Posted in History & Literature

Gordian Knot

Legend tells the tale of the Gordian Knot, a knot tied so tightly that it seemed impossible to undo it. The Phrygians’ oracle even prophesised that the person who untied the knot would become the ruler of all of Asia Minor. Many tried to loosen the knot, but the knot remained secure for years.

In fourth century BC, Alexander the Great came to the city amidst his business of conquering everything around him. Of course, he could not pass the challenge by, so he too attempted to unravel the Gordian Knot. But alas, not even the great Alexander could untie it.

He then took a step back and thought to himself that it did not matter how the knot was undone. So he took his sword and sliced the knot in half, much to the shock of his audience. As the oracle prophesised, Alexander ruled the great Macedon Empire, stretching its border past Asia Minor, almost reaching present day China and India.

The story of the Gordian Knot teaches the importance of thinking outside the box. We can tackle a problem again and again without fruition if we try only one method. Just when you start to feel frustrated, take a step back and consider a different approach.

Another lesson is the value of combining two different fields. Instead of using typical knot-untying skills, Alexander chose to use military skills. Many innovations have arisen from borrowing skills and ideas from different fields – known as cross industry innovation.

For example, instead of complicated controller designs for drones, the US Army found using an Xbox 360 controller was far more effective. Computer models simulate the way ants find optimum paths to solve complex mathematical problems such as the Travelling Salesman Problem. The combination of waffles and shoes resulted in the creation of waffle rubber soles to increase traction in running shoes. Many engineering feats borrow ideas from nature, such as the aerodynamic design of planes and structural strength of arches and curves as observed by Gaudi.

This is the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3.

Posted in Life & Happiness

For Versus With

What do you look for in a potential partner? Everyone has their own set of criteria and features that they find attractive. But a common point of the things that people look for in a potential mate is that they subconsciously ask the question: “What can this person do for me?”.

Let’s take some examples.

  • “Someone with a good, stable job” – Someone that offers me financial stability.
  • “A tall, dark, handsome guy” or “A beautiful, sexy, blonde girl” – Someone who is aesthetically pleasing for me to look at.
  • “Someone who can cook well” – Someone who can feed me.
  • “Someone that makes me laugh” – Someone who will make me happier.
  • “Someone who makes me feel loved” – Someone who will make me feel special.

As individuals, we are allowed to make some selfish decisions when it comes to important life choices. But a relationship involves two individuals, meaning that both parties should be considered. There is some room for compromise, but the more selfish and individualistic people act, the more resentment that builds up in the relationship.

Furthermore, the question of what your significant other can do for you builds expectations. Human beings never act predictably, so this is sure to lead to disappointment. As you get used to each other’s company and your partner starts doing less “for” you, such as cooking you dinner every day or giving you gifts, you will feel as if they don’t love you anymore. Eventually, you grow apart from each other and the unrealistic expectations threaten the relationship.

Perhaps the more important question to ask is: “What can I do together with this person?”.

For example, what hobbies or passions do you share and can you do it together? Do they spend their days off in a similar way to you? Are your values and beliefs aligned in a way that you could share a life together without too much clashing? How are they different from you, what can you learn from them and how can you help them?

The advantage of this question over the first one is that it respects that a relationship is something shared by two equals. Instead of asking what value your partner will add to your life, it instead asks how you can add to each other’s lives to produce something greater.

1 + 1 = 3

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(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)

Posted in Life & Happiness

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Life is a series of choices. As you only live once, you must decide what type of life you will lead. However, we are plagued by the uncertainty of the future. How will we know that we made the right choice? The career you decided on as you entered university could become obsolete in 20 years due to technological advances. You might end up regretting uprooting your life to move to a new city.

Perhaps the most difficult choice is the question of whether we are in love with the “right person”. Even if your partner is a perfectly nice, kind person, you may feel that something is missing. Some people call it chemistry, others call it connection, some even believe in fate and destiny. We are wired to try predict the future to protect ourselves. Therefore, it is natural to be concerned that we may end up with the “wrong person”: love’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Ideally, we want to be with someone who we can’t imagine not being with. Someone who you can enjoy the silence of a Sunday afternoon with comfortably. Someone who you can be silly with like children. Someone who you can open up to for support and understanding without fear of being judged. Essentially, someone who completes the equation of 1 + 1 = 3, rather than the typical 1 + 1 = 2.

