Very Disturbing Video

November 7, 2013

Should those who commit adultery be stoned to death?  Should women be isolated from any role in society?  Should all gays be executed?  You should watch this video.

At a recent Islamic conference in Norway, thousands were asked these questions.  If they agreed, they were to raise their hands.  Nearly everyone there did.  Then the speaker asks the crowd, “How can they say we’re radical when all of us think these things?”

If you’re going to murder people over their sex lives, and tell half of the human race that they have no role in society other than to be their husbands’ personal servants, we’re going to have problems.  Women have rights and can vote in democratic societies.  They have just as much say as anybody else.  We don’t live that way anymore.

And stoning?  Let me see if I’m getting this straight.  When I think of stoning, I imagine a mob of angry men dragging a poor woman out into the middle of the street.  Everyone’s screaming at her, “Whore!  Whore!  Repent!”  Then she’s pelted with rocks until she dies, lying there in a pool of her own blood.  We’ve quit doing those sorts of things a long time ago.  The death penalty has almost been completely abolished in the civilized world, much less torture and stoning.

And gays?  A lot of us also have friends who are gay.  You think we’re going to let you murder them because of your religious ideas?  You going to round them up into a pen and stone them too?

Ironically this discussion took place at a peace conference.

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Topics: Politics, Psychology | No Comments »

Changing Your Approach

November 7, 2013

Growing up, I was always an athlete, playing basketball, hockey, and running track.  I never had to worry about staying in shape or eating right, considering I was so active.  But things changed as I got older.  My life became more and more sedentary, mostly from having to do software projects to earn money.  I found myself spending more and more time on the computer, and less and less time being active.

I can remember turning 28, looking in the mirror one day before taking a shower, and I saw the beginnings of a pudgy belly.  I wasn’t fat by any means, but I’ve always had a chiseled physique, and I didn’t like what I saw.  I stared into the mirror and said to myself, “This is it.  This is how it starts.”  Most people accept that as a fact, and many give in to all kinds of rationalizations.  Love yourself as you are, and all that sort of thing.  I knew what I had to do – I had to change.

I figured I needed to lose roughly eight to ten pounds to get back to my athletic build, so I began cutting portion sizes in all my meals.  Did I see any results?  Nope.  Nothing.  I didn’t lose any weight.  I may have slowed down the weight gain process, but it seemed to have little to no effect.

I then ate even less.  Then less.  Eventually I cut my intake to 1/3 of what I had been eating, and everything was healthy.  Oatmeal, salads, and that sort of thing.  Still nothing.  I wasn’t losing any weight, at all.

I then started walking every day.  First it was for thirty minutes each day.  I remember feeling better, but I still wasn’t losing any weight.  I then increased my walking to an hour.  I was eating super healthy AND walking an hour each day yet still wasn’t losing weight.  At that point I was pretty upset.  I mean, geez, what do you have to do to lose weight?  It was insane.

Out of sheer curiosity, just to see what it took to lose weight, I practically starved myself for two weeks.  I only ate small salads for each meal, and I was sooooo hungry.  I was suffering from nasty headaches, mainly from low blood sugar, and I was walking for over an hour each day.  I was weak, tired, hungry, and completely miserable.  Then, finally, I lost like two to three pounds in two weeks.  Just imagine suffering migraines and starvation for two weeks, all just to lose two pounds.

I seriously thought I may die if I continued on that path.  It was nuts.  I realized why people gain so much weight and are never able to lose it.  You look at restaurants (especially fast food), or even most of the stuff in grocery stores, and it’s all unhealthy.  It doesn’t take many McDonalds value meals, cookies, or bowls of ice cream before you’re packing on the pounds.  It’s so easy to do.

I was discouraged and angry.  I went back to eating healthy, but not starving myself.  And, once again, I didn’t lose any weight.  I needed to lose six or seven more pounds, but I had no idea how.  Then over the course of a year or so, I gained the two pounds back.  It was hard to tell though.  That pudge was not going to go away without a fight.

All of this led me to start researching how many calories different activities burned.  Walking for an hour, at my weight, will burn like 200 calories, roughly.  Then I was reading online and saw that those elliptical machines in the gyms can burn 600-700 calories per hour, at my weight.  I realized that using that machine was like going for three or four hour long walks in a day. Since I’m a student at Missouri S&T, I just went to the gym one day and tried it out.  It wasn’t all that difficult.  You do a ski like motion for an hour, and it said I burned 550 calories my first time.  I was at a loss for words.  It was like I’d gone for three of my normal walks.  That’s a lot.

