What Can We Learn from 1967’s Summer of Love to Help Us Through Our Current Political Nightmare?

ACTIVISM
Danny Goldberg discusses his new book about a magical and often misunderstood era in U.S. history.

Photo Credit: Radharani / Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: Danny Goldberg is the modern version of the Renaissance man. He has a long and colorful history as an activist, author and influential music executive. Goldberg came of age at the height of the hippie era in 1967, experiencing the powerful and haunting mix of excitement, hope, experimentation and despair. He captures it all in vibrant detail and political nuance in his newest book, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books). AlterNet’s executive editor Don Hazen interviewed Goldberg in his offices at Gold Village Entertainment on July 12.

Don Hazen: Let’s start by addressing what lessons we can learn from 1967. In the book, ‘In Search of the Lost Chord,’ there is a lot about that classic split between the hippies and the radicals. And is that a Bernie/Hillary split? Is that split still with us? How do you look back 50 years and apply it today?

Danny Goldberg: Well, there are things to learn to do, and things to learn not to do, from the ’60s. A major feature of the Be-In, in January 1967 that led to event of the Summer of Love, was that it was a “gathering of the tribes” to try to address that split.

There were also serious divides within the civil rights movement. Stokely Carmichael and Adam Clayton Powell sometimes mocked Martin Luther King publicly and questioned his non-violent strategy. On the other hand, when Martin King came out against the war, the NAACP board voted 60-0 to condemn him for that position because they feared pissing off President Johnson.

There were splits in the peace movement between the pacifists and non-pacifists; among those who focused on replacing LBJ with an anti-war Democrat there was bitter resentment between many of those who preferred Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy supporters.

DH: And the Digger critique of Abbie Hoffman was what?He was not ‘lefty enough’?

DG: It was that the Diggers were committed to anonymity and Abbie was the opposite of that. There’s no question Abbie Hoffman was a self-promoter, but on the other hand he had the ability to popularize radical ideas in a way no one else could. The Diggers saw themselves as the conscience of all these movements.

DH: And Peter Coyote was a Digger, right?

DG: Yes, Coyote was one of the thought leaders. The Diggers organized the free concerts near Haight-Ashbury. They made and gave free meals to hundreds of people. They ran a “free store.” They came from the experimental theater world and did a lot public displays that challenged conventional thinking.

They had a mimeograph machine, and distributed circulars in the neighborhood, and when the Black Panthers started in Oakland, the Diggers lent them the machine for the first three issues of their newspaper.

But they also had a self-righteousness that judged almost everyone else in the counterculture adversely. They had a commitment to ideals that were distinct from people that were more commercially minded, so hip capitalism was one of their targets. They also had a jaundiced view of Tim Leary. They were often confrontational with radical political groups that they felt were too mired in old ideology. In some ways, they were the forerunner of the most intolerant anarchists of the Occupy period. But they also had the creativity to create some of the purest expressions of countercultural idealism.

DH: Let’s step back for a second and ask you to explain how people should really understand the hippie idea, and what if any of it could be applied to solving the problems we are confronting today.

DG: The question I ask myself a lot, as I’ve been talking about the book, is: What difference does something that happened 50 years ago matter? Other than nostalgia (which I don’t think is a completely bad thing) the relevance depends on the extent that there are values that are not driven by the 24-hour news cycle or by who’s president, but endure from generation to generation, basic concepts about what it is to be a human being. To me, the hippie idea was a spiritual movement at its core, even though the word hippie and the external symbols like tie dye or long hair or hip language like “groovy” or “far out” or “cool, man,” soon became passé.

DH: Don’t forget the peace sign.

DG: Yes, the peace sign, too—all of these things were quickly drained of meaning because of commercialization, the media magnifying glass, predators, etc. I understand why the punk generation that came along 10 or 15 years later had contempt for it, because they weren’t reacting to the experience I had; they were reacting to the cartoon version of it. I’m sure if I were of that generation, I would have been a punk also, because it was all about trying to seek integrity, authenticity, and meaning.

