Sunday, April 24, 2011

The View From Here: Buddha Diorama

The View From Here: Infinite Light Edition

 Yesterday proved to be a particularly rainy and grey day. It seemed like a perfect day for a trip to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Who knew the museum was such a happening place. I got there shortly after it opened and there was already a line waiting to get up the front steps of the museum. Despite being crabby at the crowds, it was reassuring to see that art still matters for so many people.

The museum, by the way, has recently undergone a major expansion. The new architecture provides some great places where the outside is brought inside. The image pictured above is a view from a hallway.

Anyway, there is an exhibit going on in galleries 278B and 278C entitled Heaven and Hell in Japanese Art. It really caught my eye. The sculpture to the left was constructed in 1737 of carved, lacquered, and joined wood, and inlaid rock crystal eyes. It pictures Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. It is said by some that Amitabha greets those who have died and helps them see through various kinds of illusions so they can be born in a "pure land" and become Buddhas and Bodhisattvas themselves and help more people become enlightened.

In contrast to this carving of Amitabha, there was a silk screen entitled "Inevitable Change." It pictures an aristocratic looking woman wearing red. She is surrounded by cherry blossoms. She is pictured again looking recently dead and beginning to decay. Pictured a third time her eyes are dead and bulging. A fourth image shows her body being eaten by creatures. The fifth and final image shows little more than an eroded decayed skeleton. The silk screen is a good reminder that the one constant in all of our lives is growth and decay.

I didn't go to the MFA to see this particular exhibit. I'd seen it already the Buddhas. I wanted to see the Chihuly glass exhibit. I'll have to plan another trip to the museum to see the glass. A rainy Saturday is apparently not the ideal day to see the work. I had gotten in line but realized the wait would be well over an hour. Seeing that I was already saturated with what I saw, it didn't make sense to stay in line to see glass that I wouldn't really be seeing.

I did get two glimpses of Chihuly's work. The image above was captured from a window in the new Art of the America's wing of the museum. The image below is one that I took during the brief period of time I waited in line to see the exhibit. The image doesn't really capture the scale of the yellowish green thingy. It stretched from floor to ceiling--nearly three floors.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The View From Here: Moving Picture Edition

There are many things I should be doing this morning. In lieu of productive behavior, I've been clicking on links. One thing lead to another and I discovered the work of Terje Sorgjerd. You can find more clips of his work here.

Here are three of my favorite examples of Terje's work. Enjoy the views.

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

The Southwest from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Should Philosophers Contribute to Social Life?

I've recently started listening to a series called "Philosophy Bites," which is a podcast of top philosophers interviewed on bite-sized topics. This morning I was listening to a brief conversation with Mary Warnock. She is a philosopher, a member of the House of Lords in the UK, and an advocate for euthanasia.

I was struck by several things she said in the brief interview. Of particular interest was this segment where she talked about  the role of religion in  moral decision making around issues of euthanasia. In this time of "culture wars" in the United States her voice was a refreshing new and challenging look at what is happening.

I certainly wouldn't want to deny that religion has it's place. The trouble is that some people don't like them and don't feel any need for them. And therefore it seems to me absolutely and totally wrong that legislation which has to bind everybody and the rule of law seems to me something that is far more important than any particular religious dogma. It is completely wrong that religion should be given an enormous part in producing legislation. But anyone who says that human life is a gift from God is just simply talking irreverently because not everybody believes that. And so how could their particular believe possibly be brought in to justify blocking any attempt at legalizing assisted suicide. I mean obviously people who are religious very often have very good an acceptable moral views, but they have no special access to what would be a good and sound basis of legislation in a matter like that which is a moral matter.

There are a number of hot-button issues facing our world today. Gay marriage, equality, war, abortion, education,  the environment, the budget... all topics that we have opinions about in part based on moral judgments. As played out in the epic struggle between the left and right, these struggles seem deeply rooted in our sense of morals--morals that are (nearly) inextricably intertwined with religious teachings.

Turn on the television recently? Check out Twitter, Facebook, or comments made about articles online? Dismayed at how we seem to be talking (or yelling) at each other rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue? I know I'm dismayed.

This is what got me so interested in Warnock's interview. I hadn't fully noticed that at the heart of our public discourse is the divide between the moral reasoning of (some) religious folk and the moral reasoning of (some) secular folk. That divide is brought to life in our public discourse through the constant chatter of one side trying to prove the other side is wrong. In her interview, Warnock showed me how easy it is to lose sight of how one particular set of beliefs does not have any "special access to what would be a good and sound" in any of these situations. Neither religion nor political believe, nor intellectual tradition provide any one group with access to a particular truth.

