Shanthi

Shanthi. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. “The Peace which passeth understanding” is a feeble translation of the content of this word.
— T S Eliot

Though Eliot drew this phrase from the New Testament, his translation is a step in the right direction, because it calls forth a mystical faith. We cannot know with certainty that we are safe; and yet we can experience a perfect peace.

It may be that a word like shanthi is culture-bound, that it is a project in cultural expansion for any Westerner to try to approach the fullness of what is conveyed by the word. Indeed, that is what we are reaching for each time that we say “shanthi” in preference to “peace”.

The English word “peace” began as a description of the state of relationships among nations, and only in Middle English was the meaning extended to encompass personal behavior. Shakespeare’s usage may be translated in the vernacular as, “Shut up.” The phrase “inner peace” dates only from the close of the 19th Century, when awareness of psychology was first taking root in Western culture.

In contrast, “shanthi” was used first to connote a condition of the soul, and the notion of राष्ट्रों के बीच शांति (“shanthi among nations”) is an expansion outward from there. This is no surprise. We get that shanthi is a state of mind. We have all had times when we are more anxious, and other times when we are more calm, and we may imagine, by extrapolation, a state of perfect calm, of not wanting anything to be different, an intuitive knowledge that the world is perfect, and that this place and this moment are an aspect of that perfection. We may have experienced something like this state, rarely, and we may suspect that there are practices and philosophies that might enable us to know shanthi more deeply.

We may even suspect that we live in a particularly restless time in a particularly restless culture, and that there are other cultures in which it is easier to be satisfied with what is. We may have harbored (without explicitly articulating) the idea that too much peace leads to complacency, and that the reason that Western technology has leapfrogged past the rich scientific and artistic traditions of the East in the last 200 years has something to do with the churning dissatisfaction of the Western mind. Could it be that the Oriental mind is hamstrung by “too much peace”—complacency, fatalism, resignation? Ambition, the conviction that things might be made better, the determination to rally the will for a lofty aim—these qualities may seem to us to be incompatible with shanthi.

Brahms put a lot of work into every measure that he composed, writing and rewriting, trying different arrangements, editing, and ultimately burning most of his compositions, sharing with us, his public, only those he considered to be most satisfying. Mozart, in contrast, spoke of receiving entire operas in a moment of inspiration, after which it remained for him only to write down the notes, as though taking dictation from God, with nary a correction or an afterthought. Brahms’s music is richer and more complex than Mozart’s; perhaps this can be achieved through angst and obsession. But Bach seems to be a counter-example; his music appears to be worked out with an intricate, rational plan that would determine every note—to our wondering ears, it would appear the simultaneous requirements of counterpoint and harmony might OVERdetermine every note. And yet, contemporary accounts of Bach suggest that he improvised fully-formed 3-part fugues on the keyboard, and that he worked in a mode much closer to Mozart than to Brahms.

Rembrandt might have meticulously adjusted each line, each brushstroke and each color until he found the effect that he was looking for. In a Japanese painting tradition, the artist prepares his unconscious with ritual and meditation, then picks up the brush and paints without technical effort…letting inspiration come to him through meticulous observation. The hand that guides the brush has already caught and executed what floated before the mind at the same moment as the mind began to form it, and in the end the pupil no longer knows which of the two—mind or hand—was responsible for the work. [Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (1971)]

I have read accounts of Picasso painting his famous peace icon in just this way.

Framed Dove of Peace Print

Is it possible for someone from our culture to experience that perfect stillness that only comes from realizing the perfection of all that is? Well, of course it is possible, but it is not easy—and easy is exactly what we are reaching for, for if it is difficult, it is not shanthi. And to the extent that we are reaching or striving at all, we are not at peace.

Is it possible to live a productive life, to be part of a dynamic perfection that shapes and re-shapes itself, spreading trust and love and cooperation ever more widely—is it possible to participate fully in this program while still living in a deep knowledge that the whole is perfect, and experiencing the shanthi that can only come from that conviction?

Just as a working hypothesis, I want to propose that this is more than possible, in fact, that far the best way to be effective in all our arts and our projects is to act from an inner experience of perfect satisfaction with what is, to create our presence in the outer life from the shanthi that we experience within.

— Source ???

Worship at the Office

Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.  This shift defies economic logic—and economic history. The rich have always worked less than the poor, because they could afford to. The landed gentry of preindustrial Europe dined, danced, and gossiped, while serfs toiled without end. In the early 20th century, rich Americans used their ample downtime to buy weekly movie tickets and dabble in sports. Today’s rich American men can afford vastly more downtime. But they have used their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes: more work!

Read more from Derek Thompson at The Atlantic

A man sleeps at his desk.

As our work has become more dissociated from anything we can value as a benefit to our communities or to ourselves, we have responded by throwing more of ourselves into it. Is it because we are escaping the emptiness inside us by keeping busy?  Or is it because the work is so inherently unsatisfying that we do more of it to try to squeeze out a modicum of gratification?

What single change in governance structure would produce most benefit?

Public control over the Fed would end profiteering on war, healthcare, education, and most other markets, would quickly eliminate the nation debt (since we would no longer be paying principal and interest on private bank notes created from thin air and passed off as our “legal tender”), and the embedded 30 to 40% interest in the cost of goods and services, which eats away at our productive capacity, would also disappear. It would also make most taxes irrelevant because unnecessary.
Robert Bows

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Bows’s premise is that the Federal Reserve is managing the money supply and manipulating the American economy for private gain, not for public good.  Though the fact is hardly ever explained in the mainstream press, the Federal Reserve, which is empowered to create dollars with the flip of a computer switch, is a consortium of the nation’s largest banks, not an agency of the US Government.

