The lotus flower is a symbol of Buddhism because it grows so beautifully in muddy waters.

This is my third post inspired by the book Sapiens. The previous post included a paragraph on Buddhism as a source of happiness.

Buddhism seems to come up a lot in this blog about the point of life, and I have read about it many times, and tried meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Yuval Harari, the author of Sapiens, raises a momentous point on page 443. He says that Buddhism often gets translated into new age terms in western countries and ends up as something like “happiness begins within”, implying that our inner feelings are what matters. Harari points out that this is the opposite of Buddha’s message, which is that we should seek inner nothingness, and that “true happiness is independent of our inner feelings”.

This makes me think that perhaps the whole Buddhist message has been skewed in its translation into modern cultures. We have tried to adopt it literally, but it is a philosophy created for farmers in ancient India, before electricity, phones and globalisation – when most people lived exactly the same lives as their parents, never leaving their village, surviving on food they had grown themselves, waking with the Sun, working according to the seasons, marrying their neighbours. How can we possibly expect this to apply to the fast paced, intensely analysed lives we live in modern Europe or the cities of modern India?

I think the philosophy is sound, but maybe it needs a new translation. To me the Buddhist message comes across as trying to stop suffering by stopping all desires, which sounds like no fun. So I imagine I’ve got the wrong idea. Does it really involve stopping all thoughts which begin with “I want…”? I think maybe it is actually a much gentler message. It means turning those desiring thoughts into “It would be nice if…”.

So I think I’ve basically interpreted the verbs “want” and “desire” as “prefer” whereas it should be “yearn”. So let’s say I wake up and think “It’s a lovely day, I want to go to the beach”. That’s not the kind of desire that is causing suffering (unless the beach is the in Caribbean and I have to work weekends for a year to get there). It’s more like “It would be nice to go the beach” or “I prefer to go to the beach” rather than “I yearn for the beach”. On the other hand “I want a new job” can become a rather obsessive “I yearn for a new job” rather than “I would prefer a new job” or “It would be nice to have a new job”. Yearning leads to fantasising and obsessing and not enjoying your present situation. Preferring is more happy-go-lucky, happy with what you’ve got.

Maybe this distinction was easier to make in the distant past because people had far fewer choices and preferences and options available to them, so they lived more in the present by default anyway. They might typically think, “I want to take a nap under this tree” instead of “I want three weeks holiday in Portugal”.

Or maybe it’s not so much about having the desire, as thinking about it too much. In other words, wanting to go to the beach is great, as long as I enjoy the preparations and the journey there. But if all I can think of is “beach, beach, beach” from the moment I awake, then I’m living in the future until I get there. Or maybe that’s what it means to “yearn for the beach” as opposed to just “preferring to be there if at all possible”. And if I spend the whole morning living in the future, maybe once I get to the beach, I’ll end up thinking about what to make for dinner.

Or it could be that the Buddhist message is clear to everyone else, but it’s just me who has got the wrong end of the stick.

If anyone with an interest in Buddhism ever comes across this post, let me know what you think. Or maybe I need to do a lot more research and find out definitively for myself. But do I prefer to do that research, or yearn to do it? Because I don’t want it to turn into a huge obligation hanging over me causing suffering.


I’ve started getting images from http://www.pexels.com. I chose this one of a roller coaster ride because other people and adrenaline are two things that may make us happy.

My last post about legal fiction was inspired by the book Sapiens. So is this one. Chapter 19 is titled “And they lived happily ever after”. It discusses whether all the human developments over the last few thousand years – such as the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions have made us any happier. They have certainly enabled many more of us to live on the same planet, and allowed most of us to live for longer, but do we live better?

The author’s answer seems to be “probably not” and also “it depends how you measure happiness”. He gives four ways that today’s humans attempt to quantify happiness.

The psychological method (page 421) involves giving people surveys to ask how happy they are. This method tends to find that married people in strong social communities are happier. And because social communities are much weaker now than they’ve ever been (especially since hunter/gatherer days), by this measure, we appear to be a less happy species than 1000s of years ago.

