Sunday, May 29, 2005

Loyola and vipassana

Diarmid MacCulloch's wonderful history, The Reformation [1], describes Ignatius Loyola's epiphany in terms that remind me powerfully of the vipassana practice of Buddhism:
"Using his powerful imagination to extract every ounce of meaning from [the old-fashioned devotional classics he was reading during a long and excruciating convalescence], Inigo [Loyola] transformed his inner life. He was increasingly empowered to comprehend his own reactions to the books, his shifting enthusiasms, the motivations behind them. He was developing an extraordinary ability to analyze the workings of the mind and the emotions, an ability he described as the "discernment of spirits", a traditional term used by a confessor or spiritual director."

"Soon, amid many false starts, disappointments, and changes of direction, in a painful and poverty-stricken search to understand his new call to divine service, Loyola was beginning to note down his changing spiritual experiences. This was the raw material for a systematically organized guide to prayer, self-examination, and surrender to the divine power; he soon began using the system with other people, and it reached a papally approved final form in print in 1548 as the Spiritual Exercises [2]."

There is a curious resonance with the vipassana approach to Buddhist meditation. I'm currently reading a wonderful book on the topic by Bhante Gunaratana [3] (available on-line). Compare Loyola's techniques to analyze the workings of the mind with these observations by Gunaratana:
"The meditation technique called vipassana (insight) that was introduced by the Buddha about twenty-five centuries ago is a set of mental activities specifically aimed at experiencing a state of uninterrupted mindfulness." (Chapter 13, Mindfulness)
"The vipassana meditator uses concentration as a tool by which his or her
awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that blocks the living light
of reality. It is a gradual process of ever-increasing awareness into the
inner workings of reality itself" (Introduction)
Vipassana is depicted as a strict but rewarding discipline, which sounds like the Spiritual Exercises. (Loyola's reputation does remind me more of the rigors of Rinzai Zen -- though I don't have personal experience of any of these practices.)

It should come as no surprise that there are correspondences between different spiritual traditions. The raw material is human nature, which doesn't vary by place and time. Culture varies, of course; the resonances between religious practices in widely differing cultures add weight to the "innate" scale of the nature-nurture balance.

Gunaratana explains "Universal Loving Loving-Kindness" as a way to use good feelings and good wishes to counter-act obstacles, like greed and hatred, that the ego places in the way self-less awareness. Some excerpts from Chapter 9, Set-up Exercises:

"The most damaging psychic irritant arising in the mind, particularly at the time when the mind is quiet, is resentment. You may experience indignation remembering some incident that caused you psychological and physical pain. This experience can cause you uneasiness, tension, agitation and worry. You might not be able to go on sitting and experiencing this state of mind. Therefore, we strongly recommend that you should start your meditation with generating Universal Loving-Kindness. "

" You start out by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and self-condemnation. You allow good feelings and good wishes first to flow to yourself, which is relatively easy. Then you do the same for those people closest to you. Gradually, you work outward from your own circle of intimates until you can direct a flow of those same emotions to your enemies and to all living beings everywhere. Correctly done, this can be a powerful and transformative exercise in itself. "

Here is the formula:
"May {I, my parents, my teachers, my friends, my enemies, ...} be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success. May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life. "
In the Christian tradition, some orders of monks and nuns pray for people who need God's help: the ill, the dying, the desperate. I've come to wonder whether this practice was not, in fact, a useful aid in contemplation, in addition to fulfilling a useful social role in interceding for those who suffer. It's clearly a structured way of allowing good feelings and good wishes to flow towards those who are in need. Jesus and the apostles instructed the faithful to love their enemies as they loved themselves [4]:
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28)

The context around these injunctions is moral, and not about how to meditate. However, I suspect that the tradition of praying for others assisted in the practice of contemplation, whether that was intended in the Scriptures or not.


[1] Diarmid MacCulloch, The Reformation, 2003, Ch. 5, Ignatius Loyola and the Early Jesuits, p. 214


[3] Bhante Henepola Gunaratan, Mindfulness in Plain English, 2002

[4] A number of these injunctions can be found on

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Mandela on language skills

Cited in many places, though I haven't found the source:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

For more Madiba quotes, see Brainyquote.

Friday, May 27, 2005

bad lands

Today's interview with Charles Bowden on Marketplace has shaken me to the core [1], [2].

Bowden observes that illegal immigration could easily be stopped if employers were fined $1,000/hour for employing undocumented workers. But if immigration stopped, Mexico would "collapse and explode". The only solution to immigration, he says, is to improve conditions in Mexico so that people don't risk their lives for miserable jobs.

This is not only an heroic economic development challenge, it's a labyrinth of political feuds baited with hair-trigger national sensitivities. Jeffrey Davidow's book The Bear and the Porcupine is a trenchant sketch of the grotesqueries of this cross-border stand-off. Bowden notes that there's no Marshall Plan for Mexico - but I take from Davidow that such a plan would be rejected by proud Mexicans as a threat to their sovereignty and an insult to their dignity.

Perhaps this a topic where my affection for Latin American culture can complement my knowledge of policy in a way that would benefit both Mexico and the United States...


[1] Interview:, click on "Part 5"

[2] This is part of a larger project called "The Undocumented War" by Scott Carrier

Saturday, May 21, 2005

When there's doubt, shout

New Scientist reports [1] that experts are locked in an acrimonious debate about whether rinderpest is still prevalent in its last hold-out on the planet, southern Somalia. It quotes an anonymous source:

"The science involved is really not rocket science. The difficulty is people
management. When we really don't know what the best answer is, those with strong opinions and strong egos are the ones who win."
That sounds a lot like politics, national or corporate. It suggests that politicking is a sign of complexity: one faces a dispute with no easy or objective path to resolution.

As organizations get bigger, the problems they to solve become more complex, because there are more moving parts. Hence, politics becomes inevitable.

That's not to say that there aren't complex decisions to be made in start-ups; however, there are fewer of them, and fewer big egos. Usually there's just one -- the founder -- and it's their way or the highway.

The quote also reminds me of the cliche that academic arguments are so acrimonious because the stakes are so small. The subtlety of issues to be decided probably also plays a role, as does the large number of strong opinions and strong egos.


[1] "Killer in the fold", Thembi Mutch, New Scientist, 30 April 2005, p. 42