Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ten Days: The Story of My Meditation Retreat

[I wrote this while I was a sophomore in high school.]

I must be crazy.

I could be at home sipping lemonade, eating popcorn, and reading a book. Instead, I'm sitting cross-legged in a crowded hall in North Fork, California for a ten day meditation retreat. In order to come to this retreat, I have had to promise to obey five rules. One is to maintain complete silence for the entire ten day period except to ask questions of the manger or teacher. I have also had to agree not to leave the course until the ten days are over.

Our schedule is long: we get up at 4:30 and go to sleep at 9:30. Three times a day we have to sit for an hour without moving, keeping our eyes closed, our legs crossed, and our hands folded. During the other meditation times, we are free to move whenever necessary.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, I am ready to cry. I don't know how much more I can take. The pain in my knees has become excruciating. When the five-minute break comes, it takes me several minutes just to stand up. I hobble over to have a talk with Gregory, the manager.

"Gregory," I say, "my knees are really hurting. Do you think I could be doing permanent damage to them by sitting so long in one position?"

Gregory laughs. "No, definitely not," He says. "The pain only bothers you because your ego identifies itself with the pain so much. It just gives you the idea that you are doing permanent damage to your knees to get you to stop meditating. You have to be strong. Don't give in. In four or five days, you'll just brush it off."

This does not convince me. How come I am the only one with knees that hurt? Whenever I open my eyes, the other people are sitting like statues. I must have some rare genetic knee disability, that's what it is, I think. I'll never be able to walk again if I keep this up.

I spend the next hour session in agony, making up poetic phrases to describe the pain: "The pain in my knee blooms like a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima... A dull, grinding, thudding ache in my lower spine, as if a dentist had begun to bore a hole there with a dull drill... My feet are being dipped in flames..."

After this session I change my sitting policy. As soon as I begin to feel pain creep up in my knees or spine, I ignore the instruction not to move and quietly shift my position to relieve the pain. I feel wretched, however, like I am cheating or doing something very bad. What am I doing at this meditation retreat anyway?

The fear has taken me over. I am ready to quit. The technique is good, I think. Meditation is good. The teachers are good. It's just that my knees can't withstand this constant torture.

My father has told me that if I really want to quit, we will leave, in spite of the contract I have signed. During dinner break, I begin to walk up to him. I plan to say, "Dad?" He will look at me, startled that I have broken the vow of silence. "Let's go," I'll say. "I'm damaging my knees. I want to be able to play on the basketball team this year. Heck, I want to be able to walk!"

However, I never go through with it. When I am about five steps away from him, I stop, turn around, and go back to my cabin. I'll just give it one more day, I think, and if I can't take it after that, then I'll quit.

From 7:00 to 8:00 we watch the evening discourse on videotape. S. N. Goenka, the man who brought this form of meditation to America, is on the screen. His grasp of English is impressive, but not flawless.

"The pain is there," he is saying. "To train your mind to observe it you are made to sit for one hour. Half an hour passes easily, and after that it starts becoming sever, so intense. Again, somehow you manage another fifteen minutes. After forty five minutes, every minute is like an hour. Oh, what a pity, I can't open my eyes, can't even see my watch, certainly now it is one hour over... So unbearable."

When he talks about how much it hurts, I laugh so hard I cry. He is exactly right. I feel a huge relief, as if a weight has been lifted off me. Other people have pain, too. I'm not the only one.

That night at 9:00, after the final session of that day, I stay in the hall. At this time, students are permitted to bring up their questions, concerns, and problems with the teachers. I trust the teacher more than the manager, and I want to make absolutely sure that I am not damaging my knees. There are several other students who also have questions. I watch what they do, and after they leave I imitate them. I kneel before the teacher. He smiles. His eyes are a bright blue, and his hair is cut short. He looks to be about 50 years old. I can tell that he likes all the people who ask him questions, whether they are handsome or ugly, stupid or smart.

"Teacher," I say, "my legs are hurting me a lot, and it's interfering with my meditation. Is it possible that I could be permanently damaging my legs?"

The teacher smiles again, and shakes his head. "No," he says, looking at me with his kindly blue eyes. I have to look away from his gaze. "Everyone has pain in their legs. Just observe the pain with equanimity, and it will pass away."

"Thank you," I say. He smiles again and nods. I turn and leave the hall.

I am finally reassured, and the fear no longer overcomes me. Although I feel like quitting several more times, I resist the temptation. I have overcome my fear and I find that I am finally able to sit for one hour without moving.

On the last day, we are allowed to talk. I have never wanted to talk so much as I do now. Finally, I can speak to the other people in my cabin! I feel as if I know them, although this is the first time I have had a conversation with any of them.