I noticed the elliptical machines each have their own screens, almost like a personal mid-size TV, and they have an iPod hookup.  I could watch movies, lectures, or anything I want.  I just download it into my iPod and bring it with me.  So I took advantage of that.

I put all sorts of interesting things on my iPod and have been absorbed in the material, completely losing track of everything going on around me in the gym.  My body goes into auto-pilot, and I don’t even realize that people are coming and going, on and off of the machines near me.

I used to just sit here in my study and watch lectures.  I was doing it anyway, now I just do it in the gym.  I’m not starving myself.  No headaches.  No suffering.  It’s not even hard.  I put the resistance on level 15 and just work out for an hour, or so.

Now for the crazy part.  You want to talk about losing weight?  I was already eating healthy, and then when I started doing the elliptical machine for an hour, I lost that pudge in two weeks.  I was losing about three pounds a week.  It was just a huge change for me.  Since I use that machine nearly every day, I have to eat more just to counter the calories I’ve been burning off exercising.

I looked in the mirror just the other day and had a six pack again, just like I used to back in high school.  It’s nice.

I’m not writing this post to brag about losing weight.  I know people struggle with their weight.  This really has nothing to do with weight loss.  The real message I’m wanting to convey is that life doesn’t care how much you struggle.  How hard things are for you.  How much work you put into something.  None of that matters.  I could’ve continued starving myself, eating salads, and suffering headaches for six months and maybe lost ten pounds.  That was an option, but I chose to change my approach.

The magic word is change.  Some approaches are just better in every way.  You get better results with far less effort.  That elliptical machine allows you to increase the resistance, so it’s like a special form of walking that burns a ton of calories yet puts no stress on your knees.  Engineers designed that thing as the ultimate calorie burning machine.   Combined with a heated and air conditioned gym, with access to an iPod dock, TV, and other pleasures, why was I bundling up in my coat and gloves, going for cold walks down the sidewalk outside, only to burn 1/3 to 1/4 the calories?

Isn’t it strange how we so often stay in these ruts which just go in circles, taking us nowhere?  People are afraid of change.  I was afraid of change.  I went to the gym and thought, “I’ve never liked these places.”  Then I said to myself, “What?  Where is that coming from?  Really?  I don’t like the gym?  And why is that exactly?”  Of course the voice in my head, Mr. Recluse, had no real answer.  If I have an enemy in this world, it’s Mr. I want to stay at home all the time, away from people.

We all have those inner voices telling us to just stay home, that it won’t work out anyway, what’s the use, and all that sort of thing.  You’ve gotten send Mr. Recluse packing.  It really is remarkable when you change your approach and all of the sudden the wheels stop spinning and you get traction.  After a long time of frustration, you’re finally zooming off at high speed, at a loss for words.

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U.S. National Debt and The Deficit

November 1, 2013

The United States national debt is at roughly $17.2 trillion dollars and growing every day.  A lot of us are asking how we got in this fiscal mess, and things are getting pretty heated.  I’ll try to shed a little light on a very complicated issue.

First, we can address the primary causes for why we’ve been running deficits, and hence, running up our national debt.  These are the main reasons given by a  2012 Congressional Budget Office report.

The Bush Tax Cuts (extended by Obama) (~2 trillion)

About 12 years ago, income taxes were cut across the board in pretty much every tax bracket by several percent.  Next, capital gains taxes were cut in half, going from 39% to 15%.  Capital gains refers to money made from having lots of money.  Interest earned from bank accounts, real estate, stocks, bonds, and that sort of thing.  This has led to a major loss in revenue, but spending was never cut to compensate.

Wars Overseas (~1.5 trillion)

It seems we’re always at war.  There’s a generation growing up today that’s never lived in a time when we weren’t at war.  Sad, but true.  It’s been a massive economic drain.  We’ve spent anywhere from 1.5 to 2 trillion dollars on our conquest of the Middle East, establishing bases all over the place, controlling sea lanes, oil, and other natural resources.  It’s expensive.

