Ignorance, Fear and Imaginary Facts

We imagine facts to support what we believe.  That’s a problem because politicians tend to focus on what we believe, not the actual data.

It’s the same in every country.  This global survey by Ipsos MORI, key findings of which are summarized here, highlights how wrong we are in 14 countries about the make-up of our population.

Emotional innumeracy is the root of the problem, a term from a research paper by Daniel Herda (UC Davis) who studied immigration innumeracy, the inability to reason about immigration.

Herda found that emotional factors create innumeracy:  “Among the emotional predictors, perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy.  It does so net of social distance and political conservatism, which have their own significant positive and negative associations, respectively.”

So, if we believe immigrants pose a threat, we overestimate the immigrant population.  Fear drives our overestimate; the overestimate increases our fear.


US respondents imagine that immigrants make up almost a third (32%) of our population, two and a half times the actual number, 13%.

Immigrants are perceived to be a threat in all nations surveyed, and the smaller the actual percentage of immigrants, the greater the overestimate.  The miniscule 0.4% of Poland’s population who are immigrants are overestimated at 35 times that number, Hungary’s 8 times, Japan’s 4 times and so on.  Australians with by far the highest percentage of immigrants (28%) overestimate by only a quarter.

The percentage of Muslims is also universally overestimated.


The overestimate of our Muslim population by US respondents is 15 times the 1% small reality.  That is consistent with the overestimation in other countries with small (2% or less) Muslim populations  – Hungary 18 times, South Korea and Poland 13 times, Canada and Japan 10 times, Australia 9 times, Spain 8 times.  But even in countries with a more noticeable 4% – 8% Muslim population the overestimates are at least 3 times reality.

The percentage of Christians is correspondingly underestimated in most countries.  Four of every five (78%) Americans report themselves to be Christian while we estimate it is less than three in five (56%).  Even in Italy where 83% of the population is Christian, the estimate is only 69%.  These underestimates result from perceived threat to that heritage.

The percentage of Christians in South Korea and Japan is hugely overestimated.  These overestimates also result from perceived threat to their traditional culture.

Overestimates of immigrants and Muslims and underestimates of Christians all stem from the perception that traditional values, culture and identity are under threat.

We might question the “actual” count of Christians in the following chart because many who do not go to church consider themselves Christian, but the feeling of threat is to whatever respondents consider themselves to be.


Herda’s research result: “perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy” suggests that the overall inaccuracy of a people’s knowledge of their society’s makeup is a measure of how threatened they feel.  Ipsis Mori presents that metric as an “index of ignorance.”

Index of IgnoranceSadly, we in the US are almost the most ignorant and/or fearful of all nations.  Only in Italy is there greater ignorance and/or fear of change.

Eighty years ago in his first inaugural address, our President spoke of his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That, too, was a time to get real.  “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he went on.

But we can’t get real if we keep imagining the facts and getting confirmation of our fears from media whose interests are so different from ours.

So let’s stop deluding ourselves.  Let’s question what we imagine to be facts.

What to Do about Ebola

“Are you not in favor of quarantine?” I was asked in response to: http://martinsidwell.com/ebola-and-homo-politicus/ about how the media promotes fear.

I am in favor of helping us know when to quarantine ourselves and making it less difficult to do.  I am against handing over more of our rights and responsibilities to our government.

What we have done so far to avert the risk of an Ebola epidemic is misguided.  A few States have established mandatory quarantine of travelers from countries affected by Ebola in West Africa.  Travelers from West Africa arriving at five US airports have their temperatures taken and are questioned about their possible exposure to Ebola.  A 21-day quarantine was initially imposed on all travelers returning from West Africa whether or not they showed symptoms of the disease.

If the best approach were to quarantine all travelers from West Africa, it should be done at every international airport throughout the US.

But why only travelers from West Africa, and why not for other deadly diseases, too?  If Ebola warrants such measures, shouldn’t we also close our borders to more deadly diseases?  Those diseases are everywhere, so presumably we should quarantine all travelers from everywhere.

