Middle Way Thinkers 1: David Hume

This is the start of a new blog series on Middle Way Thinkers (the meditation series will continue, but with more varied contributors and less frequently). What I mean by a ‘Middle Way Thinker’ is a well known person of the past or present who has made a major contribution to our thinking about the Middle Way. There is already a page on the Buddha on this site but not much on anyone else. I’m going to offer a bit of background and a summary of some key ideas of each figure, and try to distinguish their ideas that support the Middle Way from those I think less helpful. It’s not going to be restricted to philosophers, but may include all kinds of thinkers from different cultures and times.hume1 209x300 Middle Way Thinkers 1: David Hume

I’m going to start with David Hume (1711-1776) because I have such a soft spot for him, and he made such a creative contribution to philosophy, despite his mistakes and imperfections. Hume was born to a family of minor gentry in the borders of Scotland and attended university in Edinburgh at the age of 12 (normal in the eighteenth century!). He was given to philosophical reflection from an early age, but also inspired by the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ that was taking off during his life. He lived at various times in London, France and Edinburgh, but his major work A Treatise on Human Nature, was composed while he was on a kind of study retreat at a rural French college called La Fleche. He poured his amazingly new ideas into the Treatise, but it fell ‘still-born from the press’, as Hume put it, gaining few readers. Although he then tried to present his ideas in new forms (his two Enquiries), he eventually got so disillusioned with the lack of public response to his philosophy that he turned to writing history instead.

What’s so thoroughly important to the Middle Way in Hume is his emphasis on experience as the basis of our judgements. Although there were empiricists (such as Aristotle and Locke) before Hume, they were not nearly as thorough and rigorous in their allegiance to experience as Hume was. Unlike his predecessors, Hume applied the criterion of experience to areas like the self, causality, ethics and religious belief. Where his predecessors had been patchy in their allegiance to experience, sometimes falling back on dogma when the going got tough, Hume followed it through all the way.

For example, Hume recognised that you cannot actually experience a cause – all you experience are two events that you generally assume are linked because they occur so frequently in succession. One billiard ball hits another and apparently causes it to move, but we only have the frequency of their interaction as the basis to call this a ’cause’. Similarly, Hume recognised that when we look inside our experience we don’t actually find a self, just a lot of experiences of thoughts, feelings etc. that we tend to assume are ‘ours’. The ‘me’ label that we apply to these is just a label, as we don’t find a separate ‘me’ amongst the thoughts and feelings.2 tined fork Middle Way Thinkers 1: David Hume

But perhaps Hume’s biggest achievement, in my view, is what is often known as ‘Hume’s Fork’. You can imagine Hume’s fork as a binary choice, like a fork in the road, and it applies to claims. Either, he said, a claim tells us something relevant to experience, or it tells us something about the relationships between ideas. We can’t accept that claims about relationships between ideas tell us anything relevant to experience. Here is the blistering way he puts this in the rousing finale of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning of quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I think this is the first attack on metaphysics in Western philosophy. He was basically pointing out that a claim that is only concerned with the ultimate and abstract zone beyond experience (what philosophers call the a priori) can do not more than tell us about the conventions that we apply when trying to understand the universe. It tells us nothing about the universe itself, or for that matter about ourselves or our values. To assert that it does is deluded in a very basic way that confuses the sign with the reality. In this sense he was independently revisiting some of the insights of the Buddha.

However, as with every other philosopher, there are also ways that I think Hume veered significantly from the Middle Way. I think his biggest mistake was the fact-value distinction, which he virtually invented. Hume assumed that because we need to justify our beliefs in terms of experience, we have to confine our beliefs to factual ones that can be justified through scientific observation. A justifiable ethics for him would also have to be based on factual observation about acceptable moral attitudes in society. This popularised the regrettable assumption, that haunts a lot of Western thinking to this day, that ethics is inherently subjective – in contrast to ‘facts’ which can be absolutely objective. This is a false dichotomy for which we have paid with much confusion.