So what's a concerned person to do? For starters, know your own epistemology (what is knowledge, how is it obtained, and what constitutes acceptable criteria for knowledge) and ontology (what do people consider reality). Also be open to understanding how another person goes about making meaning in the world.

In an article in the New Statesman Warnock offers this:

I believe morality comes from our common human nature and that we live in a society that is precarious and difficult. To take morals seriously is to take the view that we've got to collaborate and taken one another seriously.

I like that. It is a challenge to really be open to listening and understanding someone with a radically different viewpoint than our own. I think it's worth it. In fact, our very survival might depend on it. Who are you going to take seriously today? 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Myth of the Elite College: Ideas or Things?

I read an article linked in a tweet from NPR. The "Tiger Mom" announced that her daughter was accepted into Harvard and Yale as an undergraduate student. Some have said this is vindication for her parenting techniques. The assumption, it seems, is that since Harvard only accepted 6.3% of its applicants, Chua's daughter must be successful. The less students that are accepted into an institution the better it is, the better the institution the better the applicant is. Right?

I remembering applying for doctoral programs and internships where I had a 1 in 100 percent chance of being accepted. Having been selected by some of those programs, I must be pretty smart. Not really. For the most part, I was in a group of 50 serious applicants applying to the same 50 highly competitive programs. We were all going to get into a selective (thus good, right?) program. The other half that didn't get in weren't viable applicants to begin with (applying to programs on a whim, wrong fit, underprepared, etc.).

Suddenly being the one picked out of a hundred is not all that exciting to me. It's important to read these numbers and know what they mean. The same pool of people are applying to lots of different elite schools. The low rate of acceptance doesn't really mean anything special. What these statistics  mean is that more popular or well known universities have bigger pools of applicants from which they can pick (and reject). Consider the following quotes:

"It's like needing a new stereo and buying the whole Radio Shack", says Mark Speyer, director of college counseling at the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York. "With these bigger pools, colleges are getting a lot of students who have no chance." (from the NYT)

Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Princeton and Standford, doubts that more and more applicants make for a stronger class. "I couldn't pick a better class out of 30,000 applicants than out of 14,000," he says. "I'd just end up rejecting multiples of the same kid." (from the NYT)

Karl M. Furstenberg, dean of admission and financial aid at Dartmouth from 1992 to 2007 commented "It's a classic arms race--escalation for not a whole lot of gain," he says. "I don't think these larger applicant pools are materially improving the quality of their classes. Now what's driving it is the institutional self-interest factor, where bigger pools  mean you're  more popular, you're better." (from the NYT)

What really got my goat (what does that phrase mean, anyways?) is Chua's conflation of sucess and admission to an Ivy league school. Is the more popular choice the better choice?

Having worked at some top-tier elite schools, I can say that the enormous wealth and resources of the school provides the student to access to things that students can't get at other institutions.  The wealth and resources do not, however, make students any more or less likely to come into contact with ideas. Being at an elite institution, at times, actually isolates students from access to ideas. Think large impersonal classes taught by doctoral teaching fellows.  Think faculty in labs doing solitary research rather than in the classroom inspiring students.

Things or ideas? Which is more important in a college education? Ideas are where it is at for me. Things seem less important.

To understand why, you have to understand my context. Different people might have different ideas because of different contexts.

I was not a student at an elite ivy league institution. I selected (and was selected by) smaller institutions. I wasn't the kind of high school student that people thought would be successful in any college (let alone an Ivy League). I had horrible study skills in high school and had no idea how to learn. I had few teachers who knew how to help me. I was a student in a reasonably affluant suburb. I had access to plenty of things but no real access to ideas. I had no access to ideas that would help me understand myself and how I fit into the world. The things were nice, mind you, but I was starving for ideas. This is my context--it's the position from which I understand this issue. You might like to consider your own context and how it might lead you to different thoughts on this same issue.

A found a way to escape my high school that was rich in things and poor in ideas. In my Junior year I enrolled in classes at a local community college. Cuyahoga Community College wasn't rich in things. The building was old and dated. Pipes leaked. Holes regularly appeared in the parking lot that threatened to swallow my car. Science labs had old equipment and technology wasn't particularly up to date.