If we are willing to abandon more individual rights and responsibilities, we should temperature test all travelers, quarantine everyone returning from anywhere whose temperature is elevated and refuse entry to all non-natives with high temperatures.

Every passenger had their temperature taken and anyone with an elevated temperature was denied entry the last time I flew into China’s Tibet.  We could do the same.

But Ebola is not in fact such a great risk for us in the USA.  It has been contracted in this outbreak so far by around 10,000 people in West Africa since March and by around 400 health care workers from overseas, about 20 of whom have been treated in Europe and the US.  That’s not many compared to other deadly diseases, but how contagious is Ebola?

Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of someone who has symptoms of the disease. It can survive for a few hours on dry surfaces like doorknobs and counter-tops and several days in puddles of body fluid. Bleach solutions can kill it.

“Direct contact with bodily fluids of someone with symptoms of Ebola” means there is no risk of transmission from people who have been exposed to Ebola if they are not showing symptoms.  No risk.

And the Ebola death rate is tiny so far compared to other contagious fatal diseases: fewer than 5,000 thousand Ebola deaths this year, hundreds of times more for other diseases.  1.6 million died from HIV/AIDS in 2012, 1.3 million from tuberculosis, 1.1 million from pneumonia, 760,000 from infectious diarrhea, and more than 600,000 from malaria.

The death rate from Ebola could greatly increase, but if closing our borders to it is wise, it is even more urgent to close them to HIV/AIDS and other diseases whose death rate is astronomically higher.

How much liberty and privacy are we willing to sacrifice, though?

Sacrificing our individual rights to our government is a slippery slope.  Our fear of terrorists after 9/11 enabled passage of the Patriot Act, which severely restricted our traditional rights and made possible massive expansion of the NSA’s data gathering.  Our fear after Pearl Harbor led us to incarcerate innocent people of Japanese heritage, which we eventually admitted was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Will we eventually reverse the excesses of the Patriot Act?  Or will we abandon more of our liberty?  Will we authorize the NSA to record everywhere we go using GPS data from our cellphones?  They could then know who is at risk from contact with people who develop deadly diseases.

How much of our liberty and privacy are we willing to abandon in order to feel safer?

What have our politicians done so far?  What they are always tempted to do, take more power.  Is there a more effective possibility?

Yes.  The risk of catching infectious diseases and their death rate is far greater in low- and middle-income countries where limited if any medical care is available.  People travel, so disease travels with them.  This means that by far the most effective way to cut our risk of contracting and dying from Ebola or other deadly diseases would be a universal health care system.

Everyone in the USA who contracts a contagious disease could then receive medical treatment and not infect others.

That is the best approach for our people, but what about those in West Africa?  Should we do anything for them?

That’s a moral question.  Facts and analysis cannot provide the answer, although there are practical aspects we can consider.

We currently feel obligated to act as the world’s policemen.  We give our government several trillion dollars each year to destabilize cruel regimes.  But those who survive the bombing fail to establish better government.  That results in us being hated, despised and/or laughed at for our foolishness.

Killling and destruction do not make life in this world better.  We could, however, build a happier world by instead acting as its humanitarian leader.  We could, for example, do more than send 3,000 troops to Liberia to build 17 Ebola treatment facilities.

But we seem to have no compelling self-interest in West Africa as we do in the Middle East without whose oil our economy would collapse.  If Ebola arrives in India’s slums, however, and sparks a widespread epidemic, our cancer, HIV-infected and other patients will not get their medicines because 40% of generic drugs in the US come from India.

We do have interests throughout the world, and our behavior is noticed.  If we stop killing people to make their lives better and instead help them heal themselves, we will be more loved, less hated and therefore much safer.

It is hard to imagine us overcoming out feeling that we must rule the world, however, and almost impossible even to imagine our government building a better situation for our own people in our current political climate.