But to me, the hippie moment was a critique of materialism. Ayn Rand’s philosophy was just as pernicious in the ’60s as it is today, or maybe the way to say it’s just as pernicious today as it was then.

DH: Is there any model of a counterculture theme or anti-materialistic vision that’s applicable today, anything like ‘back to the land’? Because the country is so split. The differences are just enormous. Even the way of thinking.

DG: The thing I keep hoping is that the meeting place is spirituality, because I do think that most people who identify as Christians are sincere about it. Even though many of the right-wing American leaders who exploit them seem quite removed from the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Pope Francis is a compelling and powerful moral and spiritual voice who, to me, evokes counterculture values as much as he does Catholic tradition. Some of the attitudes of conservative evangelicals are primarily tribal. But I think that the words of Jesus Christ are so powerful that they can have unintended effects; the idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself is essentially the same as hippie idea.

In researching 1967, one thing that blew my mind was reading some of the speeches of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, neither of whom, as far as I know, ever took LSD. They both wore suits and had short hair and didn’t identify as hippies in any way.

DH: No dashikis for Martin Luther King.

DG: And no love beads for Bobby Kennedy… But they came to the same meeting place in terms of the ideal that there’s more to life than just money. Kennedy gave this great speech about how the gross national product measures everything except the things that are most important in life. And King, in sermon after sermon, talked about the inner world, of man as a spirit and as a soul. Of course he coupled this with an ethical code which required activism in an immoral world.

So it is my hope is that there is a critical mass of people who see themselves as being in different tribes, but who in their souls share some values that could create some kind of a moral clarity in the country.

The other big thing, I think, in terms of changing the politics of the country now, is to focus on young people, because that’s also a similarity with the ’60s. You’ve got this gigantic generation, the biggest generation since the Baby Boom generation, and more progressive. Those of us who were against the war were never a majority until way later when the whole country turned against the war by the mid-’70s. But the proportion of younger people who voted for Bernie, the proportion of younger people who vote Democrat, is very, very high.

DH: Let’s go back to the spiritual theme. The heroes of your book are really Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg. I’m interested in how you think that Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass were able to carry that message, and whether it’s succeeded in beginning inside the culture, or the culture just went all materialist.

DG: I think it’s a mixed bag. One of the things about being older is knowing that I have more life behind me than in front of me, and it’s quite clear that the odds of all the problems of America or the Western world being solved in my lifetime is extremely low. The rapid success of the civil rights movement on certain issues and the explosive spread of hip images and rock and roll, I created a set of expectations regarding timing that were not realistic. But the fact that everything’s not perfect or close to perfect doesn’t mean that all the efforts to advance the species are a failure; it means that history is to be looked at in terms of hundreds or thousands of years, not just one generation.

In terms of the individual lives, I think Ram Dass is exemplary. He’s been committed to service. The money from Be Here Now went to his foundation that he and Wavy Gravy among others set up that has helped cure blindness in millions of people in third-world countries.

DH: I read a review of your book on the Be Here Now network. I never knew that existed.

DG: It’s a podcast network that is a spin-off that is associated with the foundation that is built up around Ram Dass and run by Raghu Markus. I do a podcast on it called Rock and Roles.

DH: Let’s talk about the riots, and segue from Martin Luther King to Detroit and to Newark and what a huge impact the uprisings had on the black community. We do not seem to have made much progress on race in this country. The riots of 1967 seem to have been a product of somewhat raised expectations from civil rights and the poverty program. Today, the black community has very little expectations. That might be a reason why white males are dying at a much higher rate than blacks and Latinomen,because their reality is more accepted.

DG: The scale dwarfs anything that’s happened since. In Detroit there were 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. And much havoc in other cities as well.

Not everyone called them riots—they were called rebellions, revolts. They were usually triggered by police violence. But the tinder box of frustration, poverty, oppression was so great, and the raised expectations were followed by only marginal improvement especially in the North where the problems was “de facto” segregation that wasn’t fixed by the civil rights bill. Before he was killed, King had become a much more radical and complicated thinker as the years went by and he saw the complexity of the legacy of racism.

DH: What else from the ’60s is applicable in the Trump era?

DG: Number one, ease up on tribalism on our side.