Increased Defense Spending And Homeland Security (1.5 trillion)

We’ve been spending a lot of money on defense and homeland security.  You know all those airport security scanners?  Those massive data centers spying on everyone across the globe?  How about those drones, stealth airplanes, and those massive aircraft carriers we’ve been building out of fancy composite materials?  A giant black hole.  We’re building a space shield of drones and missiles under the guise of fighting terrorism.  In reality, it’s world conquest and domination.

Interest Payments On Our Debt (1.5-2 trillion)

When you borrow money, you have to pay it back with interest.  We’ve borrowed our money from Japan, China, Russia, and other places.  We’re taxed and send them interest payments each month.  Good for them I guess.  Not so much for us.

Varied Economic Stimulus Attempts (1 trillion)

Roughly 1 trillion has went into different economic stimulus programs.  The government has tried to jump-start the economy by investing money in all sorts of things.

Subsidized Student Loans (700 billion)

There’s been $700 billion dollars given to students in federally subsidized loans.

Lost Revenues Due To The Economic Recession (4 trillion)

Because the economy hasn’t been great, revenues were down for a while but spending wasn’t decreased to compensate.  There’s an important economic relationship which you have to understand.  When the economy takes a downward swing, more and more people need assistance (unemployment benefits, etc), so safety net spending increases as revenues fall during a recession.

It’s quite clear that President Obama inherited an economic mess, as did President Bush.  There were major recessions during both of their first terms.  Less money was spent in stores, leading to less profits for businesses, more layoffs, and less federal revenues.  The chart below makes that quite clear.

But there is some good news.  Federal spending has leveled off while revenues continue to increase.  It’s a nice change of pace, though it’s not enough.  We need to increase taxes (get rid of the Bush tax cuts), cut defense spending, end the wars, and continue to reform healthcare and social security.  But we have an uphill battle ahead.

revenue vs expenditures

Entitlement spending is a huge problem.  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending is growing far faster than the economy.  The CBO is telling us that if these programs continue on their current course, their expenditures will eat up all tax revenues sometime between 2030 and 2040.  There won’t be any money for defense, education, the FDA, scientific research, or anything else.  It will all go to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

GAO_Slide

Look at that red bar in the entitlement spending chart.  That’s debt interest payments.  It balloons out of control, mainly because at that point we have to borrow money to even keep our government functioning.  The more money you borrow, the higher the interest rate to further borrow.  It’s a downward spiral.  That chart is depressing.  It’s obvious that our current course is unsustainable, and with an inept Congress stuck in ideological deadlock, do you think they’re going to be able to sort this out?

Our primary problem is the inflation in healthcare costs.  We have short-term unemployment problems, and that gives us short-term deficit problems, but our long-term problem is healthcare costs.  If we don’t fix that in the coming decades, we’re done.  They have to fix healthcare.  But, on the bright side, healthcare inflation is the lowest rate it’s been since the 1960s.  We’ll have to see how the Affordable Care Act plays out.

Entitlement spending could easily span an entire post, but I need to get going, so hopefully this was at least a little informative.

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Thoughts On Apathy

October 22, 2013

I’d like to briefly tell all of you about an interesting medical disorder which I think sheds light on the problem of free will.  If a person suffers brain damage in their anterior cingulate cortex, they will suffer from what’s called akinetic mutism.  And what is that?

These people will simply lie in bed, not saying a word.  They’re fully aware of everything going on around them, but they have absolutely no motivation to do anything.  As far as I know, they exist in the deepest, purest form of apathy humans can experience.  They’re even indifferent to pain.  You could probably start cutting them up with a knife and they wouldn’t resist or make a fuss.

That particular area of our brain is heavily involved in reward anticipation, and without this area estimating how much pleasure we’ll get from different actions, we go into this deep state of, “What’s the use.”  We’ve all had a depressed friend who didn’t want to get out of bed.  This is like that, but way more intense.

In certain cases you can give these people drugs and they’ll temporarily snap out of it.  They’ll then lean forward and respond to questions you ask them, but otherwise, they just lay there, indifferent to whether they live or die.

This is interesting and important to note in any discussion of free will.  Without your brain’s reward anticipation system functioning, you go into a state of pure apathy.  Your ability and desire to exercise “free will” vanishes.