What does seem somewhat realistic is to avoid Ebola hysteria.  Let’s instead of foolishly sacrificing more of our rights, require our government to educate us about Ebola and make it less difficult for anyone with symptoms to quarantine themselves and get treatment.

Ebola and Homo Politicus

Here goes Homo Politicus again.  Few of us really know anything about the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) but most of us have views about whoever is our President.

Homo Politicus says those views tell us all we need to know about the CDC’s effectiveness.

A recent survey finds 76% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans confident in the federal government’s ability to respond to Ebola while a 2006 survey about avian flu found 72% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats confident in the federal response.

The difference?  A Democratic President now, a Republican President then.

Partisanship of Disease Preparedness

We can see the swing taking place.  At the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak in President Obama’s first year, 81% of Democrats were confident and 70% of Republicans still remained so in the federal response.

But does it matter that our expectation about the performance of government agencies is formed not on the facts but on our political bias?

It matters very much.  We panic about how we imagine our government will respond to Ebola but do little about diseases that we bring upon ourselves.

It makes no sense, for example, to panic about Ebola and at the same time smoke cigarettes.

Ebola Cartoon

And it is shameful for us to panic about Ebola being brought here from Africa when we’ve done so little to eradicate it there.

Malaria is estimated to have killed over 600,000 worldwide in 2012, 90% of them in sub-Saharan Africa.  But that death rate is estimated to be down almost 50% since 2000.

The same success could have been achieved with Ebola.  It still could.

And what is the single greatest real reason to fear an Ebola catastrophe here?  Our healthcare system.

People without health insurance who have the disease will put off visiting a doctor until it gets worse.  Of course they will.  They will infect others before they get to medical care.

We could fix that, too, but we are distracted by Homo Politicus.  How very sad it is that we listen to him.

The Mental Illness of Homo Politicus

Our cranial roommate, Homo Politicus, identified by Aristotle long before the birth of Christ, is a trouble maker.

The following observation is true enough, but Homo Politicus latches onto one word and says “There you go again!”

All forms of conservatism are symptoms of mental illness.  The fact that they are collective and rooted in ancient fragments of wisdom does not change the fact, just makes them more dangerous, difficult to acknowledge as pathological, and hard to treat.

Because Homo Politicus sees everything as political and “conservative” is a political label, (s)he distracts us from what’s important, the root of the mental illness that manifests as conservatism.

What is that root?  Fear of change.

That’s important because so may of us fear change.  It’s not just Republicans, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists or others who profess conservative values.

And conservatism is not our only mental illness that manifests in politics.  Progressivism is also a delusion because we cannot in real life manage societal change.

Although our every behavior causes change, we cannot control the result.  The network of causes in which we exist encompasses everything that ever happened.  We cannot be in control because we are embedded in that network of causes.

Over-excitable Homo Politicus distracts us from the fact that knowing we cannot be certain about all its results does not mean our behavior doesn’t matter.

In fact, it is only our behavior that matters!  Because they so often guide our behavior, we must be very wary of our mental roommate’s beliefs.

It is foolish, for example, to think that those with a different political bias are mentally ill while we are sane.  That leads us to ignore important truths they point out.

And Homo Politicus blinds us to our own contradictory beliefs.  Conservatives who oppose government activism at home, for example, passionately advocate the use of force to change other nations.

There are such contradictory beliefs all across our political spectrum.

The result is we live with great social and economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, persecution based on beliefs or identity – all these ills and more – and we don’t know what to do.

We might imagine too much government got us into the mess, or stronger government could fix the problem.  But corrupt and incompetent as our government may be, it is not our primary problem.

That’s good because government’s flaws are very hard to correct but our individual problems are more tractable.  Of course we must correct our government’s flaws but we will get results faster by correcting our own.

What can we do about our insanity?  We can:

  • Reject “us-versus-them”, start building bridges across perceived divides.
  • Focus more on broader long-term consequences of our actions, less on short-term self-interest.
  • Resist appeals to fear and anger that cloud our judgment, use more analysis.
  • Assume misunderstandings result not from malice but miscommunication, practice empathy.

