who wrote the book The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles, positive thinking can have a direct impact on our biology. Having spent years conducting stem cell research, he’s concluded that our environment and not our DNA is that which affects life at the cellular level. His research at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, between 1987 and 1992, revealed that the environment, operating though the membrane, controlled the behavior and physiology of the cell, turning genes on and off.  His extensive study of cell life, including his 20 years of teaching the “History of Cell Biology” at various universities, has given him unique insight into the structure and function of our cells. He writes:

When we look into a mirror we usually recognize the image as our self, a single living human entity. But this is a misperception, because in truth the cells are the living entities. An individual human is actually close-knit community of approximately 50 trillion cells. Every cell is intelligent and can survive outside of your body by living and growing in a tissue culture dish.

However, when in the body, each cell is becomes an integral part of a community, working with the other cells that share the common vision of the community. The nervous system acts as a government that controls and coordinates the functions of the body’s cells. When the mind serves as a “good” government, the cellular community is in harmony and expresses health. If the mind is confused, angered, in fear or disturbed, it can destroy the harmony of the cellular community and lead to dis-ease or even death.

Just remember, your thoughts are sent to the body’s cells via neuro-chemicals and nerve transmission. If you are harsh on yourself, it’s your cells that are the ones that physically feel the brunt of your anger. Cell’s are generally very loyal, to the extent that if you so wish it, they will actually commit suicide (apoptosis in the cellular world). Positive and negative thoughts shape your biology, for your mind is actually “governing” 50 trillion cells.

Dr. Lipton’s discoveries, which ran counter to the established scientific view that life is controlled by the genes, presaged one of today’s most important fields of study, the science of epigenetics.  Epigenetics is the study of how environmental signals activate and regulate gene behaviors.  At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation.  To learn more about epigentices, click here to read the Time Magazine article entitled “Why your DNA isn’t your destiny.”

Below is a video interview with Wayne Dyer discussing his research and findings:

This video provides more detail for anyone who may be interested in the science behind the power of positive thinking.

December 30, 2010

Through the Eyes of a Mystic

Posted in Poets, Science and Relgion, The Mystics tagged , at 7:09 am by tiffanyannbrown

Mysticism is nearly universal and unites most religions in the quest for divinity. According to Wikipedia, mysticism is defined as “the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight.” It is derived from the Greek word “mystikos” meaning “an initiate of a mystery religion,” which is in reference to the classical Greco-Roman mystery cults where initiates were sworn to keep secret about the inner workings of religion that they were privy to.

There are many famous mystics in our culture you may have heard about including American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, and Beatles guitarist George Harrison, but perhaps none so intriguing as Lithuanian child prodigy Akiane Kramarik who began painting remarkable artwork at the age of 4 and attributes her talent to divine inspiration from God:

Currently at 16 years of age, Akiane has been featured on nearly 50 international television shows and documentaries including Oprah, CNN, Good Morning America, The View, and the Montel Williams Show. According to her web site at, she has published over 200 works of art, 800 literary creations and 2 best-selling books. Click here to view her gallery of artwork, where prints range in price from $5,000 to $3,000,000, or you can click here to view her poetry. I would suggest taking some time to browse through her paintings and skim through the narratives that go along with each of them. Akiane donates a large percentage of her income back to charity, and her goal with each painting is always the same: to serve as an inspiration for others, provide hope, and to share her love for God with people around the world.

Below is a more recent, longer video of Akiane explaining her artistic processes and the guidance she receives, providing a deeper  level of insight into her world. It is interesting to note that she was brought up in an atheistic household with no introduction to religion, limited access to the media (she didn’t even know who Oprah was when she went on her show at age 9), and was homeschooled.