DH: Yeah, well, tribalism’s natural for corruption. And also for loyalty and protection.

DG: True. It’s incredibly seductive, because it feels good. It’s why people join gangs.

DH: Nepotism is one of the most powerful forces in the world. Taking care of your own, your family. Everyone protects their family, or else they’re thought of as having bad character.

DG: Taking care of your own family isn’t the problem. Doing it in a way that hurts other people’s families is what is immoral. The Mafia will claim you have no choice. The Mafia is the ultimate Ayn Rand entity.

DH: So, 1967 is the year that you picked, but ’68, ’69 and ’70 also were huge years for me: 1969 was Woodstock, of course. 1970 was Kent State and Cambodia and the biggest student rebellion ever. It seems to me that the reverberations of 1967 just kept rolling along in different ways. And ofcoursethere’s Altamont versus Woodstock.

DG: Well, I think it’s about the balance, and that’s the conceit of the title, In Search of the Lost Chord, that there were these different notes and relationship to them, and it’s about the balance of the energies. Things got darker in ’68 with the assassinations of King and Kennedy. Another inflection point was the decline of Haight-Ashbury. There was a community in ’65 and ’66 and the beginning of ’67, it was a model of an alternative lifestyle that couldn’t survive the glare of the media. The media definitely killed it. There was actually a formal ceremony in Haight-Ashbury called Death of the Hippie in October ’67. And the drugs got worse very quickly.

DH: The brown acid.

DG: Yes, some of the LSD sold by less than idealistic dealers was mixed with speed. Pure speed, then as now, brought out the worst in people. Heroin, then as now, destroyed lives. So even though shards of countercultural idealism cropped up in places well into the ’70s, the peak was already in the rearview mirror. Even the purest kind of LSD had limits in its value to people.

I’m someone who is very happy with my memories of LSD trips. I’ve never had a bad trip, thank god, but it became like seeing the same movie too many times. It’s been decades and I have no plans to take it again.

DH: Yeah, it doesn’t tell you how to figure things out.

DG: Yeah, at the end of the book, I quote Peter Coyote saying that LSD is like a helicopter that takes you to the top of the mountain, but then it brings you back down again, so if you actually want to live on the top of the mountain, it’s a lifetime of work to get up there, not a helicopter ride.

DH: But the hippie period triggered a lot of things such as the back-to-the-land movement and the Grateful Dead, right?

DG: Absolutely. There are still reverberations from that period that continue to this day. Environmentalism had antecedents with people like Thoreau, but its explosion as a mass movement was the direct outgrowth of hippie culture. Many of the creators of a lot of the internet in the ’90s, including Steve Jobs, took psychedelics. On the political side, there is a direct line from the civil rights and anti-war movements to feminism, the gay rights movement, CodePink, Occupy Wall Street, and many aspects of the Sanders campaign.

In the spiritual realm, in 1967, Richard Alpert, the fired Harvard professor who was Tim Leary’s protégé in popularizing LSD, went to India, met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, was renamed Ram Dass, wrote the book Be Here Now, a major catalyst of the New Age movement. And in 1967 the Beatles, who were the most famous musicians in the world, were introduced to meditation, which overnight went from being a word known primarily in monasteries and theology departments to being part of the language of pop culture.

DH: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right?

DG: Yeah, the Maharishi was the first one that became a public figure when they visited him, but almost immediately afterwards, George Harrison and John Lennon became interested in the so-called Hare Krishna guru, Swami Bhaktivedanta.

And all this opened up a wellspring of a zillion different spiritual paths explored by people in the mass culture, some of the bogus but some real. The I Chingwent from selling a couple of thousand copies a year to 50,000-100,000 a year, and was quoted in numerous rock lyrics. A lot of younger people were relieved that you don’t have to choose between the religion you were born into or purely secular materialism. There were lanes you could go down to try to integrate the idea of identifying yourself as a spirit without having to be enmeshed in the hierarchy of rules and structures that seemed irrelevant to a modern life. Some people found transcendence in mainstream religions, but a lot of us didn’t find it there.