If you find someone like that, all you have to do is focus all of your energy in making that relationship work, through communication, compromise, kindness and love. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find ourselves feeling that the person is 70% the person for us – maybe even 80% – but we are not sure if we are sacrificing the possibility of being with “the one”.

There are two possible solutions. If you have hope that this is the right person for you, you could give them a chance by giving it your best shot and see if things improve or not. Perhaps there are barriers easily solved through communication.

But if the seed of doubt in your heart grows, saying that this is not the right person for you, consider what you would do if you were unhappy with other aspects of your life. If you hated your job, you would train in a different discipline. If you hate the new city you moved to, you can always move to a different one.

Love is a choice. Whether you choose to stay and try to make it work, or choose to leave in search of a person who you feel a deeper connection with, it is up to you to make a choice.

Life is difficult, but at least we have the luxury of choice. Fear gives us tunnel vision – we can only envision one possible way our life will play out. By settling with the comfortable choice, you may be extinguishing the possibilities of a happier life.

It takes great courage to make a choice. But regardless of the outcome, at least you gave it an honest go; you took charge of your life and tried to live a happier life with less regrets.

Take a step back to examine your life – are you truly content with it? Or is fear blinding you from the leaps of faith that can make you happier?

Posted in Life & Happiness

Kintsugi

There is a type of Japanese pottery art called kintsugi (きんつぎ), which translates to “golden joinery”. Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery by filling the cracks with lacquer (treated tree sap commonly used to decorate pottery) that has been dusted with gold or silver powder. This gives the pottery a distinct look as the pattern of cracks are always random and unique.

Kintsugi is not only an art, but a philosophy. When something is broken, the common practice is to repair it in a way to hide the fact that it was ever damaged. Kintsugi takes the opposite approach by directly incorporating the break into the identity of the pottery.

It follows the Buddhist principle of impermanence and imperfection – understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Instead of hiding the damage or throwing the pieces out altogether, kintsugi can produce something greater out of the pieces than its original form.

Nothing is constant in life. We are not perfect and cannot remain unflawed. Life constantly knocks us down, leaving us with scars. But when you get back up, you have two choices: to pretend you were never hurt and hide the pieces away, or to embrace that you are flawed but choose to show to the world how you mended yourself to become even more beautiful.

The lesson here is that it is okay to be imperfect or broken. What matters is what you can do with the pieces.

1 + 1 = 3

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Posted in History & Literature

Your Other Half

According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. The humans at this time were complete. They felt as if nothing could harm them and that they could conquer the gods. Zeus feared the humans’ power and split them into two separate parts to create humans as they are now. Two arms, two legs, one face, half a soul.

Thanks to Zeus, all human beings are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in search of their other halves. When one of them meets the other half – that is, the other half of his or her original self – the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. There is an unspoken understanding of one another – an unexplainable longing and attraction for each other. One will not be out of the other’s sight, even for a moment. The two continuously yearn for each other and strive to be together until they are finally united.

Love is simply the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete. It tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.

1 + 1 = 3

(inspiration from The Symposium by Plato)

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(and here’s a sweet illustration of the myth http://imgur.com/gallery/H0f1u)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

The Importance Of Hugging

American psychologist Harry Harlow was interested in the debate surrounding the role of the mother. Some scholars argued that a mother’s role is to provide food for the baby, while others argued for the importance of the mother’s tender loving care for the baby. To investigate this, Harlow created two “mothers” for a group of infant rhesus macaques (species of monkeys). One mother was made of wire and wood and the other made of soft cloth to simulate the physical contact of an actual mother monkey. The twist was that only the wire mother provided milk for the infant. Despite this, an overwhelming number of infant macaques chose the cloth mother over the wire mother, choosing physical contact over nourishment. It was found that when given the two choices, the infants would visit the wire mother only for a feed, then would cling to the cloth mother the rest of the time. Harlow concluded that the mother’s role is not only to feed the young, but to provide them with “contact comfort” through physical contact.

Hugging is a form of physical contact found in almost every culture across the globe. It non-verbally communicates to the other person that you love and care for them and that you are compassionate for their happiness. It can provide the warmth, comfort, support and security the other person may need at the end of a tough day.

The act of hugging induces a massive release of oxytocin into your system, giving you the sensation of happiness and connection. It reduces your blood pressure and dissolves anxiety, making you feel more at peace. The behaviour of hugging is seen in a mother holding her child, a child cuddling a teddy bear, a couple communicating their affection, or two friends sharing a moment of happiness.