Nevertheless, on the whole I tend to find Hume an inspiring figure. He was a courageous figure prepared to think things through, defy the establishment, and trenchantly reject dogma wherever he found it. But despite his free-thinking, he was no dour Scottish puritan – rather an imperfect human figure who liked a good dinner and enjoyed the pleasures of friendship.

Some web links on Hume:

The MWS Podcast: Episode 20, Don Cupitt

In this episode we are joined by the Christian theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt. He talks to us about how he understands religion and his non-realist position about God. He also touches on Jungian archetypes, agnosticism, Stephen Batchelor and how he views the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 20: Don Cupitt as audio only:
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Poetry 22: Asclepiadics by Sir Philip Sidney

oak forest 206935 1280 Poetry 22: Asclepiadics by Sir Philip Sidney

O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness,
O how much I do like your solitariness!
Where man’s mind hath a freed consideration
Of goodness to receive lovely direction;
Where senses do behold th’order of the heavenly host,
And wise thoughts do behold what the creator is.
Contemplation here holdeth his only seat,
Bounded with no limits, borne with a wing of hope,
Climbs even to the stars; nature is under it.
Nought disturbs thy quiet; all to thy service yield;
Each sight draws on a thought, thought mother of science;
Sweet birds kindly do grant harmony unto thee;
Fair trees’ shade is enough fortification,
Nor danger to thyself, if it be not in thyself.

Robert M Ellis reciting the poem:
Download audio: Asclepiadics read by Robert M Ellis

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons

Critical Thinking 13: Quality and quantity

Can you measure love? Or happiness? Or objectivity? Are there some things we can’t measure, or shouldn’t try to? The issue of qualitative versus quantitative comparison is a matter of controversy in the social sciences. It is also often a source of false divisions between science (where everything is taken to be measurable) and the arts (where the values involved cannot be measured).

One area where science can become dogmatic is if it takes the attitude that all variables worthy of investigation should be measurable. To be able to measure something, it needs to be publically available, and there need to be agreed units in which you can measure it. However, not everything worthy of investigation is publically available (especially mental events such as desires, meanings or beliefs). Although we have agreed units to measure many physical properties, such as length, wave frequency or force, we do not have agreed units to measure, say, the strength of a belief.

However, this doesn’t stop a quality like the strength of a belief from being incremental (a matter of degree). The strength of a belief can be recognised as incremental, and thus within the sphere of experience, without being quantifiable. Rather, we can talk about the strength of a belief in qualitative terms, but incremental ones.  The language that makes it incremental is liable to be vague – but deliberately so. For example, you could say that “Fred tentatively believes that his cat is ill” or “Xavier is fairly happy”. It really wouldn’t add anything to these vague degrees if we were to impose a fake precision on them. “Fred has 0.36 of a belief that his cat is ill” or “Xavier is 69% happy” would just impose a dogmatic belief in measurability on material that is not accessible in that kind of way. It would convey the deluded idea of precision without applying any genuine precision. We don’t have to get into such fake precision to use incremental qualities.

We also need to recognise the provisionality and uncertainty attending even precise measurements of physical objects. You can measure the block and find it 32.5cm long and 12.34 cm wide, but this Measurements US Fish and Wildlife Service SE region 300x193 Critical Thinking 13: Quality and quantitymeasurement still lacks precision when considered much more closely. Different people might measure the same thing differently, even using the same instruments. We also cannot rely absolutely on the constants on which units of measurement are based (such as the speed of light), because these are only based on measurements so far, subject to human errors, false assumptions and further changing conditions. Practically speaking, these uncertainties are unlikely to make much difference, but they still justify us in maintaining a degree of provisionality when we maintain belief in any quantification.

At the other end of the spectrum are absolute qualities. One central claim in Middle Way Philosophy (which has been adopted from empiricism) is that no quality in experience is absolute. We can think absolutely about, say infinity, perfection, nothingness, or irreducibility, but we can only do this in abstraction. Such abstractions are meaningful to us, but we can’t justify any belief in their pure occurrence (or pure absence) in experience.