DH: Is there something that you want the world to know about this book that you’re not getting out there?

DG: Well, the main thing about the book is its complexity. There were so many things happening all at the same time. It’s a mosaic of a couple hundred pieces, and there were another couple of thousand that I couldn’t deal with because I didn’t have the time or the wisdom to do it. I feel guilty dumbing it down sometimes.

DH: Somebody in the book said that New York was always two years later, but you said by ’67 it had caught up. Is that really true?

DG: Ken Kesey said that to Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

There was this sense of you had this magical thing that no one else had. When it was the province of universities and psychiatrists and people that were authorized to experiment with it, it was very limited. But once it was illegal in late 1966, it became easy to get. High school in New York kids couldn’t get acid in 1964, but could in ’67.

DH: They had no Summer of Love in New York.

DG: I don’t know, man. It was nice to be young there then. That’s the year I graduated from high school.

There was a Be-In in Easter of ’67. There were these things that Bob Fass would organize, this Fly-In and sweeping up streets on the Lower East Side. It was a bit darker than the Bay Area, but we had the peace and love thing going too for a minute.

DH: I was both a hippie and a radical and most of my hippie friends were not so political, and most of my radical friends had disdain for drugs. And then there was, within SDS, the progressive labor faction, the ones that cut their hair off and went to the factories and worked.

DG: But there were people who struggled to bridge the divide. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner—all had dual citizenship.

DH: Abbie Hoffman was one of our best political strategists. I traveled to Nicaragua with him and then I spent some time with him in Zihuatanejo. But I saw his dark side, too, which obviously led to his death. He was amazing. He was a manic depressive, yeah. And when he was manic, there was just no one, no one, who could compete with him as a speaker, as a thinker, a strategist, a performer.

DG: I think he’s a little underrated by history because the depression became more part of the story. Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and of course Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison had tragically premature deaths. On the other hand, the people I dedicated the book to—Paul Krassner, Wavy Gravy and Ram Dass—didn’t self-destruct, and continued to live righteous lives with real consistency about who they said they were as younger people, as did Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter Coyote and many others who are not famous, but who are worthy role models.

So overall, it certainly is a mixed bag. I have a romantic view of it, but hopefully not a delusional view of it.

DH: Well, that’s a good way to stop: A romantic but not delusional view.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Danny Goldberg is the author of In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books) and is the president of Gold Village Entertainment, whose clients include Steve Earle, Against Me!, and Peaches.

http://www.alternet.org/activism/danny-goldberg-hippie-trump-interview?akid=15966.265072.Fwt3cL&rd=1&src=newsletter1080924&t=4

The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality

How invocations of “karma” and Zen are being used to justify deeply unequal systems of power

The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality
Steve Jobs, Satya Nadalla (Credit: AP/Paul Sakuma/Brendan McDermid/rnl, Kaveryn Kiryl via Shutterstock/Salon)

Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gave some shocking advice to a young businesswoman who was concerned that her male peers were passing her up for promotions: Don’t question the systemic sexism of corporate America, just trust in “good karma” to get you ahead. While his attitude made waves in the blogosphere, in fact it accurately represents a form of spirituality that is becoming popular in the West.

You know what I’m talking about. When I go to yoga, I’m often surrounded by wealthy white women who can afford expensive classes and Lululemon threads. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see exclamations of bourgeois spirituality (“Staying at the Waldorf tonight! #gratitude #blessed #100happydays #livelife”). Moreover, my actor friends seem to use karma and positivity as tools to help them achieve commercial success.

We might call this a belief in spiritual meritocracy. The implicit idea here is that our professional and financial growth depends on our spiritual merit, not on the presence or absence of social structures and biases. We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures. (Think “The Secret.”) We are told that we actually can have it all: a rich spiritual life, leading to a rich material life.

Of course, this is just the new-agey equivalent of the same old meritocracy myth that’s been floating around America since at least the 19th century; that in the land of the free, anyone can become rich if they just work hard enough, if they use the right brand of elbow grease.

Unless you are a rich Republican, decades of widening economic inequality should tell you how faulty this story is. While it is true that most successful people work hard, the meritocracy myth works more to justify an existing social hierarchy than to inspire us to make positive social changes.