When two people hug, they become something more than a simple group of two people. In that moment of a hug, the two people enter a transcendent zone filled with only love and happiness, where they are protected from the sorrows and evils of the world. It is the physical form of human connection. In other words, a hug is the closest thing to the physical manifestation of true happiness.

1 + 1 = 3

Posted in Philosophy

Lego House

Imagine that you built a house out of Lego blocks. Now break apart the house until it is reduced to individual blocks. Where is the house now? You could say that the house is still there, except now that it is in the form of a small pile of blocks. On the other hand, you could argue that the “house” itself no longer exists – only its components. The pile of blocks does not have a roof or walls or a living room. It is not a safe, homely place Mr. Lego can return to after work to relax in. However, it has the potential to be a house again. All you need to do is arrange it in a certain way to make it a beautiful home for a nice little Lego family.

What makes the Lego house a house is the specific arrangement of the bricks in an aesthetically pleasing yet functional and practical way – crafted by a creative mind and a set of hands. Through these hands, the blocks can be crafted into a house, a car or even a space station. But without them, they will forever remain a pile of unused blocks stored away in some dark container.

Now look deep inside you and ask this question: what have you made with the Lego pieces that make up your identity? How have you pieced together your strengths, your skills, your experiences and your dreams? We are all unique in the sense that we are born with certain virtues and talents, while gaining various experiences and skills through the chaos that is life. But all of these are just Lego pieces. What kind of masterpiece these pieces will be a component of is up to you to decide, design and build.

Just like Lego, if you don’t are not truly happy with what you see inside you, feel free to tweak it, add to it or even disassemble it and rearrange it into a different final product. Try emphasising your language skills, or chasing after a lost dream. Draw from different experiences and play around with your various strengths. This is not to change who you are completely; no matter how many times you break up and reassemble them, you still have the same components. All you have to do is come up with a new design, build it and judge the product. Hopefully, you will find the right arrangement of pieces that result in a product greater than the sum of its components.

So go on, get building. 1 + 1 = 3.

(Artwork by Nathan Sawaya)

Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Benevolence

Mencius, a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, proposed a thesis that diametrically opposes Xunzi’s theory of fundamental malevolence. He claimed that human beings are fundamentally good. According to Mencius, people are inherently altruistic and courteous, wanting to help a fellow man. He stated that people are born with all the qualities needed to build virtue: compassion, humility, modesty and ethics. Through mental training and discipline, these traits respectively develop into: humanity (yin, 인, 仁), righteousness (eui, 의, 義), courtesy (ye, 예, 禮) and wisdom (ji, 지, 智). Mencius believed that as every man and woman are born with all the qualities needed to become a saint (seung yin, 성인, 聖人), anyone could become a “good person” through disciplining one’s mind. According to this theory, evil is only a product of bad environments and people inherently act benevolently when matured in a good environment with adequate teaching in etiquettes and social order. Thus, the act of harming others and murdering are because the person’s fundamental nature was corrupted by a harsh life and environment and because they lack virtue and discipline. A person who strives to perfect their morality is a gentleman (gun ja, 군자, 君子), a person who does not is a petty person (so yin, 소인, 小人). In Confucianism, gentlemen are highly respected while petty people are shunned.

Are human beings good-natured? The theory of fundamental malevolence states that human beings, like all other animals, are selfish beings who only care about their own needs and will willingly harm others to fulfil their greed. Contrary to this, the theory of fundamental benevolence (성선설, sung sun sul) teaches that people are altruistic animals who will support and help each other. We proved the validity of fundamental malevolence from an evolutionary perspective with the example of a hungry lion. An animal case scenario that supports the theory of fundamental benevolence is the ant.

By observing an ant colony, we can learn that altruism can assist in survival. An ant by itself is quite powerless, but when millions of ants come together to form a colony, they can build great cities to protect themselves, they can farm to feed everyone and they can easily overcome any foe of all sizes. Ants do not become jealous of another ant who has more food. Instead, when they are full, they will store excess food in a social stomach so that they can share it with another hungry ant they come across. Through cooperation, understanding and connection – that is, the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3 – ants are able to compete and survive in nature. In fact, ants thrive anywhere in the world and can easily adapt to almost any environmental change. When comparing the two ultimate species that dominated nature, human beings and ants, the commonality is that both build societies. To build a society, individuals must get along with each another, and the key to building relationships is goodwill.