Free will is a tricky, slippery idea.  Even the quantum mechanical interpretations are hard to understand.  How would that work when these reward anticipation processes are ultimately dictating what we do?

It’s almost as if damage to that area of the brain leaves a person in a state where they’re unable to have faith.  Without a belief that there’s something good waiting for you in the future, you just shut down.  Your whole brain is wired on that premise.

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The Extent Of Human Love

October 13, 2013

In a recent post, I claimed that problems arise in the world when there is a lack of love.  This applies equally to personal relationships and nations as a whole.  So the next question to ask ourselves is why there is any love at all, and second, why do our love relationships break down?

I’ll begin with a personal observation.  As many of you know, the United States is currently in a bit of a budget crisis.  I was visiting with my parents and my mother made a comment, “Why are we sending aid to foreign countries when we can’t even pay our own bills?”  Now, I’m going to ask you all to shut off your “political” brain.  Don’t think of the statement in terms of policy analysis, such whether or not we truly have funds to help poorer nations (for example, if we cut military spending, etc), but instead let’s analyze it as a psychological statement.

Why does my mom think an American life is more important than the life of a foreigner?  Why aren’t all people loved equally?  Why are there these invisible lines in the sand, making some groups of people more important to us than others?

This brings us to a talk I recently listened to on one of my favorite websites, edge.org.  Dr. Joshua Greene of Harvard University was promoting a book he recently finished called, Moral Tribes:  Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.  In the talk he discusses how “us” vs “them” dynamics are formed.  He begins by noting that we evolved in small tribal groups.  There was “our” group in which we  hunted and lived with, and then there were “other” groups which were almost always the enemy.  The emotional systems within our brain are pre-wired for “us” vs “them” behavior.  Let’s take a few examples.

In an experiment done a while back, everyday people were asked whether or not they were obligated to help out after a natural disaster.  People’s responses depended on where the disaster took place.  If it happened in the area in which they lived, the vast majority of people felt it was appropriate for everyone to chip in and help out.  If it didn’t happen in “their” area though, things were different.  Say their friend was visiting a distant country and the same disaster has taken place.  He sends them pictures of the rubble, the starving children, and all the homeless victims.  He then asks for money.  The number of people who say it’s a moral duty to send aid plummets.

Why is this?  Well, we have hard-wired emotional systems that work in terms of “us” and “them”.  In mom’s case, there’s America (us), and there’s other countries (them).  When it comes down to it, our survival is more important than other people’s, just as it was in our hunter gatherer days.  The problem with this is that nations grow and there’s only so much land here on Earth.  As countries grow and expand, they naturally bump into each other and fight for resources.  Both groups think in terms of “us” and exclude the “other” groups, and we get a nasty form of conflict.   This is because we haven’t learned to love the “other”, and for that reason we have wars, violence, and greed.

But that’s not to say we’re in a hopeless situation.  Dr. Greene compares our moral instincts to a camera.  Most new digital cameras these days have pre-set “point and shoot” settings that will give you a good picture in most common situations, but not always.  When the pre-sets won’t do, you need to fine-tune the settings by hand, and then take your picture.   Our brains are the same way.  Our emotions are pre-sets which we’re born with and they work pretty good in a lot of situations, but they have their limits.  There are times when emotion is limited, and that’s why we have reason.  But reason is complicated and there are lots of settings.  You have to spend a lot of time studying your “camera” to know how everything works.  With time and patience, you can manually tune your “camera” and get better results than the pre-sets.  That’s what moral and spiritual instruction does.  You can go beyond your pre-sets.

Tribes form around religions, cultures, political ideologies, and many other things.  If you can’t accept people who have a different culture, a different belief system, or different ways of life, you have to go into your head and change your brain’s settings to be more inclusive.  More tolerant.  More accepting.  But that’s not easy, especially if you disagree with them, or feel that doing so would put your way of life in danger.  It’s a tricky business.  If you accept just anything, then you stand for nothing, but if you’re too rigid, there will be conflict.  To get things going, it’s important to understand your brain’s “camera” and know that it has these settings.  From there, we can debate what to do.

Now I’d like to discuss relationships among individuals within those tribes, particularly between men and women.  There are also emotional pre-sets to that process as well, and it’s worth discussing them.

