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Dear Copthorne,

Allow me to just dive in.

I love your ideas about learning, I also believe an education is necessary but not necessarily in the form society demands. I love that you lived according to this idea by taking your own daughter out of school to travel. I believe traveling is one of the most enlightening experiences a person can have.

I must ask how you feel about daydreaming and how this conflicts with your idea about doing things carefully. I must say I can be a little spacey sometimes and have a tendency of being spontaneous, and it has always served me well. I was wondering how you feel about when this conflicts with being precise. I almost feel like it's a piece of artwork, free flowing, to be a person who is able to go with the flow. This also to a degree goes against your notion of plan-making.

Next I'm interested in your idea of the truth and being. The idea that how everything is, is meant to be is a romantic notion but doesn't leave too much room for free will. I was wondering if you believed in free will or if you felt this contradicted with the idea of fate and if the two could exist simultaneously. Also how do you believe religion would play into this? I seem to find many of my ideas are in fact contradictory. I love the dreamy ideal of fate and "meant to be" in certain circumstances but would find them extremely frustrating in others. I believe we are meant to be self-made people and part of growth and learning is through our choices and how we adapt to the consequences, good or bad, that ensue. I also have many opposing notions of being raised Catholic and believing that we are meant to live with free will yet God is supposed to be all knowing.

In addition, I was wondering what you think set you on the life path you are on. Nature? Nurture? Personality? I believe all factors combine to make the unit but I think it's possible to pinpoint guides and influences along the way. What steps did you take that led you to where you are in life in terms of spiritual and self growth? Meditation seems to have been an important practice in your life. I've had a few experiences with meditation and found them all very beneficial. I also taught yoga classes which I find to be one of the best ways to settle your thoughts, which is what we have been learning about this year.

I enjoyed reading your book this semester. Thank you for helping our class and Skyping in to talk with us.

Erin H.

April 27, 2010

Dear Erin,

Thanks so much for your most stimulating letter. Yes education, but . . . As Professor Nordstrom puts it at the end of his emails, "Don't let school interfere with your education."

Regarding daydreaming, also YES. When I was 6 and 7 my parents used to put me to bed far earlier than I was ready to go. And I used to spend the long period before falling asleep having what I called "dream thinks." Daydreaming times are often creative times, times when great ideas bubble up from the Muse, or the subconscious wiser self, or whatever we want to call it. Regarding spontaneity vs. planning, in my experience both are appropriate, but at different times and in different circumstances. I think that life experience tends to teach us when and where. Sometimes one or the other doesn't work, and if we're paying attention, that becomes a bit of guidance for next time.

You ask what set me on my life path, "Nature? Nurture? Personality?," and went on to say "I believe all factors combine to make the unit, but I think it's possible to pinpoint guides and influences along the way." I agree wholeheartedly. And it ties in with your wondering about free will, and my contention that, at any given moment, everyone is doing the best they can. (A good friend of mine perhaps put it better. His words were, "Everyone is doing the only they can.") In another book of mine, Matters of Consequence, I went into my feelings on the subject in some detail:

During the past several decades, it has become clear that there is not just one, standard human nature. Instead, each human's inner life and outer behavior is the joint product of nature and nurture: genes on the one hand and one's life experience on the other. On the nature side, each of us arrives on Earth with a set of genetically determined potentials, some of which are common to all and some of which differ from person to person. All babies drink, cry, sleep, and wet their diapers. But some babies sleep their first month away while others cry it away. Some startle easily; some don't. Some are exceptionally alert and attentive; others are less so. Some have a generally rejecting attitude, others a generally accepting one. In addition to these built-in attitudes and tendencies, each baby is born with a very wide range of undeveloped potentials. These include intellectual potentials, physical potentials, musical potentials, artistic potentials, potentials for generosity and caring, potentials for selfishness and mean-spiritedness, etc. What is common to all at this early stage of development is, as psychologist Gardner Murphy put it: "A raw distinctive humanness differing from the nature of all other creatures and possessing sharper wits, greater capacity to learn and, above all, keener exploratory functions and the capacity to discover and use new relationships."