The biological method (page 431) uses similar surveys but looks at different causes. These studies show that people tend to have a base level of happiness which they hover around their whole lives. It is only temporarily affected by momentous events like winning the lottery or having an accident. As long as the conditions remain stable (e.g. not living with increasing pain), we stay around the same preset level. This appears to be due to the level of chemical substances in our brain, like serotonin and dopamine. According to this method, we are probably as happy as we have ever been, assuming that the our chemical levels haven’t changed much in 100,000 years.

At first glance, these two methods seem to contradict each other. How can marriage and dopamine both cause happiness? It is possible if for example, people with more dopamine are more likely to get married.

A third method of measuring happiness is meaning. Some studies have shown that we look back upon our whole lives when considering if we are happy or not. And we report ourselves as happier if we find meaning in our lives. For many people, meaning comes from religion. Believing in something provides purpose and hope. In today’s world, particularly in Western countries, there is a far lower percentage of religious believers, indicating we are less happy than medieval times. Another common bringer of meaning is children. These days we tend to have less children, but they are much more likely to survive, so perhaps that has increased our happiness compared to our ancestors.

The author talks about another method, Buddhism (page 441). Although it is classed as a religion, it provides a philosophical way to achieve happiness, by basically being happy with what we have, and not constantly yearning for more. This will be the subject of my next post. As meditation and mindfulness practices become more popular in Western countries, perhaps this is leading to a small rise in global happiness levels.

Overall then, there is not a convincing case that all this food, entertainment, excellent health care and copious material goods has led to an increase in our happiness. By the measures above, it’s probably about the same or worse than it has always been.

Unless we count some kind of absolute happiness. 12000 years ago Earth was home to 5-8 million foragers (page 57) and there are now 7 billion of us, about 1000 times more. So even if we are individually only half as happy as our ancestors, the total Earth human happiness is 500 times bigger. Sorry – I derive some of my own personal happiness by working out statistics like this.

Can you imagine 60,000 of them in a stadium?

I’ve just read the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I am very impressed. It really made me think about many aspects of my life and our society.

He explains that chimpanzees naturally form groups of 50 or so (page 28) and humans can handle 150 (page 29). That’s about how many people are brains are capable of knowing intimately. But we regularly get together in groups of 1,000s or 10,000s to hear speeches or watch concerts. If you tried to put 60,000 chimps into Wembley there would be chaos! (page 42)

How do we cope? Harari talks about “common myths” – sets of shared beliefs and identities that allow strangers to trust each other and interact. And this is fascinating, because it puts religion and our model legal system on the same footing. Would a chimp be able to sleep in a youth hostel dorm room with 7 other unknown sleeping chimps? Probably not. But we can (usually, with ear plugs), because we trust in god, or the police, or the hostel administrators, to keep us safe. And as long as we all share that trust, we will all be safe.

But the shared beliefs go way beyond safety. Nations, governments, money, companies, private property and millions of other things all depend on our trust and respect for shared myths. I have a piece of paper in my wallet which I can exchange for food in any shop in the United Kingdom. Why? Because me and everyone else around has agreed that a £5 note is worth about 3 loaves of bread. But actually it’s just a piece of paper. And if I tried to present that paper to a shop in Moscow or Montevideo, they’d probably laugh. To Russians and Uruguayans it is just a funny looking piece of paper.

Harari also presents the company Peugeot and shows that it doesn’t actually exist. Its employees and factories and all the pieces of paper describing it are real. But the company itself is just a concept. There is no physical building or tree or stone which we can point to and say “that is Peugeot”. We can say they are properties of Peugeot, but Peugeot itself is what lawyers actually call a “legal fiction”.

The same logic applies to almost everything else I can think of. What is the city where I live, Brighton? It’s an arbitrary line on a map. It’s a bunch of people who talk about and write about “Brighton” and say “Brighton is great” or “Brighton is close to London”. And there are signs on the A23 which tell you that you are approaching Brighton, but does Brighton actually exist in the same way that an individual alligator or pine tree exists? We have all agreed to call a certain region on the Earth’s surface “Brighton”, but there is nothing inherently “Brighton” about Brighton.