As I mentioned, we are creatures which have evolved here on planet Earth, struggling for survival.  For most of our existence, we have lived short, difficult lives.  Human romantic love is rooted in these ancient instincts.

Not to over-generalize, but men’s brains evolved to be polyamourous.  You have to remember that we’re gene-replication machines.  Think of what strategy would be best for a man’s genes to be passed on to the next generation?  The more women he impregnates with his children, the more likely his genes will survive.  So throughout all the animal kingdom, males fight for power and resources so that they can support large families of females and their offspring.

Women’s emotions are wired differently.  They look for messages which signal commitment, fitness, and resources.  They want healthy children who will be cared for and will have access to the food, clothing, and other resources which they will need while raising the child.  Their best interests are to avoid men who will not commit or leave them with a child to support on their own.

So there are complicated mating rituals in human love ultimately rooted in that basis.  It manifests itself in many ways.  I’ll give you an example.  Since we were discussing my mother earlier, let’s give another example with her.  I was hanging out with Mom one time and she was watching television.  The Wendy Williams show was on, which is basically a women’s daytime comedy program which gossips about celebrities.   Maybe I can find a clip?

So what’s a typical show like?  Well, she may begin with pictures of “man-candy”, attractive men, dressed nicely, showing off their sculpted muscles.  What is this rooted in?  In times past, men were hunters.  A good hunter has to be strong and swift so that he can help provide.  So women’s brains are attracted to muscular, fit men.

Next Wendy Williams begins to gossip, mostly about male celebrities and their relationships.  The focus is on children, such whether or not these men take care of their children, custody battles, how well the men provide, etc., but they also gossip about how well these men treat their wives, etc.  Why does this take place?

We evolved in a much smaller world.  Women in the tribe evolved to gossip, primarily about the men in the tribe, but also other women in the tribe.  If the men were not faithful to their wives, the women acted as little broadcasters to warn all the other women what kind of man he was.  Considering they may end up pregnant and he’ll run off, it’s good for other women to know in advance.  They also gossiped about other women so they could compare mothering strategies.  As for women gossiping to men about other women, well, that’s mainly to convince the men that she’s a slut, and if he has sex with her, he can’t be sure that the child will be his.  That’s the primary basis for why women are always “slut shaming” each other.  It has to do with telling men, “Stay away from here!  Get with me instead!”

Wendy Williams gossiping about a handful of celebrity men with whom these normal women will never meet is completely useless.  But, if you look at the audience, it’s all women.  There’s not a single man out there.  This is a left-over vestige of our evolutionary past, sort of like our appendix is to our digestive track.

To get back on topic, when I said the world has problems when we don’t love each other, I mostly mean that we leave ourselves to these emotional systems which evolved in world in which we no longer live, and they’re not fully up to the task.  A lot of the moral and emotional instincts we have within us don’t make much sense anymore.  We have to fine-tune our settings through education and rational discourse to be more inclusive.

I’d like to end this post with a few thoughts on love.  When I look at human love, and what it’s rooted in, I find it comes up short.  I wish the attraction process between men and women was deeper than money, good looks, and access to society’s resources.  Unfortunately, for the most part, it’s not.  I also wish people’s in-groups were far more inclusive.  If you want to leave out Neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, and other hate groups, I can understand.  Even so, the type of love I wish existed in the world is like that found in mystics and saints — an unfailing, pure love, like the type God is supposed to have for us.

Personal human love is rarely God-like.  It normally has limits and is dependent on many factors.  It’s more of a cost benefit analysis masked in rationalized emotion.  You’ll attend a wedding and hear all sorts of vows, but they’re rarely meant.  The real test comes as their relationship goes on and each partner weighs the benefits and costs of being in the relationship, day by day.  Benefits include things like finances, does he or she make me laugh, how is the sex, affection, intellectual companionship, and so on.  Downsides may include alcohol or drug use, embarrassing or humiliating experiences, private or public, lack of a sex life, lack of affection, bad relationships with children, avoiding domestic responsibilities, lies, deceit, arguments, threats, violence, jealousy, lack of intellect and education, heck, even bad driving habits.  Once you’ve been weighed on random, rather arbitrary scales which change all the time and vary from person to person, you may or may not be loved.  It all depends.

