Saturday, June 5, 2010

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without Bleeding Green

You can't be a Jedi, because the Force isn't real. You can't be a Na'vi, because your hair isn't magic. But you can do a pretty good job of living like a Vulcan from Star Trek, and here's how.

And let's face it - Vulcans are way cooler than Jedi or Na'vi anyway. (At least if you ignore Star Trek: Enterprise, which you really, really should.) Vulcans are quite possibly the most fully realized alien race television or movies have ever created, and not just because they have a complex culture and history. Vulcans have something most made-up races can only dream of: a central contradiction that's ultra-compelling. They're overflowing cauldrons of passion, who have mastered their emotions to such a high degree they appear almost robotic. No matter how pissed off or freaked out you might ever get, you can't be as hot-blooded as a Vulcan. And you'll have to work pretty hard to be half as cool.

Vulcans have a philosophy, a way of life, and a spiritual discipline. And they get things done. Best of all, you don't really need alien physiology and fancy powers to embrace the Vulcan way of life.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding Green

In case you need more help after reading this, a great list of Spock's sayings, from the TV episodes, movies and some books, is here. There's also a list of Vulcan proverbs here. And Jacqueline Lichtenberg's great essay on Surak's philosophy is here (PDF). And a stimulating bulletin-board discussion of Vulcan logic and culture is here.

So here are ten ways you can live like a Vulcan, starting today. They're vaguely ranked in order of difficulty, and the last couple of items are probably beyond your abilities.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding GreenWish other people long life and prosperity. Okay, so the Vulcans supposedly don't have much in the way of emotions, right? So why should they care whether you live for a long time? Or whether you have a rich life? It should be all the same to them one way or the other. But they do wish you a long and prosperous life, because it's part of their philosophy. What we humans imperfectly translate as "logic" is really something more complicated - pure logic wouldn't necessarily consider long life preferable to instant death. Either one could be logical, depending on your goal. But if "logic" is really a part of an attitude that includes a respect for life, then it makes total sense. And similarly...

Make your greeting into a blessing. That famous four-fingerd "V" salute isn't simply a simple hello or goodbye, as it might appear. According to this site, that double-V sign is based on an ancient Jewish gesture, practiced by the Kohanim when they bless a synagogue's congregation during an Orthodox worship service. Leonard Nimoy writes in his book I Am Spock that he witnessed this hand gesture during a worship service when he was a child — you're not supposed to look at the Kohanim when they're delivering the blessing, but he peeked. When the episode "Amok Time" called for Spock to greet T'Pau, an early script called for Spock to kneel and have T'Pau put her hands on his shoulders. But Nimoy felt this was too hands-on for Vulcans, so he came up with the gesture we know today. Nimoy practiced it for hours before he had to do it for the first time. According to Lichtenberg's essay, linked above, the salute also represents a number of Vulcan ideals, including logic, reverence for life, and respect for the dignity of the individual.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding GreenCelebrate diversity. A lot of us pay lip service to diversity, but for Vulcans, it's one of the cornerstones of their philosophy, and Spock even sports a fancy medallion to underscore his commitment to it in one episode. It really is only logical: the more you learn about the universe, the more you discover that its power comes from its diversity of cultures as well as phenomena. So it just makes sense to appreciate "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." When you encounter someone from a different background or group, try to understand the logic of his/her ideas. (Of course, Spock was a judgemental S.O.B. sometimes, but none of us ever lives up to our ideals.)

Become a vegetarian. According to the AnimalRightist blog, Spock and most other Vulcans are vegetarian, and in fact so is actor Leonard Nimoy. Spock frequently says that it's illogical to kill without reason, and in one episode, he tells Dr. McCoy, "In a strict scientific sense, Doctor, we all feed on death - even Vegetarians." Anyway perhaps the comparatively low-protein diet helps Vulcans rein in their passions.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding Green

Put the needs of the many ahead of the few (or the one). This is getting a bit more difficult. If Spock ever spouted a motto, it would be the one he mentions in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Putting this philosophy into practice is a lot harder than it looks, though - it's sort of like the Hedonic Calculus, if John Stuart Mill didn't believe in the value of personal pleasure. You sort of have to apply this idea on a case-by-case basis - like, if killing one person would save a million people from a nasty headache, do the needs of the many still outweigh the needs of the one? Probably not. This is where logic comes in. But still, if you want to be a Vulcan, you probably need to spend more time thinking about how your own personal needs conflict with the needs of the many - and whether there are instances where you might be able to put others' needs first.