Even more revealing was Harari’s discussion of social hierarchies. He says (on page 152) that nowadays most people are shocked by the laws which once imposed a racial hierarchy – dictating which skin colours had priority. We can now clearly see that a racial hierarchy is completely imagined. It doesn’t actually exist. And yet we almost all unconsciously accept a financial hierarchy – where kids of rich parents receive better treatment and opportunities than kids of poor parents. Why should kids of rich parents get more than kids of poor parents? We don’t allow it for differences in race or gender. Why for wealth? This is also an imagined hierarchy. But one which is part of our shared beliefs, so deeply ingrained that we rarely question it, let alone liken it to racism.

These fictions impact upon our deepest desires as well. Many people today say they love to travel. But in ancient Egyptian times, would a wealthy nobleman have spent his spare cash on a sight-seeing tour of Babylon? Probably not, he would have invested in a bigger family tomb, maybe something pointy. There’s nothing innate about wanting to travel. It’s a result of what Harari calls “romantic consumerism” (page 129).

All this has really blown me away. I’m starting to look at everything I do and question whether it’s a real biological need or a shared societal myth. Hunger is real. Wanting to experience a new type of food is probably imaginary. Tiredness is real. Believing I have a right to a full night’s sleep is not.

The computer screen in front of me is real. The tiny magnets inside a server somewhere which represent this sentence are real. The need to tell the world about my latest revelations is not. The desire to be fulfilled and happy and understand why I’m alive is not. Did hunter gatherers or medieval peasants feel that need? Seems unlikely. And yet I write this anyway. Because even if I can separate the fact from the fiction temporarily in my mind, it is too deeply embedded to attempt to live by it.

And anyway, achieving the separation would lead to anarchy and take us back to being primates. The ability to live next door to millions of other people is quite necessary in this era. But it has made me view religion in a new light. Yes – it’s collective delusion, but that’s not so unusual. We all do it, all the time.



The Kremlin in Russia

I started reading война и мир to prepare for a trip to Russia – this is inside the Kremlin in Moscow on a beautiful April day. I didn’t finish until long after we got back.

It’s difficult to imagine that a 1200+ page classic can be a page turner. From the first page, War and Peace pulls you into early 19th century Russia and doesn’t let go. It’s partly about the Napoleonic wars, and partly about the love and money affairs of a few aristocratic families. In each case, the author Leo Tolstoy gets inside the heads of the characters and describes what they are thinking and feeling. You feel like you are there in the room, or on the battlefield, observing all the little gestures and nervous tics that form human interactions.

One of the central characters is Count Pierre Bezuhkov. He is very rich and dreamy, constantly analysing himself and his actions and his meaning in life. If he had lived 200 years later, he might have written a blog like this one. The book carefully charts his long philosophical progression to happiness. Towards the end he is captured by the French after they take over Moscow in the autumn of 1812. In captivity and desperation he finds more happiness than all his wealth ever gave him. “In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity” (i.e. having too much, page 1060 in my translation).

Throughout the book, Tolstoy constantly questions why the war happened. What caused 600,000 Frenchmen to walk all the way across Europe to kill several hundred thousand Russians? Surely it couldn’t have been the will of a single man, Napoleon? In the Epilogue and Appendix Tolstoy discusses free will and history. He acknowledges that humans do have a small bit of free will – the freedom to raise or lower their arm when they wish to. But only when they act independently. When people act jointly or in a society, they lose almost all their free will. So the soldier must attack when his regiment attacks, and flee when they flee, and march when they march. He views human history as the combination of all these millions of bits of free will, lurching in one direction or the other. And they are not guided from above. After the event, historians say “Napoleon ordered his troops to conquer Russia”, but at the time, he is just the figurehead at the helm of a vast ship drifting in rough sea.

If you have a few months to spare, this is a book worth reading. It gives you an inside view of peoples’ thoughts – vain people, desperate people, dying people, heroic and pathetic people, happy and lost people, rich and poor people, and people living through an extraordinary and awful period of human history. It shows that soul-searching is not a modern activity.

