Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A little philosophical rambling

As for the title of this post ... I know that's what you come here for, is to hear some philosophical musings, no matter how far-out and fanciful they may be, right?

On my Mind & Life podcast, the topic of this one being physics (circa 2007), the participants were diving into a discussion of the tension between two ideas: the concept of causality (which is central to Buddhism, and I would suggest, all religious practice), versus the randomness that has been demonstrated to occur at the quantum level.

Buddhists believe that nothing can occur apart from so-called causes and conditions. This is a reference to the famous term, "karma." If you think about this belief, it's reminiscent of Old Testament references to natural disasters or diseases or other suffering being the result of human sinfulness. I don't know what causes Buddhists ascribe to things like natural disasters and disease, but they firmly believe that everything that happens is linked in a cause-and-effect cycle. Perhaps this is also described by "Samsara," the world that we are captured in, with its endless cycles of suffering. Thus, this philosophy declares that everything is relational. Nothing can occur by itself, without influencing or being influenced by something else. What does this imply for human "free will" as opposed to predestination?

However, quantum physics demonstrates that there are times when the action of a quantum particle is perfectly random. It cannot be predicted, because there is no pattern that emerges. This seems to fit in more closely with certain aspects of the human experience. For example, there are many possible life paths for each of us. Do you feel that your future could be predicted, the result only of causes and conditions? Or is there an element of seeming randomness to it? It certainly seems that misfortunes are often not due to causes and conditions, at least not any that could be controlled by people. What did people do to deserve the tsunami that struck Asia, or any other great natural disaster? I am no doubt grossly oversimplifying the concept here -- the Buddhist idea is that there are causes and results for each of these phenomena, and they could almost be predicted, that nothing that occurs is a random or unrelated event.

If randomness exists, it challenges the traditional notion of God. Where is God if things are happening that cannot be predicted, that were never created to happen in a certain way? This is what Einstein protested against when he said, "God does not play dice." But maybe God does? It also implies that there is no objective, constant reality ... no absolute truth ... no universal code of ethics ... nothing that can be known with total certainty, ever. Chaos! Confusion!

What is intriguing is the duality of these ideas, causality and randomness -- they both ring true, though they are contradictory. It makes life much more interesting to have both concepts in operation, rather than one or the other. And apparently, quantum physicists embrace duality as ardently as any philosopher. I'm not sure I am using the term duality correctly, because it could refer to a black/white view (either/or) of the world, which is the opposite of what I am describing -- rather, both/and, or many/and.

On a personal note, I am the embodiment of a dual-natured person, or someone with a multifaceted personality, perhaps? I think everyone is this way. We are all jewels, with many sides! Here in my blog posts, my alter ego speaks out, and I often am amazed at what comes out. It seems to have so little to do with my actual life! It's like remembering dreams, and wondering where they came from, and who thought of them. They can be quite alien to the nice, neat identity we like to give ourselves.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Aack! Don't read the prior entry

I'm not quite going to delete it, but ... just too damn depressing!

Christmas was very nice, by the way. We have teenage boys, so the thrill has waned, somewhat, with the passage of time ... though Andrew still gets hyped up about gifts. (I think Austin does too, he just feels like he can't say it since he's all grown up at 16 now)

I was at the point of being sick and tired of the Christmas music. And yet, when I woke up on the 26th to discover it wasn't being played anymore ... what a sad letdown that was. New Year's isn't even here yet! Our Christmas tree is still up! Let the magic continue, a few more days at least.

Andrew enjoys unwrapping, to the point that I always wrap some of the most mundane gifts and place them in stockings and around the tree. Possibly winning the prize in the least significant, yet wrapped, department were the $1 boxes of caramel corn under the tree. Then there was also the beef jerky, a favorite of Andrew's. I even wrapped all the gift cards, separately, some disguised in boxes with a random book to weigh them down.