Thus, we have proven that fundamental benevolence can also be supported by evidence from nature. If so, are human beings fundamentally good or evil? The more you study people, the less credibility there is for fundamental benevolence. Of course there are plenty of stories of altruistic people, but “generally” people are still selfish animals who prioritise their own gain. No matter how much you say “I care for other people and wish everyone in the world happiness”, the reality is that you will only really care and love for people within your monkeysphere, while not caring nearly as much for the starving child on the other side of the world.

This is not to say that “good” does not exist on this world. It is just that the fundamental nature of human beings is likely to be evil, as Xunzi posited. However, as we grow, we learn social order, etiquettes and morality and we try to suppress our basal instincts as much as possible. Although our efforts are usually successful, we still slip up every now and then. On the contrary, some people do not even make the effort to hide their true nature and we label these people as “evil”.

Whether we are fundamentally good or evil, the truth is that we have both the potential and ability to develop our own character and sense of morality. Whether you will be an ant, who builds great cities and strive for a society where everyone helps each other stay well-fed, or a lion, who stalks prey all alone to feed itself day-to-day; that is your choice.

Posted in Philosophy

Oil And Water

It is said that oil and water do not mix. This phrase is also used to describe two people who do not get along and cannot even stay near each other. But technically speaking, oil and water can be mixed. When you mix oil and water, you will find that droplets of oil float in the water. If you add an emulsifier (something that helps emulsion – the mixing of oil and water – such as soap or egg white), the oil droplets break down into very fine droplets that spreads through the water to make a stable emulsion fluid. Thus, even something like oil and water that appear to never mix can be mixed using science. Not only that, but some foods that we enjoy so much such as mayonnaise, milk and vinaigrette are all emulsions. Two fluids with different densities and properties, never wanting to be together, can combine to form such a great mixture.

If two people who never get along and refuse to mix were to congeal like mayonnaise, they may form a surprising combination, producing synergy.

1 + 1 = 3

Posted in History & Literature

Elements: Yin And Yang

Yin-yang is a frame of thinking that can be considered a fundamental basis of Eastern philosophy. In ancient Far East Asia, people categorised everything of nature as yin or yang, including natural phenomenon such as human physiology. Yang() is a masculine element, yin() is a feminine element and the two represent the countless symmetries found in nature. Just as there is a sky for the earth, a sun for the moon, a man for a woman and strength for softness, every phenomena in human societies and the universe can be identified in relative terms. The concept of reducing these to a plus and a minus to explain natural events is the concept of yin and yang.

For example, consider a hill in the sunlight. The bright side is called the “yang place” and the opposite, dark side is called the “yin place”. Thus, light is yang, darkness is yin. That is not all. The air that is heated by sunlight becomes warm and rises, while cold air sinks because it is heavy. Yang symbolises heat, lightness and upward, active movement while yin symbolises cold, heaviness and downward, sluggish movement. But that does not mean that yin is bad and yang is good. The reason being, everything that counters each other in nature coexists and forms a balance. Also, as time passes, the sun will move from the east to the west, making the sunny place dark and the dark place sunny. Yin-yang is a law that shows the relativity of nature very well. It shows that everything is relative to each other even if they seem like opposites, forming a harmonious balance and cycle.

Balance forms harmony and nature always seeks harmony. For example, traditional Korean and Chinese medicine is based on the concept that the reason why diseases occur is because of the balance of yin and yang in the human body being broken. To restore the balance, acupuncture and herbal remedies are used, restoring good health. A broken harmony is due to one side being greater than the other as yin and yang form a zero-sum game. This means that as one side waxes, the other side wanes and vice versa, with the sum of the two being equal at all times. But this does not mean that yin and yang oppress and fight each other. Instead, the two rely on each other despite being opposites. In this world, there is no light without darkness. There is no forwards without backwards and no life without death. For instance, if there were only men (yang) in this world, the human race would be wiped out in one generation. But if yin and yang coexist to help each other and form a union, they give birth to a new generation. Nature always exists as a perfectly balanced coexistence of two polarities. When yin and yang form a balance they form something even greater than their sum, which is harmony.

1 + 1 = 3

(Image sourcehttp://falynevarger.deviantart.com/art/Yin-Yang-Dragons-119779525)