Most of what goes for “love” in our world is more or less rooted in survival.  Does it benefit me?  Is this person good for me?  Does this person make me happy?  Will a relationship with this person help me get where I want to go?  Does being this person’s friend benefit causes I care about?  And so on.  But I personally like the type of love I grew up in church hearing about — the type of love Jesus gave.  It didn’t ask for anything in return.  I don’t see much of that in the world.

I actually had a discussion about love and relationships with a woman not too long ago.  She found me rather strange.  I told her that I would stay with a woman, even if I didn’t love her, as long as she needed me and was fine with me.  She told me, “That’s kind of sad.”  I’ll agree, it’s not ideal, but I grew up as a pastor’s son and I remember we would help troubled families get through hard times.  Maybe I’ll tell the story?

There was a married couple in the church and things weren’t as romantic between them as they once were.  Another woman in the church started messing around with the husband and they ran off together, leaving the former wife in abject poverty.  She lost everything.  She was a homemaker, older, and didn’t have any career.  She mainly relied on her husband for income.

He traded her in for a better model, I suppose, and maybe he was happier with the new woman.  Who knows.  But I remember it was the middle of winter, and me and other people from the church had to help this poor women move her furniture (what she got from the divorce) into this tiny ratty trailer.  It was so cold and that trailer wasn’t even insulated.  It was more like a freezer.  I could see my breathe indoors.  She had no money.  I turned on the water faucet to rinse off my hands and brown, disgusting water came out.  I let it run for a while and it was brown and never cleared up.

I heard water running outside when the faucet was on so I looked under the trailer and sure enough, the pipe just ran a short ways to the hill outside.  There was no sewage system.  I went to the bathroom and my foot went through the rusted floor of the trailer and hit the mud underneath the trailer.

Quite an ordeal, huh?   To top it off, human emotion is fickle and can come and go.  They soon tired of one another and went their separate ways, but the damage was done.  Look at what this process of seeking happiness does to people.  When people can’t find peace and happiness from within, they search for it in the world outside of them, oftentimes leaving a path of destruction behind.

The same applies to ambitions, goals, and dreams.  If you can’t be happy unless you achieve whatever it is you think needs to happen in your life, and if you think your personal happiness is all that matters in the world, you’ll step on everyone around you, chasing something that doesn’t even exist.  If you can’t be happy now, you won’t be happy later either.  If you can’t live and be happy in the present, you’re not going to be able to set goals to be happy in the future either.  You have nothing to go off of.

We live in a world where external things are supposed to fulfill you.  Achieving some goal (dreams), meeting some dream spouse (love), or owning some home (things), all of these things are what happiness supposedly is.  But it’s a lie we’re told to fuel the economy which needs people in perpetual want.   After all, the human race has to progress!  We need new gadgets.  Bigger homes.  Faster cars.  We need more!

quote-i-consider-it-extremely-doubtful-whether-the-happiness-of-the-human-race-has-been-enhanced-by-the-erwin-schrodinger-265333

Entertain me.  Please me.  Scratch my back.  Did you guys hear about the Playstation 4 video game console?  Chinese university students are forced to work in electronics factories putting together Playstations and iPhones or they cannot graduate.  It’s part of their curriculum.

People can’t wait.  Fast food, fast love, fast entertainment.  I want it NOW!  I don’t care what it does to Chinese workers or what their working conditions are.  I want my new console NOW!

If American workers were the ones forced to make Playstations under those conditions, we’d be furious.  But the Chinese are the “other”.

I spoke of how we need spiritual instruction more than anything else.  Jesus once said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things will be added unto you.”   And what does it mean to seek God?  God is love.  God’s kingdom is one in which we’re all brothers and sisters in a loving family.  We don’t take advantage of family.  Once we learn that lesson, and no longer think of outsiders as the “other”, a new form of prosperity and wealth will naturally come to us.  Why?  We’re not fighting one another, we’re cooperating.  Peace brings prosperity.

This world that we live in is a product of all of our actions.  If you’re able to find peace and love within yourself, if you can find that inner stillness deep inside you, coming to a place where you are no longer chasing or fearing things, finding a sense of contentment from within, then you’re able to give love, and that’s what the world needs more than anything.  You can’t give from deficiency, from an emptiness.  You have to give love from a well which springs within you.  That’s the adjustment your inner camera needs.

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