There was a theme going with Austin's gifts this year, as with Dwaine's. For Dwaine, it was lots (and lots) of brightly colored Mexican ceramic animals in acrobatic poses, ready to crawl and slither all over the backyard pergola. For Austin, about six wrapped packages were actually a set of tools and a nice bag to store them in. So it was, ooh! aah! Another set of tools! Which is it this time -- a set of wrenches, or ... a set of something else? (Sorry, I can't even think of other tool set names, I am so mechanically useless.) Then -- wow! Is that a lizard, or a frog? Oh, another frog! (for Dwaine's gifts)

I've been nursing a cold this past week, so that was my excuse to totally stay out of the kitchen. Not hard, because Dwaine has become quite the master chef of late, especially with regard to holiday meals. For Thanksgiving, I made a sweet potato pie and green bean casserole (Fresh green beans, so it wasn't just a matter of can-of-this and can-of-that!). He made everything else, including a lemon meringue pie that unfortunately was runny. That recipe, his mom's, needs tweaking.

So for Christmas, we had a giant roast beast, mashed potatoes (a holiday staple), green beans from Bill Miller's, and various accompaniments brought by family members. Really, it was quite a simple meal. There were 10 of us this year, including Dwaine's friends from work, Doug and Kat, so a fairly small crowd.

My birthday is next week. I think we'll go to the Magic Time Machine, since we only went once when the boys were small. The kids (both of them) went to the zoo with me last week. That was quite a coup -- two teenage boys, even the 16-year-old, at the zoo! We all loved it and shared fond memories of all the times we had gone before. The boys had a lovely time baiting some fish, feeding them fish pellets right over the giant open mouth of a hungry alligator snapping turtle.We were there about 20 minutes, and Andrew did not want to leave until the turtle caught a fish. So he was overjoyed when suddenly, its giant jaw clamped shut and it clenched down hard on one of the largest fish! It was just too gross for me to watch, once I saw chunks of fish floating to the surface from the muddied depths. The boys watched for a while, giving me detailed updates because they know how squeamish I am.

Tax season is right around the corner, and 45-50 hour workweeks! Jan. 15 through April 15, then it will be over. Actually, in the world of public accounting, this is quite reasonable compared to 70-plus hour workweeks, year-round. But still, for someone who worked part-time for many years, it will be an adjustment. I think I'm ready.

The trouble with a great spiritual book

I have gotten to the point in reading the Dalai Lama's memoir where I am having a problem typical of me when reading such a book, that calls us all to greater social action. I start feeling incredibly guilty and depressed and have to put the book down.

He mentions places in the U.S. where people live in crowded cities but do not know one another, and  care for their pets more than fellow human beings. Well, this general sentiment applies equally in rural areas to people like my family, and it was painful to read and recognize myself in his statement.

I do have a longing to do more good in this world. More what? I know that any "worthy" endeavor may sound great on the surface, but the devil is in the details, isn't he? I am spending these several hours a week as a volunteer treasurer at church, but it does not feel like the type of social action I crave. I would like to make a direct impact on the least, the lost, the left behind, especially those who live elsewhere! -- Because their condition is so much more dire than the poor face here. I am disappointed that my local church does not do more outreach.

It's easy to talk about this desire to help others. Chances are, I won't do anything to concretely enact it, just be here in my fat and happy super-sized-everything American life and feel the occasional twinge of guilt.

One thing we can all do is to stay on the path of social responsibility. That's the least we can do. It means multiplying our actions by thousands, millions, and then examining what the global impact is. Do we take actions to conserve energy, reuse and recycle, buy locally and organic, eat less meat? Is your work socially responsible or at least neutral? Did you build a new home like we did, or reuse a home? How many trees have been chopped down around your home, how many planted? Then, do you shop at big-box stores, and how are they doing as far as social responsibility? Perhaps the biggest question: How do you spend your money and time? Do you think about the consequences of the daily choices you make?

Aack! This is my Bill-the-cat response to many of the above questions. I don't have good answers.