Practice stoicism. As Mark Vernon writes in his "Philosophy of Star Trek" blog post:

Stoicism... might now be called the Vulcan way of life. It's beautifully captured in the words of Spock's father: "What is necessary is never unwise." The Stoics believed the cosmos and everything in it is determined. To resist what is necessary is therefore not just futile, it is also to destroy your chances of a happy life. The main locus of this struggle to 'go with the flow' is in our judgments about things. When we judge wrongly, perhaps overwhelmed by emotions, we resist necessity. When we judge well, perhaps asserting our reason, we go with necessity and so flourish.

That doesn't mean you should be passive, or avoid taking drastic action when circumstances require it. But knowing when to accept necessity and when to struggle is a pillar of Vulcan wisdom. (And I think this is where Kiri-kin-tha's First Law Of Metaphysics, "Nothing unreal exists," comes in. Part of stoicism is accepting reality.)

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding Green

Learn to meditate. One of the things that I always loved about Star Trek: Voyager was the focus on Tuvok's practice of meditation. The show rarely used Tuvok well, but the glimpses we saw of Tuvok's practices were really great. And it seems like if you really want to tame your boiling core of emotion, you need a practice that allows you to see the world as the nest of illusion it is. You must recognize that desire is both illusory and poisonous, and only then can you master your emotions. As John Walsh writes in the Independent newspaper,

It's significant that the Vulcan word for emotion-purging is "arei'mnu," which means "control of emotion"; the ideal Vulcan mindset, then, is an iron discipline about feelings - a rather Buddhist freeing of the self from disturbing impulses.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding Green

Practice touch telepathy. Sorry, I'm not going to be able to teach you how to put your fingers on someone's head and step inside his or her head. Maybe in a few decades, we'll have the gene-splicing or drugs to let us possess real touch telepathy, like the Vulcans have. But for now, the closest you can come is being more aware of your body and how you touch others, and how you enter other people's physical space. You can also learn to read people's body language, and understand the signals we're all constantly sending out. People communicate in many other ways besides language, and the more you can interpret this, the closer you'll get to being able to mind meld.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding Green

Go to extremes for love. We humans dont actually experience any kind of "mating season" like the Vulcans' Pon Farr - adult humans are just ready to go 24/7/365, pretty much. (No wonder the Vulcans find us a bit alarming.) You'd probably only get in trouble if you tried to use hormones or diet to give yourself a mating season, and anyway our particular biological configuration does have its advantages. But you can recognize, as the Vulcans do, that there really are times when it's pointless to fight your passion. The Vulcans have domesticated their passions in every other sphere, but when it comes to mating, all they can do is shroud their passions in ritual. These rituals probably shouldn't include whacking your friends or rivals in the head with giant double-headed axes or anything. But as important as it is to govern your passions, embrace necessity and put the needs of the many before the needs of the one in other areas, Vulcans teach us that in love, it's vital to go overboard and be dramatic. And our rituals and performances only add to the drama and give it context, rather than dampening it. And quite right too.

How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without  Bleeding Green

Send your children into the wilderness. As Walsh points out in his Independent article, the Vulcans have a pretty bizarre approach to child-rearing. In particular, Vulcan children must go alone into the savage terrain of Vulcan in the "Kahs-wan" ritual. As Walsh explains: "Each child must go wandering in the wilderness or desert, fending for himself, as logic and ingenuity dictate. Sometimes, unimaginative children die on these gruelling excursions, but life goes on without them." You might get in a spot of trouble with the authorities if you were to take the Vulcan example too literally. But you can recognize that your children are people, and that they need to be challenged as well as protected, and that sometimes befriending a giant beast is the best way to make sure they turn into awesome adults.

Living like a Vulcan is something we humans will never be able to accomplish fully - but it's something to aspire to. And maybe aspiring to Vulcan-hood can make us better humans.