That we have an insane cranial roommate whose friends and enemies are also deranged doesn’t mean we must remain deluded.  We can pay less attention to their chatter and act more wisely.  We will be happier if we do.

Our Eleven American Nations

I was quite startled to learn that our Constitution has a stated aim to protect the “opulent minority.”   I was impressed when I studied our system of government for my citizenship exam.  Now I realized that I didn’t understand the system’s history or implications.

I started with Robert Dahl’s excellent How Democratic is the American Constitution?  Daniel Lazare’s The Frozen Republic opened my eyes wider.   Then I read Colin Woodard’s enormously helpful America Nations – A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America.

Woodard began his career in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union was collapsing.  He noticed that the boundaries of Hungary, Poland and other nations bore little or no relation to the ethnic and cultural realities.  Groups within those countries had always been rivals and people across borders shared a culture and long history.

That got Woodard thinking about cultural rivalry within our nation.  The South versus the North, the coasts vs the heartland, those grossly simplified divisions don’t explain the reality.  Cultures that came from England, France, Spain, the Netherlands and so on were significantly different and those cultures remain powerfully alive.

Our values and the behavior they motivate are much more those of eleven distinct people than of fifty States, or of an homogenous population with shared values.

What are the implications?

The Constitution’s first words are “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union.”  Coming in the recent past from very different cultures with very different values, many of the delegates did not want union but to be left alone.  Those who wanted union had very different ideas about its form.  The great majority of the population was not consulted, certainly not those whose land had recently been invaded.

The Constitution that resulted from all the necessary compromises results in an ongoing contest between only two major parties.

My conclusion before I read Woodard’s research was that since the Republican Party has been taken over by a tiny minority of the most wealthy Americans in alliance with fundamentalist Christians and anarchists, “something-other-than-progressives” must take over the other Party.  But that would result in even more extreme gridlock.

The Democratic Party must not shift to the far left to balance a Republican Party that is moving further and further to the far right.  It must find a position that accommodates the diverse values of a majority of people across all our eleven nations.

Our world is constantly changing, so our policies and programs must, too.  Sometimes a conservative brake on changes will be best, other times major changes will have grown urgently necessary.  And the priorities of neither major party will permanently align with those of any of our eleven nations.

Some of us wage war on “invasive species”, plants, insects, fish, rodents, mammals, any form of life that “does not belong here.”  Some of us reject people who arrived recently and “don’t belong.”  But as the world inevitably changes, life forms inevitably move.

Recent linguistic research indicates that the first people in North America did not come directly from Siberia across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago.  People from Siberia had been living in Beringia for around 85,000 years.  When the ice melted and their habitat was flooded 12,000 years ago, some came here.  Others went back to Siberia where they perhaps no longer “belonged”.

Those who came here formed into tribes, some peaceful, some making war on each other.  We think of those Native Americans as being decimated by “the white man” as if a single invasive species destroyed them.  In fact, it was a variety of new species, eleven major ones, that set up an entirely new form of government which excluded them.

What we need to do now is figure out how we can use that system of government to better represent the people of the eleven nations who we speak of collectively as “Americans.”

We are not alone in facing this challenge and we have had governments that better represented us all in the past.  We can have such a government again.  We’re in a much better position than, for example, Nepal.  Politicians there continue to wrangle without visible progress over what structure of government could represent all Nepalis, not just the Brahmin elite.

Nepal’s politicians cannot even start to learn how to govern until they choose a structure.  Ours could start governing effectively right now.  We must make them do so.

Income Inequality Impacts Consumption

In this post I explore the great increase in income inequality during US economic expansions.  But does income inequality lead to inequality in relative consumption of necessities and luxuries?  Here’s an analysis by quintile since 1984:


The data overall show (quote): “for lower and middle income quintiles, the share of total inflation-adjusted (real) consumption going to purchase necessities has contracted since 1984, while the share of the total going to purchase luxuries has remained fairly constant or slightly increased. For the highest income quintile, however, there has been growth in the relative consumption of luxuries.”

