The doctrine of “no self” (anatta in Pali) is probably the most puzzling bit of wisdom in the Buddhist tradition. Its elusive and seemingly absurd implications periodically spark heated exchanges in the popular press. But there may be something of value here beyond an entertaining absurdity. See what you think.

At base the notion springs from the wider Buddhist emphasis on impermanence. This concept of course is neither absurd nor difficult to understand. It is easy to grasp because we see it all around us in daily life. All things come and go. Everything is in constant change, arising and…


When traveling we must choose our companions carefully.

While there are many companions to recommend, this essay concerns only three. All of them, it turns out, are ancient Greeks. All are excellent travelers: never shrill, always wise.

THE SKEPTIC

The advice of this companion is subtle. It is not a harsh demand for relentless doubt. It is not a prohibition of belief. This would not be feasible.

Rather, this one suggests only that nothing can be known for certain. Not about the world, nor even about ourselves. There can be no certain knowledge of the nature of existence. …


The goal of this essay is to argue against free will, but in a way that seems relevant to daily life, and maybe even improves it a little.

The argument is this: just recognizing that free will is illusory, and reminding ourselves about that periodically, can help make us better people.

First, full disclosure: everyone, including the author, feels they have free will. This will never change; as far as we can tell, the feeling is built into the normal human nervous system. …


“We work to have leisure, on which happiness depends” Aristotle

In the summer of 1930 the distinguished economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a century later, by 2030, we’d all be working fifteen hour weeks. That may have been a tad optimistic.

But given the pace of technological advance, many believe some version of Keynes’ prediction is inevitable. For example, one speculation has it that if present trends continue, over the next twenty years some one-third to one-half of our jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence and robotic manufacture.

Perhaps. Fortune telling is hazardous, and there is a long…


One of Milan Kundera’s finest moments was the titling of his 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The “lightness” refers to several things, but mostly the transience and unpredictably of everything we hold dear: our loves, our work, our very lives. Being is light not only because it is pushed about by happenstance, but also because it ends far too soon, never to come again.

This a timeless issue. In fact it could be argued that unbearable lightness has fueled much of our religious thinking for millennia. Now, however, something in this arena has a slightly different flavor. It…


“If God does not exist, everything is permitted”.

This quote from “The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov is frequently invoked by those who believe in God. Without faith in a god that lays down the rules, their argument goes, we are lost in a moral desert. We cannot truly know right from wrong.

A common argument, perhaps, but one that ignores much of world history. In truth everything has never been permitted, and this applies both to those who believe in such a god and to those who don’t.

Two examples are sufficient to establish this point. Chinese…


Sometimes it takes a complicated effort to remember simple things.

In the decades following publication of E.O. Wilson’s Biophilia (1984), which proposed an inherent inclination to affiliate with other forms of life, a cascade of research was unleashed.

All of it examined the effects on people of contacts with nature. The areas studied were diverse, including stress, longevity, hospital recovery, work productivity, anxiety, depression, and more.

The studies varied in their methodological rigor, and not all of them showed salutary results. But overall it does appear that interacting with nature can have demonstrably positive effects on health and well-being. Even…


Among other things this brief essay argues against the notion of dualism, that is, the idea that mental and physical processes are entirely different.

It’s easy to understand how this notion arose. Dualism is intuitive. Consciousness does seem to be something unto itself. Awareness seems wispy and insubstantial, while the physical world seems heavy and solid. It’s only a small step to conclude the two things are fundamentally different.

While most scientists reject this idea, it has a long history among other folks. The notion of some kind of soul separate from the body is of course central to several…


This piece concerns a feeling.

Just a feeling, but a rather unusual one: a visceral sense of unity beneath the world’s innumerable things.

As you might expect, I’ll be addressing several aspects of mysticism and philosophy. But first let me explain what I won’t be addressing. The notion of “oneness” explored here will not focus on complex interaction or interdependence.

To illustrate what I mean by that, consider the humble apple. Muse for a moment on the wondrously complex interplay giving rise to it. Seeds dispersed with the help of the hungry, widely scattered onto fertile ground. Tiny shoots poking…


“There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly.” Eric Hoffer

The best death, many feel, would be a quick, painless passing in one’s sleep. Others hope for family and friends at the bedside, with expressions of love all around. That’s comforting to imagine.

But this brief piece is not about the best death. It’s about what I would consider the minimum for a good enough death. Here in my eighth decade this minimum has become exceedingly simple. Perhaps deceptively so.

A good enough death would not need to be a dignified one. It would…

Timothy DeChenne

Retired psychologist

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