So, I’d suggest some principles can be applied to issues of quality and quantity using the Middle Way:

1. Qualities can and should be incrementalised if they have an application in experience.

2. Incrementalised qualities are still worthy of investigation, even though they are vague.

3. Precise quantification carries a degree of uncertainty that needs to be recalled.

4. Our judgement of each thing should be treated only with the degree of precision that the thing can bear in experience.


Try to classify the following. Are they (a) precisely measurable (though with uncertainty), (b) vague incremental qualities, or (c) absolutes applicable only in the abstract?

1. The earth’s magnetic field

2. The beauty of the Mona Lisa

3. Tony Blair’s charisma

4. Logic (i.e. correct inference)

5. The energy contained in a cereal bar

6. The freedom we enjoy in a democracy

7. The goodness of God

8. The smelliness of a pair of dirty socks


Index of past blogs on the Critical Thinking course

Picture: ‘Measurements’ by US Fish and Wildlife Service SE Region (Wikimedia Commons)

Meditation 12: Mahasi Vipassana (or The Art of Noting) – Part 2

Some people consider meditation to be nothing more than an insular form of escapism, whereby the meditator retreats to a quiet place, free from the distractions of the modern world and immerses themselves in a state of tranquil bliss.  I think that this is a misunderstanding, albeit an understandable one .  When most people do engage in formal meditation practice they usually  seek out the type of place described above and to anyone observing, said meditator is doing anything but engaging with the world around them.  Although it is quite possible to experience a state of tranquil bliss while meditating and it can be beneficial to practice in a quiet place, these things do not form the purpose of meditation – rather the purpose as I see it is to learn how to engage the world with greater clarity and understanding.  Consequently, it is at some point necessary to employ the techniques of meditation outside of the formal setting.

In part 1 of this series I provided a brief description of the Mahasi Vipassana (or Noting) meditation technique and discussed how I use this method as part of my own formal practice.  In part 2 I will try to describe how the noting technique can easily be practised in many situations and can help us to experience many of the things that we take for granted more fully and in a more satisfying way.

Many of the benefits of meditation are likely to be subtle, incremental and sub-concious.  It is unrealistic to expect that one will be able to actively employ mindfulness in every situation, this should happen gradually overtime.  It is also doubly unlikely that one will be able to actively  ’note’ in many everyday situations – imagine trying this when being in conversation – it wouldn’t work.  Nevertheless, there are many situations where we can ‘note’ effectively, thereby extending the practice outside of the quiet retreat and into the ‘real’ world.  I will give three examples of activities that might lend themselves well to the practice of noting; walking, eating and cleaning the toilet.


As far as I can tell most Buddhist teachers incorporate walking meditation into their teachings.  This seems to be an attempt to break down the barrier between meditation practice and life as we know it, adding – as it does – the movement of the body and the movement through space, and as such it seems like a good place to start with the noting technique.  Meditative walking, like noting itself, is an artificial and deliberate facsimile of something that we normally do without thinking, only in this context the idea is to perform the task (walking) with a much greater degree of concentration and focus.  If you have found noting to be useful in ‘sitting’ meditation then it is likely that you will find it equally useful in walking meditation.

Begin from a standing position and perhaps do whatever you do before any meditation session – deep breathing, body scan, etc.  Before you begin to take your first step note the intention to step; ‘intending… intending’.  Then being to lift one of your legs and as you do so note ‘lifting… lifting’.  Keeping it simple, slowly bring the foot forward and as you lower it note ‘placing… placing’ or ‘putting… putting’, then it is back to lifting and the cycle starts again.  As with all noting, the intention is to aid us with our concentration – the focus is really on the sensation and experience of walking, not on the formation of words.

As you become used to this simple noting it is possible to add a greater degree of detail, so ‘intending… lifting… placing… lifting… placing…’ might become ‘intending… lifting… pushing (as you push your leg forward)… placing… lifting… pushing… placing’.  Because we are focusing on a specific activity in this meditation there is more focus than with the sitting.  If anything else grabs the attention then note it, before intentionally returning the focus to the walking.  In my experience this type of walking meditation is very slow and deliberate and requires a fair degree of concentration, so the mind is less likely to wander anyway.