Wait – lower income folks are now spending less on necessities, more on luxuries?

Relative Real Consumption Shares by Income Quintile

We are not shown the trends for individual items by quintile but when we get to the end of the piece, “implications”, we do get one example of the impact of classifying items as “necessities” or “luxuries”:

Average Share of Total Real Consumption

Education is classified as a necessity although parents struggling to get by and/or maintain their customary enjoyment of luxuries such as “entertainment” and “public transportation” (!) might have a different view.

(Quote): “if the necessity “education” continues to decline as a share of real consumption for all but the highest income quintile, it may exacerbate the income inequality trend over the coming years; increased education is one of the most reliable paths to increased income. However, the lowest, second-lowest, middle, and second-highest income quintiles have all seen their shares of education decline significantly over the analysis period (8.1 to 2.6 percent, 2.8 to 1.2 percent, 2.5 to 1.1 percent, and 2.6 to 1.6 percent, respectively). The highest income quintile has seen its share of education consumption remain relatively steady, declining only slightly from 3.4 to 3.2 percent.”

The devil is famously in the details.

Capitalism, the General Welfare and Education

I’m blessed to have friends whose beliefs I do not share.  They make it so much easier to see that if I believe this, I cannot also believe that.

My ideas were well tested in a discussion of this New York Times article about income inequality analyzed in the context of US economic expansions by Ms. Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College.

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, most income gains from the bottom of one recession to the start of the next went to most people, i.e., the bottom 90% got a majority of the increase.  But in each expansion they got a smaller share while the top 10% got increasingly more.

From 2001 to 2007, an extraordinary 98% of income gains went to the top 10% of earners.

In the first three years of the current expansion, the incomes of the bottom 90% actually fell, which meant the top 10% got a seemingly impossible 116% of all income gains.

Inequality Increased with Expansions

The top 10% now gets almost half of all income.  Just the top 3% got almost a third (31%) in 2013 and the next 7% got 17%.  The remaining half (52%) is shared by the bottom 90%.

Making life harder for the bottom 20%, they got only 36% of federal transfer payments in 2010, down from 54% in 1979.

The short term result of rising inequality is weak economic demand.  The longer term impact is lack of progress in education.

The USA is the only high-income country whose 25-34 year olds are no better educated than its 55-64 year olds.  College graduation rates for the poorest increased only 4% from those born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s while the rate for the wealthiest increased by almost 20%.

Upward mobility is very limited without a college degree so high inequality in education results in children of prosperous families tending to stay well-off while children of poor families remain poor.

Ms. Tcherneva focuses on the short term issue, weak demand, and observes that our fiscal policy – lower interest rates to increase demand to create jobs – is not working.  She suggests the Federal government focus directly on employment:  “The manpower of the poor and the unemployed can be mobilized for the public purpose irrespective of their skill level, which in turn will be upgraded by the very work experience and educational programs that the program would offer.”

When the discussion began, a different version of the income distribution chart by Robert Reich was dismissed as “bull crap.”  By the end, we agreed that income distribution really is highly unequal in the US and is growing more so.  We further agreed that the trend is unsustainable.  We came close to a consensus that if it continues too long, there will be civil strife. 

And we ended up agreeing that our economy is undergoing structural change.  Off-shoring and automation are eliminating many lower paid jobs.  AI software is also replacing many higher paid jobs.  Perhaps there simply will not be enough jobs humans can do better/cheaper than intelligent machines and we will in the longer term need a new economic paradigm.

When we discussed solutions for today, we disagreed about whether government should try to alter income distribution, directly create jobs, or do more to govern behavior in markets e.g., with stricter bank regulations.  We disagreed about whether government should ever try to influence society in any way e.g., by tax incentives. 

And we disagreed if education should be primarily private or public. 

Seeking a philosophical basis for our beliefs, we discussed the Constitution’s: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, … promote the general Welfare …”, and its section 8, which gives the legislative branch the power “… To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” 

What, we debated, is the Federal government’s responsibility for “the general welfare” in a capitalist society?