In the book From Science to God, author Peter Russell argues that science is just beginning to understand and uncover what mystics have known for centuries; he believes that science will soon confirm what the mystics have been saying all along bridging the age-old gap between science and religion. He writes:

The worldviews of science and spirit have not always been as far apart as they are today. Five hundred years ago, there was little difference between them. What science there was existed within the established worldview of the Christian church. Following Copernicus, Descartes and Newton, Western science broke away from the doctrines of monotheistic religion, establishing its own atheistic worldview, which today is now very different indeed from that of traditional religion. But the two can, and I believe eventually will, be reunited. And their meeting point is consciousness. When science sees consciousness to be a fundamental quality of reality, and when religion takes God to be the light of consciousness shining within us all, the two worldviews start to converge.

Peter Russell earned degrees in both physics and experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge, England and also holds a postgraduate degree in computer science. He studied meditation and Eastern philosophy in India, and upon his return conducted research into the neurophysiology of meditation at the University of Bristol. Over the past twenty years, he has been a consultant to IBM, Apple, American Express, Barclays Bank, Swedish Telecom, Nike, Shell, BP, and other major corporations. Some of his books include The Global Brain, Waking Up in Time, and The Consciousness Revolution.  He certainly brings a unique perspective to the topic of mysticism given his scientific background. To listen to some of his talks online at, click here.  For a brief video of his on the primacy consciousness, see below:

Peter Russell is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on the topic of consciousness today. He believes that consciousness does not arise from matter and that modern science has been unable to address the deeper, more fundamental questions that mystics have been understanding for centuries. Moving forward, it will be interesting to keep an eye on both Akiane and Peter, to see what insights and discoveries will be made on both the levels of mysticism and science in our 21st century society.

December 27, 2010

Non-Rational Ways of Knowing

Posted in The Mystics tagged , at 9:21 pm by tiffanyannbrown

One of my favorite books to-date has been German Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.  The book defines the concept of the holy as that which is numinous. Otto explained the  numinous as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” Originally published in 1917, I love the book because the author captures complex, hard-to-describe ideas in beautifully written—though difficult to digest—language. It’s the type of book you need to sit down and get comfortable with … steaming hot beverage in one hand, writing tool in the other.

A central idea in the book is the concept of “mysterium tremendum,” which is Otto’s attempt at describing the feeling that one experiences when enduring an encounter with “the holy.” Whether it be that heavy, looming feeling of something sitting right on top of your chest in a quiet room, or a peaceful wave of calm while enjoying a particular scene in nature – the feeling is not one to be denied. He writes:

We are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, nonreligious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of–whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.

Around the time I first read this book I made an interesting connection. While listening to a song called “Reflection” by the band Tool, I realized that the lyrics of the song were reflecting upon none other than a mystical experience with countless direct ties (almost line for line) to ideas that were touched upon in the book. It wasn’t a few days later that I picked up a book on Alex Grey at a Barnes and Noble (an artist who did the cover art for the band’s CD) when I noticed that on the inside front cover was a picture of Alex Grey with a copy of The Idea of the Holy sitting on his desk in the background. At that moment the ideas, the artist, and the music came full circle into a picture that more clearly defined the concept for me and also helped me to realize the permeating nature of the topic … the fact that these truths are all around us, but only until we tune into them do we begin to notice or acknowledge that they are there.

November 16, 2010

Huston Smith: A National Treasure

Posted in Inspiring Stories, Philosophers, Science and Relgion, Theologians at 10:22 pm by tiffanyannbrown

Huston Smith is perhaps one of the wisest, most charming, and insightful men that the good world has ever had the pleasure of knowing. Now in his 90s and living in a Berkeley, California-based assisted living home, he is still married to his wife, Kendra, of nearly 70 years. Having grown up in rural China alongside of missionary parents, then quickly rising up the academic ranks while teaching at such schools as Washington University, M.I.T, Syracuse, and Berkeley, Smith is perhaps best known for his traipsing around the world to discover the unique varieties of religious experience while at the same bringing insight and understanding of such lesser-known traditions to the West. This man has literally seen and done it all.