Ideas--now that was a different situation. What this two year college lacked in things it made up in ideas. I had professors who loved to teach. I discovered that learning was only partially about memorizing facts--it was also about learning to think, have opinions, and have reasons to support those opinions. I went from an idea poor high school that was rich in things to a community college that was poor in things and rich with ideas. In a second my world got bigger. It hasn't stopped growing since then.

I later went to a small liberal arts college in the mid-west called Baldwin-Wallace college. It did happen to have a lot of things (nothing in comparison to the elite schools, but it was comfortable). It again was a place with more ideas. I found more of myself and had more access to the ability to be more than I thought I could be. It was there that I finally figured out how I learned, what I needed to learn, and how to find situations that made it more likely that I learned. When it came time to find graduate programs I knew exactly what I was looking for: a progressive institutional where I would be exposed to big ideas, be mentored, and be pushed to learn from the inside out rather than the outside in.

Education for me isn't about the accumulation of things--or that ability to consume ideas, things, or products. Education isn't about being opened up and having knowledge poured into my head. Education is certainly not about doing the popular thing or going to the popular school. Education, rather, is about digging deep down inside and transforming from the inside out. I found that in my second Masters program at Goddard College and four years later found it again in my doctoral program at Antioch University: New England.

Ideas, not things, is how I learn. I did not need or want to be a vessel that a professors filled up with knowledge from the outside in. I'm a being that needed a professor to create a space where I could learn learn to be more.

So what about Amy Chua? She most definitely presents herself as someone who believes that learning is something that comes from the outside and is poured into a child. She seems to see children as things that are molded rather than beings that are encouraged to blossom. I wonder what her context is--and how these ideas might work in her context?

What do you think?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Question Your Assumptions

I recently came across a blog post that considered the question of what tool should be in every scientist's tool box. Jullian McNally offers up awareness of assumptions as a tool worth having in the tool box. McNally defines assumptions as beliefs that are "powerful, automatic, invisible, and can be created by an act of will."  Should you want to read his whole blog post check it out here.

While reading this post I got to thinking about the assumptions psychologists make every day. Sometimes they are obvious to me. Recently, for example, I saw a discussion on LinkedIn about the Koran a pastor burned in Florida. The dialogue was heated.

Some took a standard multicultural viewpoint taught in psychotherapy programs (let's all respect each other, can't we just get along). I usually find those sorts of approaches uninspired, lacking in an awareness of nuance, and generally ineffective.

Other's took a particularly interesting point of view. Defining themselves as Christian, they called Islam a cult (offering evidence from the Bible) and went on to say that Islamic people need to be saved from the cult. I didn't find this approach very effective, either.

I couldn't resist adding my own two cents to the dialogue. I encouraged the therapists to look at their own assumptions and biases. I encouraged the therapists to consider this when considering working with a patient. Not a single person responded to my comment. No one. It was as if the notion of knowing our own biases and assumptions wasn't germane to a dialogue among psychotherapists.

As a profession, we have failed in teaching diversity. We have failed to adequately prepare therapists-in-training how to encounter diversity. We have failed our patients. We have failed to provide ourselves with the one powerful tool we need: the ability to question our assumptions.

The LinkedIn dialogue was filled with assumptions. All Muslim people are violent. All Christian people are peaceful. All Muslim people would kill someone if the Koran is burned. No Christian people would kill someone if the Bible is burned.

In my eyes these are ugly assumptions. All of them. They lump populations of people into tiny little bands of behavior that cannot be true for an entire population. They are nothing more than examples of distorted thinking.

As an aside, in a moment of annoyance when the whole Koran burning propaganda ploy started in Florida, I blurted out one of my more memorable irreverent comments. "I wonder what would happen if I dressed in a burqa, wraped a Bible in an American flag, and burned it?"

I'd be very afraid. Very.

Back to my soapbox. While these are examples of assumptions, they aren't what I'm getting at. The kind of assumptions psychotherapists and psychotherapists-in-training are most in need of exploring are the invisible assumptions we have about the world.

Our cultures provide us many fountains of unexamined assumptions. Faith, social values, educational systems, economic systems, constitutions and styles of government--all provide us with an invisible fountain of assumptions to consume.

What happens when we encounter someone who drinks from a different fountain? Koran burning is one result. War is another. Failed therapies is yet another outcome.

How can we learn to make these invisible fountains visible? How to we develop practices of dialogue to encounter these differences rather than engaging in battles about who is right? How can we teach our students to do the same?