Characteristics of all forms of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labor.  Piketty’s research suggests the rate of return on capital is inevitably higher than the rate of growth of wages.  What government action does that suggest?  To what extent should government constrain behavior in competitive markets?  And is the freedom that comes with wage labor sufficient?

What preceded capitalism was slavery where slaves could not seek a better owner, and feudalism which also kept those at the bottom in place.  Capitalism has no such iron-clad constraints.  In pursuit of higher wages, a better boss, more interesting or safer work, we can try to get any job at all, anywhere. 

Furthermore, capitalism requires property rights and other laws while in slave-owning and feudal societies, laws are the whim of the slave-owner or land-holder. 

We did not dispute the ideas in the preamble to the Constitution; that central government must enable us to live in peace under the protection of the law.  Hamilton in the Federalist Papers was emphatic about “a more perfect union” and “common defense”.  States must not have armies, he wrote, because they would go to war with each other if they did.  The nation as a whole must defend itself. 

Where we disagreed was on Section 8, about the meaning of “the general welfare” and the Federal government responsibilities it implies. 

My thoughts were clarified by the discussion.  I believe the central government of any nation is responsible for establishing the infrastructure, broadly defined, that is necessary for the general welfare.

Infrastructure means basic facilities, services, and installations necessary for a society to function, e.g., transportation and communications systems, water and power lines.  Infrastructure also includes public institutions such as schools, post offices, and prisons. And it includes protection of “the commons”, things we all need that nobody owns such as the air.

Different combinations of public and private involvement can create and maintain infrastructure, but the central government is always responsible for ensuring that current and future generations will have an infrastructure that enables the nation to remain competitive and viable.

I have long thought, for example, that our central government should lead us from dependency on Middle East (or other) oil by establishing a suitable electricity grid.  What struck me in this discussion is that I think a well educated and healthy work force is also part of our infrastructure. 

And I want nobody to be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances into which they are born.

That led me to two conclusions about education.  First, it must be funded from the center because if it is not, welfare cannot be general.  Some will be privileged by accident of birth while others who may have high intellect and/or other gifts will not get an education that enables them to fulfill their potential.  Second, the curriculum must be set at the center because if it is not, our workforce will not have a dependable base of skills.

I do not mean specific work-related skills, almost all of which now have a short shelf-life because technology is advancing so fast.  I mean the ability to seek out and recognize facts, to reason from facts to conclusions, and to communicate effectively with people whose ideas are different. 

We are not born knowing how to do any of those things or how to act as members of society, just as we are not born knowing how to read or do arithmetic, and that’s important because we can’t have an effective democracy if voters can’t recognize facts or reason from them. 

In fact, we do not have an effective democracy, and I want that to change!

My views, taken as a whole, seem to fit no label.   I believe, among other things, that:

  • Markets should operate as the engine of creative destruction (i.e., I’m a capitalist)
  • Which means, for example, that too-big-to-fail financial institutions must be broken into smaller entities that can go bankrupt
  • And (almost?) all tax incentives should be eliminated
  • Individuals should be held accountable for their actions
  • Which means we must strengthen regulation and enforcement of individuals’ behavior in markets (i.e. prosecute criminal behavior)
  • Everyone should have a reasonably good opportunity to fulfill their potential (i.e., I’m a progressive)
  • Which means we need a progressive income tax code and high inheritance taxes
  • And Federally funded education with a uniform national curriculum
  • A reasonable amount of health care and etc should be available to all (i.e., I’m a socialist)
  • Which means we need a universal single-payer health system
  • Infrastructure investment by the central government is necessary and can be funded by borrowing (i.e., I’m not a fiscal hawk)
  • But spending programs should be funded with current revenue, i.e., taxes (so maybe I am a fiscal hawk)
  • Our misguided spending on wars should be invested productively, e.g., on an electricity grid that helps us overcome our dependency on oil and coal (i.e., I’m a peacenik) 

My education left me unable to accept an entire package of ideas from anyone else, but it’s hard to avoid cognitive dissonance when you assemble your own set.  It’s almost impossible to spot every inconsistency.  This is why I’m so grateful to my diverse friends for helping me see more clearly.