Noting can also be used when walking normally, although it is not realistic to note every movement of the leg, as described above.  Instead, you can do something more akin to the sitting meditation.  As you walk just note ‘walking… walking… walking…’ and experience the whole bodily sensation of walking.  Like the noting of the breath described in part 1, walking can be the base from which your attention can roam.  If something grabs your attention then note it for as long as it is the main focus.  If it is the sound of a bird singing, note ‘listening… listening…’ or ‘sound… sound…’ and if an emotion arises from the listening then note it too – ‘happy… happy…’ or ‘irritation… irritation’.  If there is no particular focus then return your attention the the sensation of walking.

It should hopefully be fairly clear how this technique can be applied to all sorts of activities and so, with the assumption that the noting technique is now understood, I will only skim over the next two examples.


One thing that I have gained from meditation (specifically this method and the Soto Zen technique of Zazen) is an understanding that each moment consists of a magnificent symphony of sensation, emotion and thought – a symphony that I was almost completely unaware of, despite the fact that it is present at all times.  There have been several occasions when this realization has been strongly reinforced and one of those was when I was on retreat learning Mahasi Vipassana, and applying it to the act of eating.

On the first day all I seemed to note was ‘intending… chewing… swallowing’.  This was fine, but as the retreat went on the noting words that I was able to use increased to such an extent that I felt quite overwhelmed and surprised at just how complex the experience of eating was.  There was the lifting of the spoon, the temperature of the food, the sounds (spoon hitting teeth or squelch of saliva), the texture of the food, the emotions and thoughts that arose as a direct consequence of eating – the list seemed endless.  However, the thing that surprised me the most was that ‘taste’ was the very last thing that I noted.  Now,  one might assume that the food must have been tasteless and I have to admit that, being the first time that I had lived on a purely vegan diet, I was previously concerned that it would be.  This was not the case – the food tasted wonderful and yet the sensation that is usually the only one that holds my attention when eating took a back seat, there was so much other stuff going on of which I am usually completely unaware.

As with walking this can be done as a formal type of meditation – with each bite being taken slowly and deliberately, but it can also be applied to ‘normal’ eating – although the detail of the noting will naturally be less.

Cleaning the Toilet

The example of cleaning a toilet as a mindful activity has been used by other before and there are good reasons for this – it is unpleasant, it is something that most of us would rather avoid and when we do it we often do anything rather than fully focus on the job at how to clean a toilet 250x300 Meditation 12: Mahasi Vipassana (or The Art of Noting) – Part 2hand.  My understanding of the application of mindfulness is that it should not be reserved only for those activities that we enjoy – it is equally important to apply it to the less pleasant experiences of life.

When I clean the toilet I distract myself, I might plan the rest of the day or mull over a conversation from yesterday – the act of cleaning is done automatically and I do not give it my full attention.  It is reasonable to ask why we should need to give this task our full attention – what is wrong with distracting ourselves anyway?  The answer to this requires a much fuller explanation of the benefits of mindfulness and I will not cover them here, indeed I do not feel qualified to cover them fully anywhere, but if you are asking yourself why bother then I urge you to seek more expert advise and make your own mind up from there.

If you do subscribe to the benefits of mindfulness then using the noting technique while cleaning the toilet, or doing any other unpleasant activity is a good way to practice.  Start by noting the intention to clean or even the intention to move your arm and go from there.  It might only be the physical acts associated with the cleaning that hold your attention, and that is fine.  Don’t, however, restrain four focus – if there is a particularly nasty something that grabs your attention then don’t avoid it, but also don’t feed it with detailed thought.  You might just note a thought; ‘that is disgusting’, and so note something like ‘thinking’, then you may notice an emotion that this thought has lead to – this might be something like ‘disgust’ or ‘revulsion.’  From this the attention will probably move to the intention to clean said something, then on to the physical activity of cleaning it and then, maybe, a feeling of satisfaction may arise.  As with the formal meditation the idea is only to use the noting words to aid our focus, not to intellectualize – so it is best not to note anything like ‘moving my hand’ or ‘I am repulsed’ rather ‘moving’ or ‘revulsion’.