Cliffs of Moher - the sort of place that inspires me to make lists of all the things I want to do in life

Cliffs of Moher – the sort of place that inspires me to make lists of all the things I want to do in life

I often make lists of things I should do. This happens especially when I’m on holiday. I come back with a piece of paper scribbled with a list of topics – such as Spanish, piano, physics, writing, kickboxing, etc. I have a vague feeling that once I focus and learn all these new skills, I’ll be a better, happier person.

I recently realised that this is not the case. The lists become a burden and an obligation. I feel overwhelmed if I do them, guilty if I don’t. They don’t add anything to my life. I would be better off not having the list and just doing things as I feel like doing them. Hopefully the activities I truly feel like doing will get done.

And hopefully I’ll have more time and space for the random people and excitements that are so enriching, rather than the self-betterment duties that aren’t.

Inspired by a line from the book The Prophet, I thought of these  skills and activities as if they were arrows from a bow:
My arrows are already airborne
There is no need to stare
Let them fall where they may fall
And later find out where


Beautiful scenery - Winspit Cove

Beautiful scenery – Winspit Cove in Dorset

I have read a lot of Agatha Christie books – 47 in total since my partner Mara joined the Agatha Christie book club a couple years ago. They are almost all page turners, which take between a few hours and a few days to read. They suck me in and capture me, and before I know it, they are over.

The characters and situations are starting to get predictable – it’s almost always about an inheritance – but she still manages to provide unexpected twists at the end. And sometimes there are some wonderful nuggets of wisdom.

In The Hollow a character refers to her youth saying “…to have been so happy and not to have known it”. In Sad Cypress, detective Hercule Poirot refers to how a person can change after a brush with death, referring to a Psalm: “…to walk in the valley of the shadow of death, and to see the sunshine again”.

A book which I really enjoyed was Parker Pyne Investigates. It is a collection of short stories about a private investigator. No murders this time, just various people who are dissatisfied with life and/or their spouses. Parker Pyne’s solutions usually involve adding some zest to his unsuspecting client’s life. In one story, Pyne brings together a bored former soldier and a lonely woman in a dramatic kidnapping situation. They fall into danger, and then fall in love and live happily ever after.

The problems and their solutions seem simple and yet real. And they make me think that maybe a bit of excitement and distraction is one of the ingredients of happiness. And that other people often provide that excitement. It is not usually a solitary thing (for me at least). Things like – hiking along a beautiful coastal path with a friend. Or meeting a new person in a youth hostel. Or having an impromptu dance in the living room. Or an unexpected conversation on the train. Or having someone come to stay.

All things which have happened to me recently and which have had a much more positive effect than hours of sitting and pondering and wondering what life is all about. I should include reading an Agatha Christie novel in that list. Even if I read alone, it feels like I am joining a world full of people and intrigue.


A nice animal which liked me

Some books and traditions refer to the mind as having an observing part and a thinking part. Meditation seems to involve letting the thoughts float away so only the observer is left behind. I like to think of it as an experiencer rather than an observer. Under the layers of thought, is there a centre of pure experience?

I caught a glimpse of it a couple weeks ago while on holiday and it set me wondering. Is it plausible that the experiencing and thinking minds are really separate? If so, did the experiencing mind evolve first in the more ancient parts of the brain, with the thinking mind coming later in the neocortex? Or did they evolve together?

This is important, because if they evolved separately, then it feels they should be easier and more natural to separate now, in my own mind. But if they evolved together, and are just two aspects of the same huge mesh or neurons, then trying to separate them is trying to create an artificial boundary where none exists.

So I spent a while watching a cat and wondering what goes on in its head. Perhaps it spends much of its time purely experiencing – with its senses tuned to the world. And once in a while, a visual thought like “I’m hungry”, “What’s that noise?” comes along and it responds. Or perhaps it, like me, is constantly processing visual thoughts, and paying as little attention to its surroundings as most humans do. Or perhaps between thoughts it is not really conscious at all, not experiencing, not thinking, just processing.

I don’t have an answer to this of course. But I like to think that animals do spend a lot of their time purely experiencing and not thinking or worrying. And therefore, I could in theory do it too.