On the nurture side, it is society's job to take this raw malleable humanness, this watchful, willful, bundle of potentials, and develop some of them into functioning actualities. As Murphy pointed out, these "potentialities are not just incompletenesses but radically new kinds of human nature…." In other words, when one set of potentials develops, you get one kind of person and one expression of "human nature." When another set develops, you get a different person and a different human nature. Ruth Benedict and Abraham Maslow stressed this point. They gave examples of societies peopled by likeable, caring human beings (high-synergy, all-win societies) and of societies peopled by mean, nasty humans (low synergy, few-win societies). On the high-synergy side, they pointed to several Native American societies where community well-being and personal generosity were highly valued, and where the society's institutions fostered these attitudes. In these societies, the "richest," most admired person was the one who gave away the most at the annual Potlatch or Sun Dance ceremony. Everyone gained in these societies.

Sadly, many modern North American societal institutions have been cultivating the opposite tendency. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, they have encouraged us to pile up personal wealth and reduce our level of concern about those less well-off than ourselves. During the second half of the twentieth century, the dominant culture influenced people to put self first, to avoid social responsibility, and to replace generosity of heart with various degrees of unconcern and mean-spiritedness. Neither the political right nor the political left is blameless in this. When it was their turn in office, each has pumped the bellows under the fires of acquisitive consumerism. And both are guilty of failures of empathy. The right's failure involves ethnic minorities, the poor, immigrants, women who want to change things, and gays and lesbians. But, as Michael Lerner has pointed out, the left is also guilty. The left can empathize with those who are suffering economically or being deprived of their rights, but it fails to give much weight to the spiritual suffering of middle-income people—to the suffering that comes from living in our society's ethics-and-meaning vacuum. This failure of empathy is, in Lerner's view, very divisive, and one reason why the left has not received more political support from middle-income people than it has.

How societies go about encouraging the adoption of one set of values and behaviors rather than another is not difficult to understand. It is the matrix of influences in each person's life that determines which innate potentials develop into actualities and which do not. The law governing this phenomenon is simple:

A person's values, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and personality at any point in their life is the joint product of the physical influences (genes, nutrition, etc.) and the mental influences (family, education, personal experience, etc.) that the person has encountered up to that point.

Is that really true? Doesn't it leave something out? At the very least, it seems pretty impersonal. Strangely, however, the personal is precisely this intermixture of genetic makeup, physical influences, and mental acquisitions. What else is there but the physical substrate at birth and all the things that happen afterward? It is not all nature, not all in the genes, not all in the physical makeup. Neither is it all nurture, all in one's life experience, all in one's learning. Rather, a person is a combination of both nature and nurture. Together, nature and nurture cover all the possibilities, including intuition, imagination, deep spiritual understanding—and even free will and Jung's "collective unconscious," to the extent that they exist. Physical influences and cultural influences have together made each of us what we are today. That's the reality—and in some eyes the bad news. The very good news is that this process never stops, and through exposure to new influences people can change.

Ah, the exposure to new influences. As I see it, if we happen to be blessed somewhere along the way by encountering an influence that leads us to seek other positive influences, we are blessed indeed. To me, the closest thing we have to free will is this ability to select among influences.

Among the influences that have had the greatest influence in my life were a physical start that included health, above average intelligence, and curiosity. I had supportive parents, and early schooling that fed my curiosity rather than stifling it as many schools do. Success in my engineering career led to my ego needs being met and my opening up to Maslow's concept of self-actualization — of "becoming all you're capable of becoming." Much reading after that helped my psychological development, and there's a list of the books that influenced me psychologically and spiritually in Chapter 14 of my book Toward Wisdom. But it was mindfulness meditation, particularly in retreat situations, that has been the most powerfully transforming influence in my life. Yoga, as you know, is another meditative practice — it is my spouse Bev's first choice.

You are obviously well-launched toward a satisfying life, Erin. Great to hear from you!

All the best,


PS All three of my wisdom-related books are available as free, downloadable, Acrobat eBooks. Click here to find out more.