After a while I hope that you too will discover that like eating, cleaning the toilet can be a magnificent and captivating symphony of sensation, thought and emotion.

You may not be convinced by any of what I have suggested and if you are already proficient and well practised at other forms of mediation or mindfulness training then Noting Meditation may be of little use, but I urge you to give it a good go before passing judgement, and if you are really interested in continuing this practice then please seek out more expert advice.  This technique will not be for everybody, but if you are just starting out with meditation and are finding your attention difficult to hold, then you may find it as beneficial as I have and you might find yourself noting as you wash up, drive to work, open a door, get up out of your chair and any other activity that you find yourself taking part in.

image taken from www.stain-removal-101.com

Johannes Vermeer. 1632 – 1675.

535px Johannes Vermeer   Het melkmeisje   Google Art Project Johannes Vermeer. 1632   1675.johannesvermeer youngwomanwithawaterjug Johannes Vermeer. 1632   1675.



Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in the Netherlands, we know very little about his life, he lived in a small house with his wife and children.  Delft had been in the forefront of a struggle to gain freedom from Spanish oppression until 1648, William of Orange, one of the leaders against the Spanish had died there earlier in 1584. The Eighty Year War had raged between 1568 to 1648, the Golden Age of paintings followed from the mid to late 17th.century, the Dutch led European trade, art and science. When the town became settled a small group of burghers administered in the town, dressed in the traditional black clothes of the Puritans. Delft was a centre for the earthenware industry, its narrow streets were built in a ‘classical regularity,’  winding canals reflected the houses and trees along its banks, Gothic churches were numerous, good subject matter for artists to portray. Many households owned small paintings showing elegant drawing rooms, domestic scenes and landscapes, large works of art were in the municipal buildings.

The art was not Baroque in the sense of love of splendour, more like the detailed realism found in early Netherland painting. Dutch Calvanism forbade the creation of religious art so scenes of every day life flourished, the painters looked to at the way light was used to great effect in the old masters, Vermeer was particularly skilled at creating light.

I have chosen two paintings to discuss, both using oil on canvas, the first, ‘A Maid -servant Pouring out Milk’ is now in the Rijks-museum in Amsterdam, the second ‘ Young Woman with a Water Jug, ‘  scenes of  ‘upstairs downstairs,’ if you watched the television series years ago you will know what I mean. In the first painting Vermeer composes  the images as a pyramid, the maid’s head at the top, he uses a dotted technique to paint the moving light on the crumbly bread and on her blue apron,  the blue is ultramarine, which is expensive crushed lapis lazuli. The white of the coif against the white-washed wall is ‘a miracle of craftmanship’ colour against colour, tone against tone, the paint was lead white, we see the starched white cap against the cream and umber dress, covered by a glaze in the same colours.

Maids in Dutch art were seen in two ways, firstly one who may threaten the honour and security  of the home and disturb the peace with her loose ways, or as Vermeer chose do in a bengin way, he treats his subject  empathetically, he sees her as a person who symbolises a virtuous, hard working young woman, – we may ask ourselves, is she wistful or is she concentrating on her task. The young woman is sturdily built, solid, the weight of the table also also gives the impression of weight. It is thought that the maid is making a bread pudding, she slowly pours the milk into the dish called a Dutch oven, peices of bread, probably stale, are ready to be covered by the milk, ordinary food items, a typical domestic scene. Other symbols are also present which can have double meanings, one of the Delft tiles on the floor against the wall shows Cupid, an amorous symbol, the coals in the foot warmer behind the maid could be the hot coals of lust or the passion of a woman for her husband, even milk itself can be construed to contain sexual content!

