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Archive for July, 2018

I always find myself impressed at how nation-states and their leaders exhibit repeating patterns of behavior. This is expertly explored through space, time and scale in John Lewis Gaddis‘ latest book On Grand Strategy.

Dovetailing beautifully into my previous post’s assertion that I am an experiential gestaltist, Gaddis’ work takes us from Persia to Greece, China, Spain, England, France, Russia and the Americas. The book deconstructs battles and their attendant strategies, the motivations of their commanders, and the moods of the peoples involved.

From the outset, Gaddis presents us with the metaphor he will return to time and again. That of the fox and the hedgehog. These represent the approaches of alert outward-directed probing with stealth and of unwavering belief and inward-directed defense of that belief.

He shows that time and again battles are lost because leaders lack the ability to see changes in the situation before them. This may manifest in populations simply abandoning territory as was the case in both Xercesattack of Athens and Napoleon‘s of Moscow. Forcing your attacker to extend their supply lines should give pause to any commander, and yet, time after time we see overconfidence leading to defeat.

We see how Elizabeth skillfully balances force and guile to turn a seemingly weak position with respect to the attacking forces of Spain’s (God will make it work out) Philip. Like Xerces, Philip believes that his forces cannot fail. Less so because of their intrinsic numerical advantage and more because of his steadfast belief in his divine mission. His confidence extended to failing to provide adequate direction to his various forces and ignoring losses due to bad weather. Elizabeth, on the other hand patiently and judiciously used her limited resources.

The British colonies in North America are examined and we see the interplay between the colonials and the empire. As the United States are forming, the choice to kick the can of addressing slavery down the proverbial road of history is in full display as they draft their Declaration of Independence and Constitution. We jump to the American Civil War where leaders are struggling with the consequences of being at once a nation based on democratic ideals and yet built on slavery. They were very well aware that the monarchies of Europe still looked on them as an untenable aberration. A hypocritical one at that.

And we see into the churn that formed the backdrops of both World Wars. Also, how England worked to engage the United States and how others tried to prevent its engagement.

Throughout it all, we are presented profiles of leaders who are either able or unable to navigate the ambiguities of the realities before them. There are those without a compass, unable to achieve goals because there are none. There are those whose compass is trusted to the exclusion of the terrain. They find themselves, like those today blinding following navigation apps, ending up going off cliffs and ending up in lakes. Knowing where you are going is important, but if you fail to allow for the terrain and weather conditions, you will not do well.

On the whole, the book provides us a valuable mirror. It is amazingly timely given that we are in a period where our leaders seem again poised to engage in actions demonstrating that they have failed to either study of learn from the teaching of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Augustine and Machiavelli. Their message could be described as success is found in following the middle way, embracing both certainty of mission, preparation and proper respect for the fluid nature of engagement.

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I’ve just completed Robert Wright‘s latest book, Why Buddhism Is True. For me, the attraction was the subtitle: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Reviewing a book on philosophy is like trying to explain your existential motivations to a dolphin. You know that they’re really smart, but you’re never really sure that they get anything out of the discourse. That being said, I present my attempt. Hopefully, it will be minimally head-tilt inducing.

By way of background, I count myself among the Buddhist community. This to me provides about as much information as if I’d said that I work with computers. Yup, me and a hundred of million others work with computers. It tells you nothing about the form, function, depth of involvement, etc. Hence my choice of the word community. There is no single locus within Buddhism. Even whether it is a religion, a philosophy, or both is a point of discussion. On this, I point back to the sub-title’s attraction to me.

The reason I can even attempt a review is that the book takes a practical (as in practice) view of the topic. As an engineer, I appreciate the quantifiable. On this point, the book does not disappoint.

If I had to re-title the book I would name it Meditation: What’s in it for Me? Why? Because in a world where people barely make it past headlines, it pretty much covers the core of the discussion. The problem with this title is that it leaves out all the interesting bits that get you from introduction to summary. Sort of like renaming Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to “be excellent to each other.”

The author is journalist, professor of Philosophy, and is of the Theravāda (specifically Vipassanā) school of Buddhism. I follow the Mahayana (specifically Zen) school. For the requisite pun, you could say that the distinction between the two is all or nothing.

Let me say up front that I am not a Buddhist scholar. I can’t read Sanskrit, Pali, or even Kanji to save my life. As such, many of the names and terms-of-art within the Buddhist world make my brain hurt. I can’t pronounce them. I can’t remember them. But I’ve gotten to the point where I recognize them in context. As an experiential gestaltist, I strive to integrate everything. In the process, the source wrapper is often discarded. This book accomplishes that unwrapping and, although it does use the terms from the source languages (mercifully translated), presented in approachable language.

Using this approach of going from the known to the unknown, Wright covers the methodological process of meditation and its effects as he has experienced them. He also relates the Buddhist underpinnings of the whys and wherefores of meditation as seen by various schools.

Next, he explores the various working models of consciousness used within the psychological community. From there he harmonizes the two.

In the final chapters, he brings us back to the big question areas of universality and enlightenment. He finishes by answering the question as to the tangible worth of meditation and will being at one leads to a grey existence.

I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who like to see endings for themselves. If you have an interest in the interplay between meditation, psychology and Buddhist thought, you will find this to be an interesting read.

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