That night, my father and I take a walk by ourselves. We lie on our backs on a large, flat rock. It is still warm from the sun. We watch the stars together, and talk about life. I feel oddly contented. I am so happy to have stayed for the entire 10 days.

I look over at my father.

His eyes are damp and bright, and his face is beautiful.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A letter of thanks to Radley Balko

[I sent this to Mr. Balko after donating money to help him continue his work.]

I think what you're doing is really important. I can't say enough good things about what you've done on the Cory Maye case and exposing that coroner in Mississippi.

I'm frightened by what government has become, and by what we have allowed it to become. As Nock wrote, "It is interesting to observe that in the year 1935 the average individual's incurious attitude towards the phenomenon of the State is precisely what his attitude was towards the phenomenon of the Church in the year, say, 1500."

In trying to change this state of affairs, we face an almost insurmountable problem, on the scale of the black thing in L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time.

Donating money to your site makes me feel like I'm not going quite so quietly into that good night. No matter what happens in the end, I'll sleep a little bit better knowing I raged against the dying of the light in my own small way.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Lew Rockwell on the Marketing of Ideas

“We've all had friends who claim to have come up with the idea of some product that is currently making a big splash in the marketplace. It's an uninteresting claim because it overlooks a critical fact. The hard work of enterprise is not so much in having an idea but in acting on it. [...]

May we all say that we did everything we could do to serve the good of humanity, to never give in to evil, to not merely oppose it in our hearts and minds, but also to proceed ever more boldly against it, and to displace the evil of statism with the blessings of liberty, which is the basis of civilization itself.”

— Lew Rockwell, The First and Next 25 Years

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Randy Pausch's Last Lecture

Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, who is dying from pancreatic cancer, gave his last lecture at the university Sept. 18, 2007. In this poignant talk, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," Pausch shares some lessons he has learned and gives advice on how to achieve your own goals.

It made me laugh and cry and it inspired me. Please take the time to watch it. It's 90 minutes long, but you will know you're going to like it after the first 5 minutes of Randy speaking (I skipped the introductions).

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Anarchy 101

For a brief introduction to how society without government might function, take a look at the following three articles by one of the greatest libertarian thinkers of our age, Lew Rockwell. I have given brief excerpts from each (emphasis mine).

1. The War the Government Cannot Win

Ludwig von Mises said that the great accomplishment of economists was to draw attention to the extreme limits on the power of government. His point was not merely that government should be limited, but that it is limited by the very structure of reality. It cannot make all people rich by its own initiative. It cannot provide universal housing, literacy, and health. It cannot raise wages across the board. It cannot ban products. Those who seek to accomplish economic ends such as these are choosing the wrong means. That is because there is something more powerful than government: namely economic law.

2. Two Views of Social Order: Conflict or Cooperation (video)

There are two clear and present dangers to liberty in America. One is known as the left, and the other is known as the right. They are dangerous because they seek to use government to mold society into a form they seek, rather than the form that liberty achieves if society is left on its own.

I'm going to assume that the left and the right come to their views sincerely, that their passion for using government is driven by some fear that the absence of government would yield catastrophe. So the burden of my talk today will be to identify and explain the common thread that connects the worldview of the left and the right, and suggest that they are both wrong about the capacity of society, whether it is defined locally or internationally, to manage itself.

3. Interview with Lew Rockwell

LEW ROCKWELL: A libertarian is a person who believes in the absolute right of private property ownership.

JOHNSSON: Your slogan on LewRockwell.com is Anti-War, Anti-State, Pro-Market; how do you define anti-state?

ROCKWELL: To be anti-state is to hold the intellectual position that there is nothing that society needs that the state can do better than the market. If you hold that view, you are anti-state. So in some ways, to say anti-war, anti-state, and pro-market is to propose redundancies of the same idea. I would defend the anti-state idea in every aspect of human life. The market is better in schools, energy, food, housing, charity, trade, consumer protection, justice, security, and even international relations. I know of no exceptions. The major burden of all the editorial work that I do is to make this point again and again. Does it grow weary? Not in any way. The number one, central, ubiquitous problem of our time and all time is the state. Whenever a criminal band manages to bamboozle the public that it alone should be granted the legal right to aggress on others, there is a problem that needs to be uprooted. The struggle for freedom is precisely this and no other.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Detroit losing the last of its national chain supermarkets

According to Detroit News:
The last two Farmer Jack stores in the city prepare to close by Saturday. If no grocery stores buy the Farmer Jack locations from the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Detroit will be left without a single national chain supermarket, much less a Wal-Mart or Meijer superstore or a Costco-style warehouse store.
Plus, many of the small stores sell sub-par merchandise:
Many residents rely on convenience stores for bread, milk, eggs and snacks. Small stores that do offer meat and produce often sell food past its expiration date, shoppers said. The city has raided stores over the years to crack down on sales of expired food, but many say the problem still persists.