Vermeer was a respected painter and art dealer, he was a member of the Guild House of St.Luke in Delft, guilds were later to become academies. In his early work, he portrayed every day items, simple motifs and characters such as in this painting, a maid working in the house, in the second painting the scene is one with probably the mistress of the house, painted between 1660 and 1662, by this tme Vermeer’s work had become more contemplative, he worked in a disciplined way. In the second painting the woman holds the gilded jug which is on a platter, the table is covered with a red -coloured table cloth on which is a jewellery box, a symbol of wealth, the scene is set in a private room, there is water and a basin, symbols of purity.  The woman may be Vermeer’s wife or daughter, she is dressed in blue with a black and white over piece, on her head is a white cloth, she gazes out of the window, the light pours in, we see it on her arm particularly well, on the wall we see a map,  two women with differing roles.

The artist David Hockney set a cat among the pidgeons when he thought he had proved that Vermeer had used camera obscura to aid his work in many paintings, others had thought so before him, it may be true, the evidence I saw in a documentary seemed convincing, but it does not belittle Vermeer’s genius. His work has a still quality which I like.

There is also a film called The Girl with the Pearl Earing which is an imaginery construction of Vermeer’s work on the painting with the same name.


The MWS Podcast: Episode 19, Peter Worley

In this episode, we are joined by Peter Worley, the co- founder of the Philosophy Foundation and author of the ‘If Machine’ and the award winning ‘Philosophy Shop’. The main topic is teaching philosophy to children and philosophy’s wider role in education.

MWS Podcast 19: Peter Worley as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_19_Peter_Worley

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Critical Thinking 12: Analogies

Analogies are comparisons made in an argument to help prove a point. You’re arguing about one thing and you put it in the terms of another, to help people to see it in a different light. For example:

Getting into your car to drive a few hundred metres to the corner shop is as ridiculous as hopping that distance: both are clumsy, grossly inefficient, and enough to make you a laughing stock.

The analogy here is between driving a car and hopping. Obviously, the two are not the same, but the argument tries to make a point about the inefficiency of driving short distances by getting us to imagine it in terms of hopping. Driving does not have to be entirely the same as hopping for this to be convincing: just similar in the relevant way. In this case, the relevant way would be in terms of the clumsiness, inefficiency, and ridiculousness of both.Nude man hopping on right foot Edward Muybridge 139x300 Critical Thinking 12: Analogies

There are obviously some parallels here, but that doesn’t mean that the analogy is particularly successful. One reason for its lack of success may be that we tend to view inefficiency in using fuel rather differently from inefficiency in using our own bodily energy. Hopping a few hundred metres might just be seen as a good, though rather bizarre, form of useful exercise, whereas driving that distance wastes fuel – which we can more easily measure. The ridiculousness of hopping might also be exactly what makes it positive fun for some, whereas driving a car a few hundred metres would only be ‘ridiculous’ in the sense of drawing condemnation from the ecologically-minded. What looked like similarities at first turn out to be rather stretched and thin.

A well-judged analogy can be really helpful. It can help people to ‘think outside the box’ of the cognitive models they’re in the habit of using, and bring in the imagination to allow them to consider their experience in a more open way. However, it’s also very easy to dismiss a poorly-applied analogy. The problem is that there will always be dissimilarities as well as similarities between the two things being compared, so it is very easy just to latch onto the dissimilarities and use them as an excuse to dismiss the argument, if you’re a bit resistant to it in the first place. But a Middle Way approach involves trying to reach a balanced appreciation both of the similarities and the dissimilarities.

So, when you come across an analogy, it helps to think clearly about what the analogy is being used to support, and what sorts of relevant similarities and dissimilarities there are. The analogy may also need to be seen in a wider context, as there may be counter-arguments based on strong dissimilarities that just aren’t being considered. Here’s what I hope is a useful checklist:

  • What is the analogy trying to show?
  • Is the analogy relevant to what it is trying to show?
  • What are the relevant similarities?
  • What are the relevant dissimilarities?
  • Are the assumptions being made about the things being compared correct?
  • Are there other important dissimilarities that are not being taken into account?

Here are a couple more examples to illustrate the application of some of these questions:

Politicians in Britain today are just like African dictators, only out to get what they can from the country and squirrel it away in their offshore bank accounts. We will never get straight politicians.

This analogy is weak because the assumptions being made about British politicians are factually dubious. There may be a few cases of corruption, but these are nowhere near the scale of certain well-known corrupt African dictators (such as Mobutu in Congo). Of course, African dictators themselves are also rather varied, and some may not be particularly corrupt.