Actually, the company I love to hate, Walmart, finally seems to be improving after years of providing the lowest cost, at any cost. It seems to be making a real effort to take a more sustainable path. Social responsibility has made it onto Walmart's radar screen. Check out the area of their website devoted to it: Walmart Sustainability Report 2010. Now, let's not forget that this could also be viewed in a similar light to the "green" initiatives of big O&G companies and the health-conscious initiatives of tobacco companies -- inotherwords, with a cynical eye. But if Walmart decides that consumers are demanding more sustainable policies, and implements them, this could be a game-changer.

Enough ranting for one blog post! Signing out to return to my oh-so-safe life in a big warm house, stocked with too much food, with three cars, away from poverty and disease and war, etc. etc.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mind and life

Flipping through the "next blog" this evening, about 8 of the 10 I saw were hard-core Christian blogs. I find this frightening, and I'm a Christian. Not hard-core, though. Some were actually spewing about all the evil things happening in our world today. Like, preaching, fire-and-brimstone stuff. Wow. The people who talk like this are the ones who make war in the name of their god.

I am reading the Wu Li book and the Dalai Lama's book side by side, and certain utterances in one book eerily echo the other. Let's see if I can find an example that struck me.

Here is a quote from physicist (I assume) Henry Stapp: "If the attitude of quantum mechanics is correct ... then there is not substantive physical world, in the usual sense of this term. The conclusion here is not the weak conclusion that there may not be a substantive physical world but rather that there definitely is not a substantive physical world."

So far, so good.

Now, the Dalai Lama: "Buddhist analysis of reality concurs with the conclusions of quantum physics, according to which particles of matter are real while still being devoid of ultimate solidity. Similarly, in Buddhism the phenomena that exist in interdependence are empty of intrinsic, autonomous existence."

So what does this mean for you and me? It seems to imply strongly that the everyday tangles we get so caught up in are not just unimportant; they are quite likely nonexistent. The products of overactive imaginations.

The absence of absolute physical reality reminds me, in a way, of the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer laments a life spent striving after wisdom and ultimate meaning that has yet to be discovered. "Vanity! All is vanity!" The writer says, then concludes we should go about our days working and deriving satisfaction from that.

I sense the writer of Ecclesiastes is still not satisfied, and I also finish reading with an unanswered longing. There is a joyfulness that is also needed. Joy, and a curious mind that tries to empty itself of preconceptions, continuously experiencing the world as a new and glorious creation (which it is).

I discovered another Mind and Life series on quantum physics, which has been of great interest to His Holiness. These periodic gatherings are attended by Buddhists and scientists in a collaborative effort to learn and enrich the practice of each side by carefully studying the other. Indeed, science seems to need a dimension of spirituality and ethics at this point if it is to continue to progress. I almost think the deeply spiritual practitioners are way ahead of the scientists, though they cannot express everything they have discovered, nor prove it. But can the scientists really prove their discoveries? It's all dependent on human observation. Nothing has been recorded in human history absent a human being recording it, based on his or her own observation. So all the seeming objectivity of scientific pursuit is a nice mirage.

I'm not siding with the creationists or the willfully ignorant who seem to be so afraid to use their minds. Lord, no!  But I'm saying nothing is black and white. Everything remains open to debate. Great minds cherish the opportunity to question everything!

By the way, Carol's latest post title -- "Endless Shock and Awe" about the way Christmas just sneaks up every year -- reminded me of a comic Dwaine showed me today. I didn't get it, he had to explain it to me. There are a bunch of people running around, arms up, hollering and screaming like it's the end of the world or something. In the midst, a long-haired hermit is walking around, waving a sign saying, "Calm down. Things will work out." But what threw me, I swear, was the description. It said "Modern-day iconoclast" and I got all hung up on that.

That running-around-crazy feeling is the feeling I have every Christmas season, as well! I have discovered that part of the reason is because it's my month to renew my CPA license, since it's my birthday month. And every year, I receive the renewal form from the state board and it's always a big surprise -- I need more CPE (continuing education)! Last year, I had to take 4 hours of ethics, so that I could become a more ethical person. So I found myself, a couple of weeks before Christmas, cramming my way through an online class so I could still be a CPA.