I was first introduced to Huston Smith, as most college students were, when assigned to read one of his books, The World’s Religions (which sold over 2.5 million copies), during an “Introduction to World Religions” course in college.  Never before had I been presented with such a clear and colorful, concise and vividly written account of the world’s religions. As a result, I became completely captivated with this author, especially after watching portions of his five-part PBS special with Bill Moyers, and went on to read additional books of his including Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, and most recently Tales of Wonder: Adventures in Chasing the Divine. (For a full list of books he has written, click here to visit his page.) In Why Religion Matters, Smith argues that religion is humanity’s greatest asset because it provides us with aspiration, hope, and courage. In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, he distinguishes between the “traditional” worldview that placed God at the center of the universe; the “modern” view in which science ruled; and the “postmodern” view that doubts whether the universe makes sense at all. In Tales of Wonder, he documents his extraordinary travels around the globe that have taken him to some of the world’s holiest places, where he has practiced religion with many of the great spiritual leaders of our time.

From a May 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Huston Smith: Rock Star of Religions,” below are some of the reasons why I find him so interesting:

His autobiography is a dizzying tour of a singular life. Smith was there when the 1945 U.N. charter was signed in San Francisco. He met Mother Teresa, interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt and invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at Washington University in 1956. Seeking enlightenment, he took mescaline with Timothy Leary and peyote with an Indian shaman. He counts Saul Bellow, Aldous Huxley, Pete Seeger and the Dalai Lama among his legion of friends …  and late on the night before the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, he arrived unsuspectingly in Beijing for a conference on Chinese philosophy.

In addition to his books, Smith has (luckily) given many interviews and lectures. Being an ordained Methodist minister, I came across an interview on the United Methodist Church web site where he discusses his faith story. I found his answer to the question of why he has remained a Methodist after having been exposed to so many of the world’s religions interesting. He stated:

I’m often asked why have I stayed in the Methodist church when there are so many other denominations and even other religions which I have studied and venerate. I take my answer from his holiness, the Dalai Lama, whom I have had a very deep friendship with for 35 years and I heard him ask whether conversion to another religion was ever appropriate. He said, it’s better if you can stay within your own tradition because you are imprinted with its form, and its music, and its literature, and Christmas carols, and the like. However, if you’ve been bruised by your tradition, your religion, why then, it is a good idea to look into others and possibly converting. Well, I have never been bruised by my church. I disagree with some of the policies, but just as we can disagree with the policies of the current American administration and still be an American, well, it’s the same way with me.

The link to the full interview is available by clicking here.

In May of 2000, Smith lectured at Duke University on “Why Religion Matters” where he outlined some of the major ideas from his book. Though not told in the rapid, bullet-point fashion of most lectures and presentations given today, and not accented with any flashy graphics or visual representations, I promise that if you listen to this lecture you will not only find wisdom in his words, but such beauty in his expression of them. Smith was in his early 80s at the time; if we could all only aspire to be like him!

In looking back across Smith’s life, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason that his life has not served a uniquely divine purpose given the coincidences of his interactions with famous cultural icons in American history combined with his presence and involvement at various key events. For a truly enjoyable read and a full outline of his life experiences and lessons to date, please check out the aptly named Tales of Wonder and feel free to share any thoughts here!

November 1, 2010

The Matrix in Terms of Authenticity and Heidegger

Posted in Philosophers tagged , , at 10:02 pm by tiffanyannbrown

In 2005 my professor Greg Tropea gave me a copy of his dissertation from his PhD program at Syracuse University (where he received an M.A. in Linguistic Theory, an M.A. in Religion, and a PhD in Religion and Cultural Symbol Systems) entitled Religion, Ideology, and Heidegger’s Concept of Falling. Having opened and closed the book several times over the past five years due to a fear of its challenging vocabulary, I recently decided to pick it up again and give it a try, if for no other reason than to honor the note left on the inside front cover, which reads: “Tiffany – with recollections and anticipations of fine insights. Keeping the faith, Greg.”