Care to explore an assumption or two today? I'm thirsty.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Forgotten History

I recently came across a link to the London Science Museum on the Mind Hacks blog. It lead to an interesting morning clicking around looking at all sorts of medical oddities. Where else would I be able to find a diorama of Dr. Lister's ward where he pioneered modern antiseptic techniques? Perhaps you are interested in something older? How about a different diorama depicting the removal of a cataract in 11th century Persia? If that one didn't make you flinch how about an antique dentist chair? There is the interesting (antique acupuncture needles) and the gory (a German amputation knife). Have more prurient interests? How about a reusable condom that needed to be washed, powdered, and dried flat? How about an electric "massager" circa 1913 that physicians used to treat "hysterical" women. Talk about forgotten history!

Of particular interest to me were two grave markers in the London Science Museum collection. These markers came from a place first opened in 1765 as the House of Industry for Looes and Wilford Incorporated Hundreds (a work house for the poor), named the Suffolk County Lunatic Asylum in 1827, renamed again the Suffolk District Asylum in 1906, and then called St. Audry's Hospital for Mental Diseases from 1917 until it closed in the 1990s. The grounds are rather pretty.

Some people spent most--if not their entire--lives in this hospital. They grew up, aged, and died on the grounds of this hospital. The only memory that remains of them are numbered metal grave markers. Recently even the markers were removed when workers came in to renovate the old asylum grounds into a golf course. The surviving buildings have been converted into residences.

There was no record left of these human beings. No mention of their hopes and dreams or their struggles and pains. Reduced to small rusted metal crosses with an embossed number, these people disappeared. I wish there was some way I could reach back in time and let the persons now known as #325 and #1587 know that they were valuable just because they were.

I can't do that. None of us can. We cannot travel back in time and we cannot right what has been made wrong. We can remember the past to honor those who were thrown away. For example, there is a website that collects and chronicles the experiences of workhouses in the United Kingdom.

We can treat each person like they matter--with dignity, respect, and honor. Can you try that today?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Even in the Summer the Ice Doesn't Melt

After a exceedingly long winter, I've eagerly awaited my gardens to wake up from their long nap, push threw the earth, and brighten my mood. This morning I woke to an April Fools day surprise: my gardens are covered with snow.

I'm likely not to see my early spring plants again until next year: their tender fleeting beauty will be hidden again until next spring. However, baring some sort of environmental calamity, my plants will persevere: they will grow, bloom, flourish, and eventually die. I'm not so sure they even notice the snow. If they do, they don't tell me. They just do what they do.

Can the same be said for people? Can we live our lives in such a way where we don't notice the weather? Can we just do what we do?

Several years ago I worked with a college student from the West coast. Outside my office window I had a view of an area that was densely populated with old trees. She frequently comment on those trees. At first it would be about the fall colors of the trees. As the first tinge of color would appear she talked about how excited she was to see her first autumn.

As the autumn of her first year of college progressed, so did her first experience with depression. Rather than excitement about the oranges, yellows, and reds, her mind became consumed by fear. Do the trees die in the winter? Do they every forget how to grow leaves?

As the long winter progressed we kept looking out the window. "I know you said the trees are still alive," she said. "What happens if winter is too long?" We kept looking and kept talking. Sure enough, the tender spring buds appeared. As the trees just started showing signs of life my client asked, "what if it snows in the spring and the tender buds all die? Can the tree grow more buds?"

The trees of course did come back to life. My client did too. Right before she left for a new school she presented me with beautiful handmade card. She fashioned a replica of a particular gnarled old Magnolia tree out of construction paper. The tree was alive with a mass of tender pink blossoms. She was alive too, fully in the spring of a new life.

I'm glad she came back to life and that spring came so quickly. For some, however, spring comes slowly--if it comes at all. David K. Reynolds writes:

Feelings shouldn't be ignored--how could we ignore a snowstorm, anyway? But when you have to go out in a blizzard, you go out. That is the way it is to be human. The feelings are there, but we do what we have to do. Even in the summer, when the ice hasn't melted, shivering, we do what we have to do.
What is certain is that I am sometimes this, sometimes that. Sometimes pleased, sometimes not; sometimes confident, sometimes not; sometimes compassionate, sometimes not. the ice doesn't melt at my whim. It doesn't melt no matter how well I understand its origins or believe I understand its origins. It may not  melt despite my persistent efforts to change the circumstances that I believe to be maintaining it. In such cases what else is there to do but shiver and go on about living?
 What do you think?