This year, I outdid myself. Although I already took 42 hours of CPE, it turns out I need a whopping 38 more hours. Holy crap!!! That was my reaction, when it finally sank in that the number 38 had meaning, and wasn't just a big ole typo. I won't bore you with the details, except to say I apparently shorted myself the prior two years and have to pay for it now.

So guess what I am going to be doing on my days off next week? Luckily, I am very good at cramming and taking tests with only days to spare. I have some experience in this area. Still, the unreal, insubstantial person that is Julie was very upset about this seemingly real problem when it happened. Luckily, she was soon able to brush it off with the existential knowledge that this whole life is nothing but a figment of our imagination.

Did I post this picture yet? I thought it was such a gorgeous picture that I've got a 5x7 of it hanging in my office. I have this big wall and have to put something interesting up there. My diploma's next.

It wasn't this exact photo; the other was more centered. Anyhow, this one gets the basic idea across. This was on a bridge overlooking the River Walk on my dad's birthday.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


I have a rare opportunity to tell about the dreams I had last night. Usually, I don't remember, or they are only fragments.

In one dream, my husband, younger son, and I were finding bombs and planning to detonate them so they would not hurt other people. The only problem was that we would have to sacrifice ourselves to do so (kind of like a suicide bomber, but we would be the only ones to die). Our dog, Mimi, was with us, and she would die, too, because she always wanted to be right with us. We found about three or four small, black, square, unimpressive-looking plastic little devices around a house (not ours) that would explode easily when triggered. We were hurrying to go outside and lie down with them and set them off before Dwaine's sister arrived. If anyone else got there, they wouldn't understand why we were doing this and would try to talk us out of it or prevent us from doing it.

I was imagining what the end would be like. We would all lie down together, next to each other on a grassy pasture, and place these little devices on our bodies. Mimi would lie down on top of one of us. We would not be able to survive, and death would be instantaneous. Not too shabby, really. It wasn't a horrifying thought.

Frankly, I'm with the rest of the people here -- I have no idea what we were up to, either. Austin probably was absent because he's absent so much from our actual lives, being a 16-year-old with transportation.

In the next dream, the Dalai Lama visited me at  a house that was my house, but it was not this one. He stayed for quite a while, and I was rushing around to prepare a meal for him, and burning parts of it, feeling very frustrated because I didn't have enough help. (Totally the Martha story from the Bible!) His amazing presence lingered long after he left, and I was sitting where he had sat on the sofa, longing for him. In fact, I was becoming very upset because he was gone, and realized I was engaging in unhealthy clinging.

Then in another part of the dream, I was feeling this deep sense of loss. It dawned on me that it was because my dad had died -- or was going to die. I was searching for a letter he had written to me.

Then in the dream, I was able to visit with my dad while he was still alive (which he is), and treat him as the precious treasure he is, before he died and left me. He was out on the porch of the house, watching a beautiful slow rain that was pouring down outside and blowing and misting in on the porch, too, so that everything was wet. It was the most amazing sight, watching the rain. Here at the brink of another drought, I long for rain and new life. I don't remember me and Dad talking about anything in particular, just being together and watching the rain.

I think all these threads are about death and impermanence. I'm no suicide bomber. I have no crazy visions of saving the world by dying myself, and if I did, I know my family would definitely not go along with it! I think the dreams were ways of imagining losing the ones closest to me, and how that would be.

Of course, we are all heading toward our death. Or perhaps I should say, birth and death are inevitable and will take place, are taking place, and have taken place in the lives of all sentient beings. The Buddhists think the moment of death can be a moment of enormous spiritual significance and transformation. I don't fully understand their beliefs, but they are interested in scientifically monitoring the time of death of some of the great spiritual masters, who have already in a sense mastered the movement into death.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Family night out

We had a great afternoon/evening today and a reunion of my immediate family -- my sister and my dad, whose birthday it was. My sister came in on a business trip for work; she always takes the weekend before or after to visit with us. She decided she wanted to surprise Dad for his birthday, and he was! We all saw the Nutcracker, performed by Ballet San Antonio and the San Antonio Symphony, and then went to Rivercenter Mall and later to Paesano's.