So, for the same reason we look suspiciously on Horatio Alger-esque theories of social mobility, we ought to also be skeptical of their spiritual version, which says that underserved groups can get ahead not by standing up to power, but by focusing on love and positivity.



It’s times like these when I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s summary dismissal of “Western Buddhism.” Zizek cautions that while meditation may seem to come from an edgy counterculture, in fact Americans practice it in a way that is often consistent with consumerist capitalism:

“… although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement … One is almost tempted to resuscitate the old infamous Marxist cliché of religion as the ‘opium of the people,’ as the imaginary supplement to terrestrial misery. The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity … ”

In other words, rather than helping yogis become more socially conscious spiritual warriors, Buddhist meditation can get hijacked by the status quo. It only brings us a shallow peace that makes us less likely to question what counts as normal.

For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice, and I believe that there is some truth to Zizek’s harsh critique. As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.

One problem with a capitalist-inflected Buddhism is that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual cul de sac. I found that my practice was in an uneasy tension with my leftist politics. I found myself attracted to a glamorous Santa Barbara lifestyle that left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I found that it became easy to deal with disturbing images in the news by dismissing the suffering of others as the karmic products of their own poor decisions. (They’re just not being positive enough!)

Yes, I found myself tempted by tales of spiritual meritocracy.

Overall, I am happy that my Facebook friends and yoga moms are finding spiritual enrichment. But I believe that focusing only on the joyful aspects of spirituality can get us into trouble, if we aren’t careful. Every religion can get appropriated by the West’s consumerist ideology, and Buddhism is no exception. When we cultivate gratitude for our material wealth and ignore compassion for those less fortunate, comments like those of Nadella are a natural consequence.

In traditional forms of Buddhism, there are bits and pieces of teachings on karma that capitalism loves to pick up on. Our society emphasizes an interpretation of Eastern spirituality that does not threaten its own internal logic. It’s true, for example, that the Buddha taught that money was a blessing, and that one effect of an ethical way of life would be material prosperity. But it is hard for me to believe the Buddha would say that wealth inequality is solely the result of karmic patterns, and that we should ignore its hidden histories of slavery, colonialism and patriarchy.

The good news is that there may be a spiritual antidote for what Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism.” And I’m not talking about intermittent bouts of Catholic guilt. I’m suggesting that if we work to complement our gratitude with mercy and compassion for those who are less fortunate, we can move away from the surface-level spirituality that is really just materialism in disguise. And this may be what the world needs more than ever.

There are plenty of opportunities for us to be compassionate. For example, as scientists’ long-term projections of the effects of climate change become more and more dire, somehow American denial of anthropogenic global warming is on the rise. This kind of denial is only possible if it is not met with compassion for those who are already facing the extreme weather of hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, like the hard-hit women who are struggling to survive after flash floods destroy their communities. Cultivating compassion for those we usually ignore — whether that’s women in the global south who are facing the ugly end of natural disasters, inmates of American prisons, or businesswomen who make 20 percent less than men who do in the same job — is therefore both a spiritual and political imperative.

The point is not that we give up on Western spirituality, as Zizek seems to suggest. The teachings of Eastern religions are becoming more mainstream in America, but this is an opportunity as well as a cautionary tale. As we develop a more conscious lifestyle, let’s ask ourselves if we are deepening our spirituality, or just falling for the myth of spiritual meritocracy. May all beings be free from pain and suffering.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/26/the_dangerous_american_myth_of_corporate_spirituality/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

 

What we do better without other people around

The power of lonely

(Tim Gabor for The Boston Globe)
By Leon Neyfakh

March 6, 2011

You hear it all the time: We humans are social animals. We need to spend time together to be happy and functional, and we extract a vast array of benefits from maintaining intimate relationships and associating with groups. Collaborating on projects at work makes us smarter and more creative. Hanging out with friends makes us more emotionally mature and better able to deal with grief and stress.

Spending time alone, by contrast, can look a little suspect. In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school.