Pat Hollins, an activist with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, told of stopping in a small neighborhood grocer several weeks ago and immediately finding two expired packages of breakfast sausage.

ACORN has been picketing stores it contends have been selling expired meats and unhealthy foods.
Commentors at Reddit summed it up perfectly:

crypticgeek: That's ironic. People complaining about locally owned stores and begging large chain stores to come in.

prrometheus: I thought Wal-Mart ruins neighborhoods?

vastrightwing: Thank God Detroit has shed all of the evil BIG chain stores and is left with nice local mom and pop stores we all miss and love so much!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!"

In Der Spiegel's interview with Kenyan economist James Shikwati, I saw viewpoints I would expect to see only at sites like Mises and LRC. I practically had to check the URL to make sure I was at the right site.

SHIKWATI: As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid...

SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.

SHIKWATI: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated.

SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.

SHIKWATI: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.
(via Sidewinder77@Reddit)

Lew Rockwell on the growing irrelevance of the State

Two quotes stood out for me in this article:
  • “The government keeps trying to pave the world but private enterprise keeps growing through the cracks.”
  • “If it were up to me, I would push a button and reduce government to the size it was after the American Revolution under the Articles of Confederation, and then look forward to debating whether we should get rid of the rest.”

Karen Kwiatkowski on Restoring the Republic


The 49 States of America

The Onion has a great bit on the Vermont Secession Movement.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Don't Vote

Robert P. Murphey dispenses good advice in his latest article at LewRockwell.com. For me, the punch line was at the end:
Perhaps in twenty years when they’re explaining to their own kids about the days when you could cross state lines without showing the national ID card, they might vaguely remember that cranky old man who talked to their high school class, making some anal distinction between democracy versus a republic.

How the Oakland freeway collapse was fixed in less than a month

Remember the April 29 freeway collapse in Oakland, California? Transportation officials speculated that it could take months to rebuild, but it was fixed in 25 days, just in time for Memorial Day weekend. Contractor C.C. Myers got the job done using practices that remind me a lot of Goldratt's Critical Chain:
[Caltrans officials] drew up a contract offering a $200,000 bonus -- with a limit of $5 million -- for each day the work was done in less than 50 days and levying a $200,000 penalty for each day after that deadline.

The 2-inch steel plate needed to make the bottom flange of the steel girders was loaded onto trucks with two drivers in each rig so they could make the trips with fewer stops.

"Caltrans came in and put good people in our shop,'' [Stinger president Carl] Douglas said. "If there were any problems, we could go to them and get immediate answers. Usually (done by phone, fax or e-mail), it takes weeks. It was a breath of fresh air to have a government agency come in and perform like that."

The [243-ton beam] was so heavy that the truck wasn't permitted on I-580 over the Altamont Pass and had to use rural roads to get to the Tri-Valley. Still, the bent cap arrived about 15 minutes before Caltrans' scheduled 8 p.m. closure May 15 of the I-880 connector for the installation, and had to wait on the side of Interstate 80 in Berkeley.

As soon as each pair [of girders] was secured, workers swarmed the steel beams and started installing the wooden forms and steel-reinforcement bar for the concrete roadway. On a typical job, the contractor would wait until the girders were all installed before preparing for the concrete pour, Land said.

"C.C. Myers was very good at coordinating things. They eliminated the transitions, the waiting time,'' [Rick Land, Caltrans' chief engineer] said.

Instead of requiring the contractor to wait for detailed construction drawings to be approved, Caltrans agreed to let the work start while they were being reviewed.
The eponymous owner of the C.C. Myers construction company is an interesting character in his own right. When the Northridge earthquake destroyed a stretch of I-10 in 1994, Caltrans officials predicted it would take 12-18 months to fix. C.C. Myers finished it in 2 months.

I wish Massachusetts had hired C.C. Myers for the Big Dig.

(Thanks to jillsy@Reddit for bringing this story to my attention.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Interview with Lew Rockwell

Thanks to Kenny Johnsson for this interview with Lew Rockwell. My favorite parts:
LEW ROCKWELL: What is a libertarian? It is a person who believes in the absolute right of private property ownership.

JOHNSSON: Your slogan on LewRockwell.com is Anti-War, Anti-State, Pro-Market; how do you define anti-state?