Doma’s Buddhist Refuge Vow

Buddhists vow to take refuge in the Buddha, in Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma), and in those who commit to act on them (the Sangha).  The teachings are programs that train us not to harm others, to grow more kind.  The Buddha is our kindness role model.

Before I knew what the refuge vow is, my reaction was negative.  “Take refuge?  Never!”

Why?  Because just as our experiences when we are two, three and four years old are formative, so is what we experience when we are minus two, three and four.

When I was minus four, Winston Churchill inspired those I grew up among with these words: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  I grew up equating refuge with surrender and considering surrender unthinkable.

But surrender has a different meaning in the spiritual and physical worlds.

Some Christian denominations require one to explicitly surrender worldly ways and be “born again.”  In the New Testament Jesus said: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”  The Apostle Paul defined the Kingdom of God as: “Not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”   All Abrahamic religions speak of this spiritual kingdom.  The Quran refers to Abraham seeing the “Kingdom of the heavens.”

But if you are raised right, your first birth may be almost enough.

Doma grew up knowing she is Buddhist but with almost no formal teachings.  She was taken to some when she was four or five but nothing later.  Her mother recommits herself to Buddhist ethics every morning and offers water and incense at a shrine in her room, but she has had no teachings.  Despite having so few formal lessons, Doma easily understood Phakchok Rinpoche’s teachings last month.

One evening Rinpoche asked us to say what difference Buddhist practice has made in our lives.  I spoke of empathy for friends and family and indifference to others before I began the practices, then a growing compassion that now arises automatically even, to some extent, for people I dislike (I am also training not to make such judgments).  Others said similar things.

Doma did not speak.  I asked her why.  “I was thinking what I would say but I grew sad because all those people felt bad about themselves before they became Buddhist.  I am so lucky because I always knew to be compassionate.”

It’s good nevertheless to make an explicit commitment to transform our behavior, so, along with four others, Doma took the refuge vow.


To symbolize what you are abandoning, Rinpoche clips a little of your hair.


Because you are making a fresh start, you receive a new name.


And the ceremony ends with Rinpoche casting rice to bless the efforts Doma and the others committed themselves to make.


(Photo credits: Matt Goult.  Thank you so much, Matt!)

Doma’s First Month in the USA

This was a fun and busy month introducing Doma to life and friends in coastal Maine and helping her prepare for Hampshire College.  Our world and ways here are so different from life in Nepal.  I am not surprised but I am greatly impressed by how calmly and happily she adjusted.  In this post I’ll try to give a sense of what we’ve been doing (you can click on the photos to see more clearly).  At the end are descriptions of  her first semester classes.

The ocean was quite a surprise   2014-07-29 07.00.04

but Doma soon grew accustomed to the ever-changing tides.  2014-07-29 07.00.34

“There is so much jungle,” she said,  2014-07-29 10.15.44

and everything is so clean!”  2014-07-29 10.48.52

Some foods were familiar, like these cakes.  2014-07-29 13.06.46

but lobsters that “look like a scorpion” were not.   2014-07-27 19.26.02

I was ill-prepared for shopping but blessed by friends like Kris  2014-07-31 12.06.25

who provided guidance about both fashion and food.  2014-07-31 13.21.09

Getting the rest of her inoculations was no fun 2014-08-01 14.27.23

but life improved greatly once she got a laptop 2014-07-30 18.51.19

She enjoyed meeting our neighbors, other friends 2014-08-02 15.07.21

and Patty’s delightful dog, Maya. 2014-08-02 15.30.54

Later, Doma renewed her Buddhist vow to live a good life 2014-08-10 12.44.49

and my teacher, Phakchok Rinpoche, led us in happiness 2014-08-15 18.01.05-2

then I took selfies while she checked in to her room at Hampshire College. 2014-08-23 16.51.31