“There’s so much cultural anxiety about isolation in our country that we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University whose book “Alone in America,” in which he argues for a reevaluation of solitude, will be published next year. “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

Figuring out what solitude is and how it affects our thoughts and feelings has never been more crucial. The latest Census figures indicate there are some 31 million Americans living alone, which accounts for more than a quarter of all US households. And at the same time, the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.

But what actually happens to people’s minds when they are alone? As much as it’s been exalted, our understanding of how solitude actually works has remained rather abstract, and modern psychology — where you might expect the answers to lie — has tended to treat aloneness more as a problem than a solution. That was what Christopher Long found back in 1999, when as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he started working on a project to precisely define solitude and isolate ways in which it could be experienced constructively. The project’s funding came from, of all places, the US Forest Service, an agency with a deep interest in figuring out once and for all what is meant by “solitude” and how the concept could be used to promote America’s wilderness preserves.

With his graduate adviser and a researcher from the Forest Service at his side, Long identified a number of different ways a person might experience solitude and undertook a series of studies to measure how common they were and how much people valued them. A 2003 survey of 320 UMass undergraduates led Long and his coauthors to conclude that people felt good about being alone more often than they felt bad about it, and that psychology’s conventional approach to solitude — an “almost exclusive emphasis on loneliness” — represented an artificially narrow view of what being alone was all about.

“Aloneness doesn’t have to be bad,” Long said by phone recently from Ouachita Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor. “There’s all this research on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation and astronauts and people in Antarctica — and we wanted to say, look, it’s not just about loneliness!”

Today other researchers are eagerly diving into that gap. Robert Coplan of Carleton University, who studies children who play alone, is so bullish on the emergence of solitude studies that he’s hoping to collect the best contemporary research into a book. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually.

That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. They then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see. In some cases they were told they’d both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they’d be doing different things. The computer screen scrolled through a set of drawings of common objects, such as a guitar, a clock, and a log. A few days later the participants returned and were asked to recall which drawings they’d been shown. Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task — namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures — did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

The results, which Burum cautions are preliminary, are now part of a paper on “the coexperiencing mind” that was recently presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference. In the paper, Burum offers two possible theories to explain what she and Gilbert found in the study. The first invokes a well-known concept from social psychology called “social loafing,” which says that people tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on others to pick up their slack. (If two people are pulling a rope, for example, neither will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.) But Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

Perhaps this explains why seeing a movie alone feels so radically different than seeing it with friends: Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen. According to Greg Feist, an associate professor of psychology at the San Jose State University who has written about the connection between creativity and solitude, some version of that principle may also be at work when we simply let our minds wander: When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.

Other psychologists have looked at what happens when other people’s minds don’t just take up our bandwidth, but actually influence our judgment. It’s well known that we’re prone to absorb or mimic the opinions and body language of others in all sorts of situations, including those that might seem the most intensely individual, such as who we’re attracted to. While psychologists don’t necessarily think of that sort of influence as “clouding” one’s judgment — most would say it’s a mechanism for learning, allowing us to benefit from information other people have access to that we don’t — it’s easy to see how being surrounded by other people could hamper a person’s efforts to figure out what he or she really thinks of something.

Teenagers, especially, whose personalities have not yet fully formed, have been shown to benefit from time spent apart from others, in part because it allows for a kind of introspection — and freedom from self-consciousness — that strengthens their sense of identity. Reed Larson, a professor of human development at the University of Illinois, conducted a study in the 1990s in which adolescents outfitted with beepers were prompted at irregular intervals to write down answers to questions about who they were with, what they were doing, and how they were feeling. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that when the teens in his sample were alone, they reported feeling a lot less self-conscious. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people,” he said.

The teenagers weren’t necessarily happier when they were alone; adolescence, after all, can be a particularly tough time to be separated from the group. But Larson found something interesting: On average, the kids in his sample felt better after they spent some time alone than they did before. Furthermore, he found that kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression.

“The paradox was that being alone was not a particularly happy state,” Larson said. “But there seemed to be kind of a rebound effect. It’s kind of like a bitter medicine.”