In Religion, Ideology, and Heidegger’s Concept of Falling, Tropea provides an analysis of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of “falling” in Being and Time, the 1926 book that attempts to decipher what is meant by the phrase “to be.” Central to Heidegger’s framework is his idea of authenticity vs. inauthenticity. According to Wikipedia, authenticity is defined as follows: “In philosophy, the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite these pressures.” Hence “falling” would be the act of caving into the external pressures of society that distract us from both getting to know and staying in touch with our true selves. In the case of “The Matrix,” it would be choosing the “blue pill” over the “red.” Tropea writes:

In authenticity, says Heidegger, Dasein chooses itself and wins itself, while in inauthenticity, Dasein chooses the public interpretations of the ‘they” and thereby loses itself … To Dasein’s state of being belongs falling. Proximally and for the most part Dasein is lost in its ‘world.’ Its understanding, as a projection upon possibilities of Being, has diverted itself thither. Its absorption in the ‘they’ signifies that it is dominated by the way things are publicly interpreted. That which has been uncovered and disclosed stands in a mode in which it has been disguised and closed off by idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity.

In slightly simpler language, Jennifer McMahon discusses authenticity in “The Matrix” from the book entitled The Matrix and Philosophy:

Virtually all existential philosophers speak at length of the sort of choice Neo makes between honesty and ignorance, or truth and illusion. Though some use different terminology, they tend to describe it as a choice between authenticity and inauthenticity. Existentialists define authenticity as a state in which the individual is aware of the true nature of the human condition. In contrast, inauthenticity is defined as a state in which the individual is either ignorant of the true nature of reality or in denial with respect to it.

I find it interesting that Tropea wrote his book long before the popular 1999 movie “The Matrix” was ever conceptualized as there were references within his book that brought to mind ideas from the movie. “The Matrix” underscores this Heideggarian idea of being “lost” in the world, living inauthentically, and falling prey to they “they” (in this case, technology) that dominates the thinking of humans and the way that their world is fundamentally interpreted.

In Tropea’s chapter on technology, he discusses how technology can work against us when it comes to living authentically, but how it can also provide us with the ability to get lost in order to be found again. He writes:

Through its unplanned distancing of beings in their Being from authentic or resolute Dasein, technology in some moments forces Dasein away from its (that is, technology’s) matrix narrative in its one-dimensional world … Technology provides humanity with the possibility for factical existence grounded in the authentic resoluteness that Dasein achieves with the grasp of death as its ownmost possibility. It provides the occasion for Dasein to see how it can lose itself and how it can choose itself.”

To better clarify this concept—if not familiar with the movie—below is a synopsis from the book entitled The Matrix and Philosophy, specifically from the chapter entitled “Popping a Bitter Pill: Existential Authenticity in the Matrix and Nausea”:

The film depicts a future state, when, after a long and world-ravaging conflict, computers conquer the human race and enslave it as their energy source. The Matrix is the virtual reality created by the computer that both placates, and maximizes the energy output from, the human subjects who lie captive in a vast complex of energy pods. While the billions inside the Matrix exist in blissful ignorance of their true condition (as immobilized, expendable energy cells for the artificial intelligence that dominates earth), a small number of individuals are free of its digital illusion. Unlike their captive counterparts, these individuals are painfully aware of humanity’s authentic state. They constitute a resistance force that seeks to undermine the oppression by the Matrix. As a result, they live on the run from the computers that attempt to annihilate them.

And, below is a link to the original Matrix trailer:

Is it any wonder that the Matrix Reloaded had the second biggest opening weekend of all time in box office history? While some people may attribute the movie’s success to it’s visual effects and fight scenes, I would contend that it was the scriptwriters’ ability to connect with the culture at a much deeper level (albeit subconscious for most) that was responsible for its success.

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