Saturday, March 27, 2010

“No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers”

--- St Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Marc Ian Barasch in his "Searching for the Heart of Compassion", reprinted in The Best Buddhist Writing 2006, Melvin McLeod (Editor), p. 27

In the context of the Barasch essay:
Perhaps Thomas Aquinas was not so far off when he claimed, “No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers.” I take this less as a mandate for medieval masochism than an indecorous call to embrace our own authentic experience. If we’re not at home with the depth of our feelings, we’re likely to skirt the deep feelings of others.
There are links to on-line texts of Aquinas here, but the quote doesn't not resolve to one of these sources; the translation doesn't seem to be on-line.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"The anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy"

--- Jonah Lehrer, summing up his piece "Depression's Upside", New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2010

The story is built around the "analytic rumination hypothesis" for depression advanced by Andrew Thompson and Paul Andrews. Here's the quote in the context of the penultimate paragraph:
This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.
"Anatomy of focus" refers to the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), a part of the brain that seems to be important for maintaining attention (among other things). Lehrer reports that "[s]everal studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients."

There are other good quotes near the end too. For example, after talking about the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders, Lehrer quotes neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen
Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
He also talks about "the virtue of self-loathing", one of the symptoms of depression, and quotes Roland Barthes: "A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem."

For a critique of Lehrer's piece, see Edward Champion's "Jonah Lehrer: A Malcolm Gladwell for the Mind", February 28, 2010.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

“God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word

--- theologian Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian (2009), p. 15

Quote in context:

Marcus Borg has written a widely helpful book about the need for Christians to retrieve the correct understanding of Jesus, which, he claims, would be a much more appealing picture of Jesus. He titled the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. I think the same can be said about the need many Christians feel to retrieve their mystical traditions: they need to become mystics again for the first time. Karl Rahner, one of the most respected Catholic theologians of the past century (and my teacher!), recognized this in a statement that has been repeated broadly: “In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything.”

   When Buddha refused to talk about God in order to make way for the experience of Enlightenment, he was making the same point, but even more forcefully, that Rahner was getting at in his insistence that Christians must be mystics: “God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word. Unless God is an experience, whatever words we might use for the Divine will be without content, like road signs pointing nowhere. Buddha would warn Christians, and I believe Rahner would second the warning: if you want to use words for God, make sure that these words are preceded by, or at least coming out of, an experience that is your own. . . .

   To put this more in our contemporary context, Buddha has reminded me and all of us Christians that any kind of religious life or church membership must be based on one’s own personal experience. It is not enough to say “amen” to a creed, or obey carefully a law, or attend regularly a liturgy. The required personal experience may be mediated through a community or church, but it has to be one’s own. Without such a personal, mystical happening, once cannot authentically and honestly call oneself religious.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Microsoft is like a plumbing supply company that found itself running a chain of spas"

--- Marc Smith, Chief Social Scientist, ConnectedAction, personal communication 7 March 2010, reproduced here with permission.

Quote in context:
But is Microsoft an engine that has disconnected the innovation drive train from the axle? Yes, probably. But the first to market, innovator role is not really what Microsoft is. Microsoft is like a plumbing supply company that found itself running a chain of spas. It really likes pipes more than people, and has to do customer facing things more than it likes.

"Loved data lives longer"

--- Beth Noveck at a Long Now Foundation seminar, March 2010, as reported by Stewart Brand (see the "Summary" tab)

Quote in context:
"Loved data lives longer," Noveck declared. She encourages citizens to "adopt a dataset," and to demand ever wider release of government data troves. (One audience member requested that all the aerial photographs ever made by the US Geological Survey be digitized and published.) The Obama adminstration is finding that the whole process of opening up government digitally doesn't have to wait for pefection. It can move ahead swiftly on the Internet standard of "rough consensus and running code."
I also liked:
Noveck said the government is replacing its reflex "there's a form for that" habits with "there's an app for that," and a panoply of cloud-based apps...