Hampshire is a traditional Liberal Arts college in that students must take a wide variety of classes in their first couple of years but different in that study and reflection lead to action, to projects.  Doma’s classes in her first semester are:

How Things Work: How things work is a first-year Physics course, using easier mathematics (algebra through pre-calculus) to study the full range of its topics. It introduces students to college physics, projects, and science through study of ordinary objects. Principles flow from everyday applications in mechanics, electricity & magnetism, electronics and optics. We steadily build an individualized project, learning stages of research and write-up that are needed for any intellectual investigation. This course covers the five elements of a complete Natural Science experience, including quantitative and verbal skills, the methods of scientific inquiry, and the importance of social context, all as applied to the topic of each student’s choice, thereby addressing crucial first-year program goals.

Dancing Modern I: This beginning level modern dance technique course will introduce students to “modern” and other dance technique practices. By practicing in-class exercises and phrase-studies, students will refine bodily awareness and articulation, hone spatial and rhythmic clarity, develop facility in perceiving and interpreting movement, and practice moving with our dance musicians’ scores. We’ll also consider what movement principles and priorities underlie the techniques we employ, and compare them to those of other dance styles and cultures. How do these influence the dances that result? Going a step further, we’ll examine the final products of dance practice, the dances themselves; students will learn to read and analyze choreography in performances from a range of dance styles and cultures. Students will be expected to grapple with the studio work with commitment and rigor, view performances live in concert, and think in movement, style, and written word.

Global Poverty: Theories and Practices: Poverty action and alleviation are terms that have been used in relation to how we imagine engaging with the so-called “Third World.” This course seeks to analytically engage with poverty practices utilizing different models and paradigms of poverty alleviation around the world. Furthermore, the investigation of poverty alleviation will be situated within a larger historical context of 20th and 21st century international development. While global poverty action and alleviation has been propagated through state-led International development projects, the course also seeks to examine the role of non-governmental organizations, social movements, private corporations, and philanthropic foundations all aimed at tackling and eradicating poverty. The course also examines the ways in which poverty is concentrated in urban settings. While most of the course content is situated in the “Third World,” case studies on poverty and inequality in the “First World” will be examined as well interrogating normative notions of the “Third World” and “First World.”

Introduction to Social Entrepreneurism: Students explore themselves, talents, motivations and dreams to realize new ways to address social needs and change through enterprise development. Grounded in experiential learning, this class is a balance of theory, hands-on learning, best practices and skills building. Students actively engage in creating a social enterprise. Class includes case studies, guest speakers and a possible field trip. No prior entrepreneurship or business experience is necessary. All students will complete and present an enterprise concept plan.

This week Doma and other international students are being introduced to everything Hampshire.    2014-08-23 17.01.06

She is having fun making new friends but eager for start of classes on September 3rd.


Doma is Here in Maine

What an amazing feeling it was to meet Doma at JFK in New York very late on Thursday!  It’s almost a year since we started her college applications.  Now she is here and International Student Orientation at Hampshire College is less than a month away.

Doma Arrival at JFK - 2

Because of holiday traffic, it took a large part of Friday to drive up to Maine.  We stopped, of course, at the Travelers Restaurant, exit 74 off I-84, for good food and three free books each, and Doma caught up with some lost sleep along the way.

The next day, Saturday, there was a parade to celebrate the 200th birthday of Phippsburg where we have our summer cottage and Felicity’s art gallery.  A kindly Mainer offered us her pickup tailgate.


I could not have organized a better introduction to small town America.



Since then we’ve been shopping, something I never imagined I would enjoy…  Our latest purchase was an iPhone, without which college life would not be possible.

Oh, and we’ve been enjoying the excellent food at Shere Punjab restaurant here in downtown Brunswick, Maine whose friendly owners come from Kathmandu.  More news after more  shopping.

By admin Posted in Doma