My sister and mother-in-law wanted to go shopping after the show, so I stayed behind with Dad (who was not interested) at a table in the food court, overlooking the Riverwalk. He and I had a very nice discussion about my trip abroad as an exchange student when I was 15, parenting teenagers, the economic ramifications of our relationship with China, the threat of nuclear warheads, whether we should have dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, and more. My dad is a smart man, and I'd forgotten how enjoyable it could be to talk with him.

I have really enjoyable discussions now with both my boys that are also wide-ranging. It's something I really enjoy about our relationship.

One of the highlights of the evening was after dinner, when a spontaneous napkin-origami activity unfolded at our table. (Get it? Unfolded?) Austin started folding his napkin into a pattern, quickly followed by his brother, Grandma Han, my sister, and even a little by Dwaine, who Cynthia calls "the rebel." I knew better than to attempt something like what they were doing, and sat back and watched, as did my dad.

I could tell my dad wanted to get impatient (because that is such a habit with him), but we were all drawn into the moment.Cyndi made an authentic restaurant-quality napkin arrangement that stood on its own. Austin made something he called a hang glider that I thought looked like a stingray. It was impressive on the table but decidedly limp in flight. Andrew made his own special creations which were, hmm, indescribable. My sister also made the cloth equivalent of the finger puzzle you make from a square piece of paper, place on your fingers, and then fold them back and forth and someone chooses a color, then a side, etc., to come out to an answer that unfolds from the paper. I know it has a name, help me! As they designed, we talked, and laughed. At dinnertime, I discovered that my dad thought the Jackass movies are a riot. Though he claims to not have watched them all.

I've learned to nurture these moments when they come, because they are rare. Who would think that folding napkins together could be something meaningful? It was an unplanned hiccup in the day's events, a moment of creative joy mapped out in napkin designs. I don't know that the waiters at the restaurant appreciated it (the tables looked full by then), but we did.

Also, during dinner, my sister asked out of the blue if I try to eat mindfully. (I think I was the last one eating at that point.) Her question caught me doing my usual, mindless chowing down, though perhaps chewing slowly at least! I thought it was great that she asked me at that moment, and that she attempts to practice this habit herself. I love that I have several friends who want to talk to me about being more in the present moment and more mindful.

My sister also asked if I would enjoy it if she got me a magazine subscription for Christmas to "The Sun," not knowing that I had ever heard of it. Another coincidence -- my friend Michele just recently introduced me to this lovely, literary magazine, saying she thought I would like it, and after receiving a second issue from her, I decided I would like to get a subscription. I just hadn't gotten around to it. This is an example of my sister and my friend exhibiting mindfulness in their actions, by deliberately choosing to support a publication that reflects their deeply held values about life. Here is the link to The Sun if you want to see what it is.

As my sister (who is a vegetarian) mentioned, she has a T-shirt that says, "Eat like you give a damn!" Well, do everything that way! Live like you give a damn.

I have no napkin-folding pictures, but let me share some others.
Me and sis with the birthday boy and his wife, Han (If you wonder about my dad's expression, he later mentioned that he hadn't had any coffee all day, so we went on an emergency coffee run. We are serious caffeine people.)
Here's mi familia at the dinner table. At the time of this picture, it is pre-dinner and the napkins are wrapped around the silverware (serviceable, but far from aesthetic).

Here's my son's latest fun project, a website he is making:
I feel that I should post a number of disclaimers here ... it's a teenage boy's idea of a wonderful website, I don't think there is anything blatantly illegal on it (though quite likely immoral), and yes we are fairly permissive about computer use and the Internet, though I am constantly debating myself about whether to change course and severely restrict this evil entity from our household and become Amish once and for all, and oh -- back to website warnings, be careful what you click on. I haven't looked it over in great detail. I do like the joke about the perfect man and the perfect woman (scroll down to view).

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