Anyone Can Cook

The title of this post comes from the Disney/Pixar movie ‘Ratatouille’. The premise there is that whilst not everyone becomes a good cook, a good cook can come from any background. (Even a rat, it seems.) And the same is true of any human activity, including enlightenment. Various disabilities can get in the way, but none is an outright blocker. There are, however, some “critical” requirements. First is the belief that change is possible. Close behind is the strength of the desire to succeed. Third is an understanding that every day one can learn something new that helps the journey. And fourth is an understanding that change only comes with work. If you put all of these together – whatever the goal – you will work every day, treating every failure and even every “success” as an opportunity to learn more, rather than a mark of “progress”. With that attitude, the work will produce results.

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There is a train of thought that if a “good” man sees injustice and does nothing, evil grows. Those who commit the injustice gain strength from the inaction, feeling that there is implicit support – or perhaps implicit fear – that means they can repeat or even scale up their malice. There’s clearly some truth in that thought. Some of those who commit overt injustice on others are just testing the boundaries of tolerance in what they see as a weak society: either weak because it doesn’t act as forcefully as they do, but wishes it could, or weak because it can’t or won’t stop their use of force. But “justice” is a slippery concept.

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Down The Rabbit Hole

The search for enlightenment is fraught with many traps. At heart, it is a simple process but those who choose that route in life must overcome – or at least understand – much that only serves ordinary living. We all have an animal side to our nature. It wants to survive, to reproduce, to be comfortable and well-fed. In order to do those things, it competes. It predicts the future and makes cunning plans. It expends energy only when there is a reasonable return. The centre of its world is “I”. When we embark on a search for enlightenment, we are that creature: that “I”. We hope there is a spark of something else in us, or we wouldn’t set out at all. But we view that something with animal eyes.

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Real Life

It is a key premise of the philosophy of several religions – and non-religious traditions – that what we think of as real life is not as “real” as we believe. Most of us believe we know when we are imagining, versus seeing what is really there. We read a story in a book, or watch a drama on stage or screen, and we know that the scenes it describes are imagined. We use imagination to help us to identify possible futures and to learn better strategies for life. But how deep does it really run? How much of what we assume to be “true” about the world is really just the result of our imagination? How much of what we see in traditional or social media is just a collective imagining?

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It’s A Big Old World

When I look at the raging profusion of life on this planet of ours – especially when I include “half life” such as viruses – I find it easy to marvel at the sheer scale and diversity. There are – it is estimated – more bacteria on Earth (alone) than there are stars in the known universe. Far more. And there are more plants than there are bacteria. Nobody really knows how many fungal colonies there are, within the soil, but most plants could not survive without them. We humans are in a very, very small minority and at times I find it easy to wonder if – for all our apparent vanity – we are just a side-show: a random off-shoot in the real “work” of life on Earth. Yes, human activity does seem to work to reduce that diversity in some areas, but Nature “fights back” – adapting to our changes. Just look along the man-made desert of a railway line or even an active industrial site. If Covid-19 teaches us anything, it is surely how fragile our vanity – our racial self-importance – really is.

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Once again, I find myself sitting down to write what is likely to be a somewhat controversial post. Before you “turn off”, though, I’d like you to review any typical day in your life – specifically your interactions with other people, outside your direct family. Because nearly all of that part of our lives is “transactional”: we give to get. We have to do this because none of us is wholly self-sufficient in our physical needs. But alongside the necessary physical transactions, there’s a whole “under-current” of emotional transaction: a duty of gratitude, a sense of compulsion – even the adoption of an emotional “mask” in order to optimise the whole transaction, or just to make it possible. And we take all of this emotional baggage and make of it a perception of self-worth. Then we compare our inner picture of self-worth with what we perceive from the emotional transactions with others. Those perceptions either support or challenge our picture of self-worth. And out of that we learn an emotional “strategy” to reconcile these elements.

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The Worst That Can Happen

We live in an increasingly complex world, where change is happening faster and faster. And yet, we are programmed biologically to seek consistency, to predict the future and be prepared to meet it. Alongside that, the globalisation of trade and the availability of rapid logistics mean that most of us no longer struggle to ensure we have the food we like, or the gadgets that divert us. In that environment, it is to be expected that our predictive function will find other threats. The speed and pervasiveness of social media then means we can quickly acquire mutual confirmation of any threat. And pretty soon, “the worst that can happen” is supported by a mountain of evidence. It is small wonder we are surrounded by conspiracy theories and occasional violence.

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I’ll Do That Tomorrow

The way that we approach life is the result of a complex and moving amalgam of many feelings. In general, though, and in relation to any given circumstance, our attention is about one third “active” and two thirds “passive”. The passive part neither desires nor dislikes change, and the active part is split, variably, between wanting change and wanting things to stay predictable – preferring the status quo to the unknown. When the status quo gets sufficiently “bad”, the pull of the latter part is weakened and we begin to act, drawn by the other active part. But the strength will return, if the actions we take do not, swiftly, produce a better status quo than before. And if the status quo is comfortable, that latter part will have the upper hand and will tend to deny any action. As for the two-thirds that is ambivalent, that consists of all the feelings that are active in other situations. They become passive and neutral when their own concerns are not being touched. Of course, the ratio is an approximation but it’s based on statistical diffusion of how “far apart” our disparate concerns become, as our personality grows.

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Covid Camps

There’s no doubt that the strong measures that governments are taking to protect vulnerable people against the spread of Covid-19 are alarming those who are prone to believing conspiracy theories. Back at the start of the crisis, the UK government passed a law that gives sweeping powers to compel people to receive medication – if the state deems it necessary – and even to detain those who pose a risk to others. This caused alarm that large parts of the population could be moved to concentration camps. And now, those who don’t want to take an “untested” vaccine [their perception, not mine] fear that the same legislation could be used to force them to do so, with the threat of being sent to a Covid Camp if they refuse. These are not “mad” people, on the fringe of society, just ordinary people who get too much of their information from social media.

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