The nice thing about medicine is it comes with instructions. Not so with solitude, which may be tremendously good for one’s health when taken in the right doses, but is about as user-friendly as an unmarked white pill. Too much solitude is unequivocally harmful and broadly debilitating, decades of research show. But one person’s “too much” might be someone else’s “just enough,” and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.

Research is still far from offering any concrete guidelines. Insofar as there is a consensus among solitude researchers, it’s that in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.

Overextended parents might not need any encouragement to see time alone as a desirable luxury; the question for them is only how to build it into their frenzied lives. But for the millions of people living by themselves, making time spent alone time productive may require a different kind of effort. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues in her new book, “Alone, Together,” that people should be mindfully setting aside chunks of every day when they are not engaged in so-called social snacking activities like texting, g-chatting, and talking on the phone. For teenagers, it may help to understand that feeling a little lonely at times may simply be the price of forging a clearer identity.

John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book “Loneliness” with William Patrick summarized a career’s worth of research on all the negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others, said recently that as long as it’s not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. And it can have some counterintuitive effects: Adam Waytz in the Harvard psychology department, one of Cacioppo’s former students, recently completed a study indicating that people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.

“People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” Cacioppo said. “You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.

Religion Is Good For Your Brain

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“Sheila M. Elred writes in Discovery Magazine that a recent study has found that people at risk of depression were much less vulnerable if they identified as religious. Brain MRIs revealed that religious participants had thicker brain cortices than those who weren’t as religious. ‘One of the worst killers of brain cells is stress,’ says Dr. Majid Fotuhi. ‘Stress causes high levels of cortisol, and cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. One way to reduce stress is through prayer. When you’re praying and in the zone you feel a peace of mind and tranquility.’ The reports concluded that a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression. The social element of attending religious services has also been linked to healthy brains. ‘There’s something magical about socializing,’ says Fotuhi. ‘It releases endorphins in the brain. It’s hard to know whether it’s through religion or a gathering of friends, but it improves brain health in the long term.'”

“Listening to sermons and reading religious works like the Bible may also invoke a cognitive benefit. “You’re exercising your higher cortical function, thinking about complex concepts that require some imagination,” says Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University and a professor of psychiatry. According to Koenig the benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. “In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they’re more optimistic, they experience less depression, less anxiety, and they commit suicide less often. They don’t drink alcohol as much, they don’t use drugs as much, they don’t smoke cigarettes as much, and they have healthier lifestyles. They have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, probably better cardiovascular functioning, and probably a healthier hormonal environment physiologically—particularly with respect to cortisol and adrenaline And they live longer.” So where does that leave non-believers? “Out of luck, I guess,” Koenig jokes. “Actually, I would suspect that people doing the types of things like religious people do — socializing, doing similarly complex cognitive tasks, would have similar benefits. But it is interesting that religion provides that whole package of things that people can adopt and pursue over time.” Dr Dan Blazer says the study is very interesting but is still exploratory and that spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status. “It’s hard to study these things,” concludes Fotuhi . “It’s why research has stayed away from them. But there does seem to be a strong link between spirituality and better brain health.””

Godliness in the Known and the Unknowable: Alan Lightman on Science and Spirituality

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“Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.”

 

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo, and one that Sagan echoed a decade later, three months before his death, writing: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

 

That vital discomfort is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — celebrated author of both nonfiction and novels, one of the finest science essayists writing today, the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT, an extraordinary storyteller, and one of my favorite minds — explores in one of the essays in his entrancing new anthology, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library).

 

Alan Lightman (Photograph courtesy of MIT)

 

In the foreword, Lightman recounts attending a lecture by the Dalai Lama at MIT, “one of the world’s spiritual leaders sitting cross-legged in a modern temple of science,” and hearing about the Buddhist concept of sunyata, translated as “emptiness” — the notion that objects in the physical universe are vacant of inherent meaning and that we imbue them with meaning and value with the thoughts of our own minds. From this, Lightman argues while adding to history’s finest definitions of science, arises a central challenge of the human condition:

 

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “[The mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.