ROCKWELL: To be anti-state is to hold the intellectual position that there is nothing that society needs that the state can do better than the market. If you hold that view, you are anti-state. So in some ways, to say anti-war, anti-state, and pro-market is to propose redundancies of the same idea. I would defend the anti-state idea in every aspect of human life. The market is better in schools, energy, food, housing, charity, trade, consumer protection, justice, security, and even international relations. I know of no exceptions. The major burden of all the editorial work that I do is to make this point again and again. Does it grow weary? Not in any way. The number one, central, ubiquitous problem of our time and all time is the state. Whenever a criminal band manages to bamboozle the public that it alone should be granted the legal right to aggress on others, there is a problem that needs to be uprooted. The struggle for freedom is precisely this and no other.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Remnant

You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor where they are, nor how many of them there are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you know, and no more: first, that they exist; second, that they will find you.
Albert Jay Nock. Isaiah's Job
In a speech in Austin, Texas, Ron Paul mentioned the "Remnant". I looked it up and was intrigued by its meaning, which is, as near as I can tell, "those few people who would be able to understand your message if they were to encounter it." The implication is that you should compose your message directly to the Remnant, rather than watering it down in an attempt to reach the majority.

Though the term has been in use intermittently throughout history, it was revived in the 20th century by Albert J. Nock, who gave several examples of the Remnant from the Bible and the writings of Plato and Marcus Aurelius.

It turns out that the Buddha also spoke to the Remnant. After he discovered and fully understood the Four Noble Truths, he was initially reluctant to teach others:
Now while the Blessed One was alone in retreat this thought arose in him: “This Dhamma that I have attained to is profound and hard to see, hard to discover; it is the most peaceful and superior goal of all, not attainable by mere ratiocination, subtle, for the wise to experience. [...] And if I taught the Dhamma others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.”
Bhikkhu Nanamoli. The Life of the Buddha, p 37
But the Brahma Sahampati became aware of this thought in the mind of the Buddha. And, fearing that the Dhamma would not be taught, he appeared before the Buddha and said,
“Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma... There are beings with little dust on their eyes who are wasting through not hearing the Dhamma. Some of them will gain final knowledge of the Dhamma.”
Bhikkhu Nanamoli. The Life of the Buddha, p 38
Hearing this, the Buddha surveyed the world with his mind's eye, and, finding some beings who were capable of understanding the truth, indicated that he would indeed go forth and teach. These beings "with little dust on their eyes" would seem to comprise the Remnant, so far as the Buddha was concerned.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Blaming or Explaining?

You know how the waterboard brigade misinterprets Ron Paul's observations on "blowback" as "blaming America"? In Safety and Sexism, Julian Sanchez points out an example of liberals making the same mistake in their thinking about a different topic:
“In the aftermath of a few well publicized rape/murder cases in New York last year, I wrote that I found it somewhat unsettling how quick some folks were to decry as "victim blaming" or "slut shaming" any suggestion that these ought to serve as tragic reminders that, for instance, there are parts of Manhattan where it's very dangerous to be alone and extremely drunk at 3 am.”
Why do people do this? They have to act outraged, because they can't actually refute the point. I think the definitive riposte to this type of thing is to ask, "Would you accuse a detective looking for motive of saying the dead man had it coming?"

Friday, May 18, 2007

Three Questions On Liberty

In Why Libertarians Should Be Concerned with the History of Political Thought, Gene Callahan poses several questions for his readers. I'll take a stab at answering three of them here.

Is it acceptable to set aside any libertarian principles if that abeyance will help prevent the far greater loss of liberty that would follow military defeat?

No. Looking at the question from a practical standpoint, I believe the situation described (one in which setting aside libertarian principles will "help prevent far greater loss of liberty") could never arise. A society that stubbornly holds the policy of never setting aside libertarian principles will be inherently more free than one that explicitly keeps that possibility in reserve. Therefore the first society will be better able to unleash the boundless creativity of the market to provide its citizens with superior safety, which is, after all, nothing more than a (very important) good. The society that would commandeer private property for collective gain under any circumstances will be inherently less able to create market goods -- including security -- than one that refuses to consider the possibility.

This scenario is like the "ticking time bomb" argument for torture: both contain a false premise. In truth, a society that is willing to torture is much more likely to be the target of a terrorist attack than a society that never tortures. A policy of permitting torture in extreme circumstances brings our nightmares to life, because it ends up making those very circumstances much more likely to occur.

James Madison said it well:
It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much, soon to forget it.
Ought libertarians to applaud the creation of the Scottish and Welsh legislatures as representing the reduction of centralized state power, or denigrate them for providing a means for the political classes of those Labour-dominated nations to enact more interventionist legislation than they could in the UK as a whole?

If these developments lead towards decentralization, they ought to be applauded, for the path to market anarchy is the creation of ever-smaller independent city-states. The smaller the state, the more quickly and forcefully it experiences the consequences of anti-market actions. I think history bears this out, and one possible contributing factor is that citizens of a small state are more likely to have to depend on trade with citizens of neighboring states.

Are EU measures to dismantle trade barriers between member states an objectionable violation of national sovereignty or a laudable defense of an individual's right to trade with whomever he wishes?

They are an objectionable violation, because decentralization leads to market anarchy, and these central-government trade measures take their member states in the opposite direction.