If Bows is correct, then the influence of private investment banks in distorting the world’s economic system is deep and broad.  If central banks were subject to democratic control, not only would a great leech be removed from  the economy, promoting an easy and widespread prosperity, but the financial motive for war would be removed.

Free love

Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. 

Emma Goldman

Making sound into light

Energy tends to spread out.  That’s the essence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy.

Temperature is the amount of energy per particle.  If you have a lot of particles with a little energy each, that’s a low temperature.  That same energy concentrated in just a few particles produces a high temperature.

Suppose you had a red-hot poker.  You could dunk it in a pot of water, and the pot might only be 1 degree hotter than room temperature.  All the energy is there, but it’s spread through the large pot.  There’s no way to extract and concentrate the energy in the water so you can make a red-hot poker.

So it’s a one-way street.  Left to its own devices, energy spreads out, but if you want to take spread out energy and concentrate it, it would take a lot of work, and could only be done with very low efficiency.

Sound is low energy, light is high energy.  A single particle of light, called a photon, has energy about a billion times greater than a single particle of sound, called a phonon.  So it’s easy to turn light energy into sound energy, but impossible to turn sound energy into light energy.

But now that I’ve convinced you it’s impossible, I’ll tell you that it happens, and the discovery of sonoluminescence (1934) was a huge surprise to physicists.  How can the energy of a billion phonons be extracted and funneled into a single photon?  And why doesn’t this violate the Second Law?

I don’t know the answer, so I can’t explain it.  I know it has something to do with the fact that the sound waves are coherent, like a laser, all pointed in the same direction and acting together they can do things they would never be able to do if they were random sound waves going every which way.


When I was an undergraduate, I learned quantum physics from Julian Schwinger.  (Today is his 101st birthday, and that provides me an excuse for writing this column.)  Schwinger was a true scholar, not just a phenomenal mathematician and profound scientific thinker, a cultured and thoughtful person who made far-flung connections in his conversation and his scholarship. His career was jump-started when he did a PhD dissertation under J Robert Oppenheimer at age 21.  He left his mark on 20th Century physics as much as any of the great names who are better known (e.g., Einstein, Schrodinger, Feynman, with whom he shared the 1965 Nobel prize).

Late in his life, Schwinger came up with an esoteric explanation for sonoluminescence, by analogy with Hawking’s account of evaporating black holes.

Around this time was the front-page news of cold fusion in a Utah elecrochemistry lab. It was a flash in the pan.  Cold fusion was soon dismissed as an experimental error.

Correcting this error has required decades; cold fusion is real.

What Schwinger realized was that cold fusion was the same story as sonoluminescence. Both phenomena occur when dispersed energy somehow manages to focus itself and accumulate so that within a low-temperature environment, a few very hot particles can appear.

Twenty-five years have passed since Schwinger theorized about cold fusion. We still don’t know if he was right.

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

The idea that humans are autonomous individuals with individual self-interests that mutually conflict was already an old idea when it became the underlying philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Libertarians take this perspective as the only truth, and social philosophers such as Ayn Rand, Paul Samuelson and Ludwig von Mises are not afraid to carry the premise of individuality to its absurd logical end.

The essence of modern Western political economy is that humans are inherently selfish and that a system of rewards and punishments forcibly imposed by a strong government is all that stands between us and destroying one another for profit.

In making this postulate explicit, we can begin to examine and question it, perhaps for the first time.  Compare it to the Confucian and Daoist philosophies that have been the basis of Chinese governance for 2500 years.  Compare it, indeed, to the picture that modern social psychological science has painted of human nature.

In Hindu and Chinese and Inuit and all the indigenous cultures with which I have a passing familiarity, the concept of “who I am” is much more closely tied to a social context than in the modern, industrial West.  I am my role in my family. I am a member of my community. I am defined by my relationships of love and work and play, the ideas I exchange, the art we create together. It’s hard to imagine what I would care about, what I would do if I lived in isolation.  Baby primates, including humans, die promptly if they are not held and cuddled. People in solitary confinement go mad, or worse. Older people warehoused in nursing homes die within months.

Contrast the Social Contract of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau with the Confucian ideal which has threaded through millennia of Chinese society.  To the Western philosophers, society exists as a deal made by individuals, submitting to constraints on their freedom in exchange for the means of security and comfort that are difficult for an individual to engineer on his own.  To the Confucians, there is the harmony of being together and the symbiosis of a smoothly-functioning community, and from these flow the fulfillment and self-satisfaction of individual members.

There is a great deal of research supporting the Eastern view over the Western.  People have mirror neurons, and they experience pain and pleasure in sympathy with those around them.  Health and longevity are tied far more tightly to family relations and position in the community than to diet, self-care, genetics, or any medical variable.  There are cultures where most people are happy and satisfied with life, regardless of their pecuniary circumstances, and other cultures where even the wealthiest and most powerful are chronically nervous, bitter and unsatisfied.

More controversially, there is a suppressed literature of PSI research which shows that our thoughts and motivations are not just ours individually, but can be shared and transmitted by extrasensory means that science has yet to understand.

— JJM

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‘Labour without joy is base.’

When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower;—when they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body. But now, having no true business, we pour our whole masculine energy into the false business of money-making; and having no true emotion, we must have false emotions dressed up for us to play with, not innocently, as children with dolls, but guiltily and darkly.

John Ruskin was an idealist, political philosopher and aesthete.  He noticed beauty, and described it in too many words.

Today is the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth