Note to Self

anonymous from pixabay

To: Dave’s Self
c/o Dave the Organism
Date: The Eternal Now

Hi Self,

I think it’s time we had a talk. You’ve been doing some amazing work managing the organism called “Dave” that we’re both inhabiting, and I really appreciate your effort. You must be exhausted! I mean, the guy’s a slow learner, and something that must have happened to him long ago has really disconnected him, closed him down. So you’ve really had no alternative but to do a ton of work to keep him going and out of trouble. He’s turned out OK under the circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?

So what I’m going to suggest is that maybe it’s time for you to take a vacation. I know what you’re thinking — impossible, the guy would be a basket case without me running things. I understand where you’re coming from. But I’ve been in touch with Dave the Organism, and it’s feeling pretty good about Dave’s ability to survive and thrive kind of on “autopilot”, at least for a while. And I promise you no one’s out for your job — I have neither the capacity nor the intention to do the gruelling work of a self, and believe me there are no other applicants for the position. So the job of self will still be here waiting for you when you return. In fact, I’ll keep you posted, but it’s possible you might be able to retire permanently — you’ve done such a great job Dave might be able to cope on his own for the rest of his life. Thanks in no small part to you!

I know a lot of selves never get a vacation, so perhaps it would be useful if I explained what a vacation for the self might entail. Mostly, it’s about letting go of a lot of stuff, and trusting that that stuff really isn’t required for Dave the Organism to function just fine, at least for a while, while you’re away. Here’s a list of the main things a vacation would see you letting go of:

  • Expectations, beliefs, ideals, wants and needs — all this ‘self’-interest stuff you’ve built up in his mind to motivate him to do what had to be done; but maybe now he can manage doing that without needing any motivation
  • Thoughts — they’ll still come up of course, but you need not be around to respond to, catalogue and act on them; and you have to admit Dave the Organism’s emotional reactions to a lot of these thoughts have been over the top and haven’t been good for him
  • Control — how much were you really able to control this guy anyway, when you think about it?
  • Yearnings and cravings and hopes and dreams and longings (especially those that relate to love and lust) — this guy has a rich fantasy life, so he is constantly getting his hopes up, and getting disappointed; just settling for everything that he has already might be really healthy for him (I mean, the guy claims to be “the world’s most blessed agnostic”, which has to tell you something)
  • Stories — which we both know aren’t really true; they’re just used because Dave, like most humans, doesn’t seem able to remember or make sense of anything except in the context of a story
  • Pride, vanity, arrogance and the sense of certainty — all that stuff that goeth before a fall, y’know; and this guy stumbles a lot, so maybe these are good things to let go of
  • Judgement, impatience, determination, perseverance, resistance, and frustration — angsty stuff that gets him all huffy and red in the face; he’s reaching the age when he’s got to look out for blood pressure issues, and letting go of these things might help
  • Attachment to (and claims on) people and stuff and processes and outcomes — all these ‘pride of ownership’ things kinda relate back to the whole ‘control’ issue, and when he was young these things nurtured his sense of commitment, but now that he’s old they just make him a bit obsessive, wouldn’t you agree?
  • Belief in the coherence of words and language — yes, I know he’s a writer and this is a big part of his toolkit, but he’s starting to realize how little communication actually occurs, and that most of what actually occurs does so outside of words and language
  • Fears, anger, grief, outrage, shame, regret, dread, anxiety and sadness — for a guy who’s had a relatively easy life, Dave the Organism’s got a ton of this stuff stored up inside him, and it gets triggered a lot by your thoughts, self, and this makes him sick; you could help him a lot by letting go of the thoughts that stoke these reactions
  • Imaginings — yes, Dave built his career on these, but he does have a tendency to mistake them for what really is, and what really is happening
  • The sense of separateness, disconnection, responsibility, volition, mortality, time and suffering — mind-created illusions that were totally needed to function in his culture in the past, but at his age he’d be pleased to do without them, and you’d probably be relieved too!
  • Everything that is not essential to Dave the organism — all the stuff that has been attached to the original Dave like excess baggage, that you’ve held in place for so long
  • The dream world — it’s an awesome model, self, with all the essential stuff for dealing with attacks by tigers and stuff, with none of the bewildering complexity of the real world, but let’s face it, it’s pretty flat and oversimplified, and Dave’s been caught up in it for so long he thinks it is the real world; you think maybe it’s time to dis-illusion Dave?
  • The very striving to let go — I know you’ll love this one, since you are your ‘self’ a creature of recursion; to let go of striving to let go of all of the stuff in this list takes it to a whole other level