[…]

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

 

This tension between internal and external reality is also what lies at the root of the age-old tension between science and religion. In one of the best essays in the collection, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to lift the veil of this immutable inquiry. He cites a discussion that took place at a monthly gathering of scientists and artists at MIT, aimed at exploring the interplay of science and art, wherein a playwright proposed that science is the religion of our century. Lightman considers the inherent challenges to this notion:

 

If science is the religion of the twenty-first century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. A former member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. Hasn’t modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate—or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls, and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. Our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.

 

As a scientist and self-professed humanist himself, Lightman exorcises his lifelong struggle to reconcile these conflicting worldviews by proposing a set of criteria for the kind of religious belief that would be compatible with rather than contradictory to science:

 

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

[…]

Next, a working definition of God. I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science. Of course, the physical laws could have been created by God before the beginning of time. But once created, according to the central doctrine, the laws are immutable and cannot be violated from one moment to the next.

 

With these criteria in mind, he offers a taxonomy of religious beliefs, based on the degree of control they assign to their highest deity: At the extreme end, denying the existence of a God, is atheism; up the sliding scale of faith is deism, whose God created the universe but has not interfered since that initial spark — a favorite model in the 17th and 18th centuries, with such prominent proponents as Voltaire; then comes immanentism with yet more divine intervention, which holds that God created the physical universe and its laws, and continues to propel it but only through the stringent and consistent application of these permanent laws; at the other extreme end, opposite atheism, is interventionism — God created the universe and its laws, and can occasionally interfere with their predictable function to produce unpredictable results, commonly called miracles. Because most major religions — including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism — are built upon an interventionist view of God, Lightman points out that they are incompatible with science and observes the logical conclusion:

 

Except for a God who sits down after the universe begins, all other Gods conflict with the assumptions of science.

 

The situation is further muddled by the fact that the majority of laypeople who are both religious and understand the value of science don’t subscribe to its central doctrine — that same logical foundation that renders an interventionist God impossible. Lightman cites a sociological study which found that 25% of scientists at elite American universities believe in the existence of God and don’t consider science the only framework for explaining the world. Lightman, who considers himself an atheist, illustrates the conundrum with his own beliefs and points to the humanities — that essential anchor of the human experience — as the spiritual complement to science:

 

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [such scientists] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

 

This is where Lightman’s exquisite touch as both an essayist and a humanist springs so vibrantly alive:

 

There are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

 

Reflecting on his early days as a physics grad student, where he was taught that the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question stated so clearly that it would guarantee an answer — he turns to Rilke’s famous wisdom and considers both the difference and the margin of complement between art and science:

 

At any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.

But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. … For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago, “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Then there are also the questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.

As human beings, don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?

 

Indeed, this tolerance for the unanswered — and possibly the unanswerable — is not only at the heart of creativity and the secret of happiness, but also, Lightman argues, the essence of faith:

 

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

 

Adult and baby ospreys in nest, Maine, 2007. (Photograph courtesy of Alan Lightman)

 

Once again, Lightman envelops us in his enchanting storytelling to make this point as dimensional as it is when it manifests in life: He tells the story of a family of ospreys that nested near his home in Maine for many years, arriving from South America each spring to lay eggs, then raising their babies until the little ones took their first flight in late summer. Lightman and his wife recorded these cycles of life obsessively year after year in their “osprey journals” filled with notes, photographs, and lovingly collected data on that “small part of the universe.” But while Lightman might describe himself as a humanist, this final anecdote exposes him as a true “creaturist” who lives with remarkable respect for non-human beings and our shared existence:

 

One August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I do not understand what happened in that half second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

 

Adult osprey, 2012. (Photograph by courtesy of the Dyfi Osprey Project)

 

Lightman closes the chapter with a beautiful meditation on where all of this leaves us:

 

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

 

The Accidental Universe is a sublime, mind-bending, soul-expanding read in its entirety, exploring such magnificent mysteries of our world and the cosmos as dark matter, multiverses, and the arrow of time, all considered through the dimensional lens of a mind at once voracious for knowledge and at peace with the unknown. Complement it with Dorion Sagan, son of Carl, on why science and philosophy need each other.