Jess has red hair and likes reading like her sister. She’ll probably become an English teacher like her sister.

Here the analogy is between Jess and her sister, but the fact of her having red hair is of no relevance to the probability of her becoming an English teacher. The fact that she likes reading is relevant, but is not strong enough by itself to support the conclusion, as lots of people who like reading do not become English teachers.


Assess the strength of these analogical arguments:

1. Cars should be restricted just as guns are, because they are lethal weapons just like guns. Cars kill and injure people just as much as guns do.

2. Motorists who kill people through reckless driving should be given a life sentence just like a murderer. The outcome is the same: a dead person.

3. More people are killed by horse-riding each year than by taking ecstasy. Ecstasy is thus less dangerous than horse-riding, and it is inconsistent to maintain horse-riding as a legal activity whilst banning ecstasy.

4. The practice of arranged marriage (as practised, for example, in Asian and Islamic cultures) is necessary to take into account young people’s lack of experience when they choose a partner. We need someone else to make this choice for us when we are inexperienced. This has been effectively admitted in Western culture when people use dating agencies and dating websites to select a partner for them, so it is hypocritical for people who use these services to criticise arranged marriage.

 Index of previous blogs in the Critical Thinking course

Picture: Nude man hopping on right foot (Edward Muybridge studies in locomotion)


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Meditation 11: The hindrance of sloth and torpor

Anyone who has meditated will have met this one at some time or another: the irresistible urge to fall asleep! If you are sitting in an upright posture, you won’t actually drop off, but rather keep starting to flop and then waking yourself up with a start as you do so. I find it a painful, uncomfortable state to be in: not sleeping and not meditating either, but unhappily careering from one to the other, and feeling confused and trapped in the cycle.

That experience is sloth, which (strictly speaking) can be distinguished from torpor. Torpor is not exactly falling asleep, but hovering in a sort of blank, half-resolved state just short of it. I haven’t really experienced torpor much myself, and sloth seems to be very much the product of specific circumstances. So one of the best things one can do about sloth, in my experience, is just to avoid those circumstances. It’s just a list of meditation no-no’s really:

  • Don’t try to meditate straight after a meal
  • Don’t try to meditate after consuming alcohol, even a small amount
  • Don’t try to meditate after a long walk or other soporific exercise
  • Don’t try to meditate lying down

Of course, your experience may be different. You may be able to break all of these rules. But my experience of thinking “I don’t need to worry about that: it was only a small glass of wine/ I’m not sleepy really/ I don’t need to be so rigid about this” and attempting to meditate under any of these circumstances, is that it really doesn’t work.

Then there’s the afternoon sag. Perhaps it’s later on in the afternoon, and you’re on retreat, so you sit down to meditate with everyone else because it’s on the programme – but then the irresistible tentacles of sleepiness begin to creep around you and gradually haul you towards them. That octopus of oblivion is just about to engulf you when… Oh yes, I was supposed to be meditating! But the afternoon octopus only goes and hides behind a weak intention for a short while. He’ll be back shortly. Octopus 300x225 Meditation 11: The hindrance of sloth and torpor

There are only two ways I know to avoid the afternoon octopus. One is to drink the right amount of caffeinous drink beforehand, so that you’re awake but not over-stimulated. The other, probably more wholesome method, is to have a preparatory afternoon nap.

There are lots of other ways you’re supposed to be able to deal with sloth and torpor. Imagine lots of cold water splashing on your face. Raise the awareness higher in your body. Even visualise your body as full of light. None of these really work for me. In some cases, a degree of sleepiness may just be a way that some other kind of resistance is expressing itself, and if you just work through it, suppressing (but not repressing) the sleepiness, you might end up having an especially rewarding meditation because you’ve found a way of integrating that resistance. But in my experience, that’s exceptional. Most sleepiness is just about the immediate physical situation or one’s immediate bodily state. The usual solution if all else fails is very simple: get up, go off and have a nap!

Index to previous meditation blogs