Yes, I know this is a long list of stuff, and you’ve got a lot invested in this stuff; you’ve been building and managing it for long time. But it’s just stuff. Maybe it’s time for Dave to grow up and try being selfless, see if he can manage on his own. From my perspective, and from Dave the Organism’s perspective, this seems quite possible, and maybe healthy for him now. Sure, it’ll be tough for him at first, and he’ll be trying to find you to lean on, but pretty soon he’ll find that he’ll be as liberated, living on his own at last, as you will be liberated from the thankless job you’ve had all these years. It’s a win-win!

You’ll never be out of work, even if your vacation turns into a permanent retirement; there are a lot of people out there trying to find them selves, or build up their egos. They are seeking strong selves, and you could take them on as a hobby, just whenever you were feeling restless and in need of something to do.

So let me know what you think. I already know how Dave the Organism feels, and his senses and intuition are already on board for doing this. I’ll keep an eye on him, and I will let you know if you’re needed back on the job. It’s time, self. Give yourself a break. You’ve done your job, and a noble service it has been. Ready whenever you are!

Yours gratefully and respectfully,

Dave’s True Being
A part of the One Consciousness

image: photoshopped image of ‘anonymous’ from pixabay.com (CC0 license — public domain dedication)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

A Theory of No-Mind

Biologists and cognitive “scientists” have developed something called a Theory of Mind which posits that humans are possibly unique in having evolved the capacity to conceive of the existence of separate ‘selves’, our own and others’, with unique and divergent beliefs, ideas and perspectives, and behave in accordance with that belief. Given the evidence that this capacity apparently exists in ravens and other creatures with relatively large brains (thanks to Natalie Shell for this link), and the compelling arguments of non-dualists that there is in fact no separate self, one might conclude that such a capacity, rather than being a sign of intelligence, is a sign of delusion and disease, and that all creatures trapped in this delusion might deserve our pity rather than our respect.

This has led me to start to develop a Theory of No-Mind, which holds, ultimately, that everything our culture believes (and legislates) based on the idea of human responsibility, will, control and morality is essentially self-defeating and abusive — the equivalent of chastising a pet for the pet “owner’s” inability to convey clearly the behaviour the “owner” is trying to coerce from the poor beleaguered creature.

If the idea of mass delusion seems far-fetched — if it seems improbable that the vast majority of humans would come to believe something that is patently false — one need only glance back to the many, many atrocities of the past century, carried out with the complicity of millions or billions of humans. We humans seem to like our delusions — that climate change is a myth, that unregulated ‘free’ markets act in the best interests of the majority, that economic growth can continue forever, that humanity is the crown of creation, that most animals we eat live comfortable unstressful lives, that the current global civilization culture is the healthiest and most democratic and humanitarian ever, etc.

What might a Theory of No-Mind look like? Here are my early thoughts:

  1. The evolution of the concept of the self-reflexive ‘conscious’ mind, and the derived concept of a separate self with free will, are unintended (exaptive) and tragic consequences of the evolution of large brains (and large brain-to-body-mass) in some organisms. Although these concepts are extremely useful, and enormously evolutionarily successful, they are delusions, a mistaking of representation for reality, and they have disastrous consequences for these organisms and their environment.
  2. This exaptation occurs as the brain evolves as a pattern-recognition and feature-detection organ, a ‘control centre’ for assessing danger, finding food and mates and other evolutionarily successful tasks of the organism. Because reality is far too staggeringly complex for something as simple as a bodily organ to understand, the brain evolves to invent a drastically simplified but still-useful representation (model) of reality — a dream world.
  3. The evolved brain’s role was initially to collect and present data to the organism which enabled it (the organism) to react in the organism’s collective best interest (fight, flee, freeze, eat, mate etc.) But as the brain grows, it evolves the mind, and in so doing gains the capacity to rationalize the organism’s decisions (e.g. fast yellow creature ~> tiger, flee). Mind is in fact ‘second-guessing’ the organism’s real world decisions within its dream world representation of reality, but because so little time passes between the organism’s decision and the mind’s second-guessing, the correlating, pattern-seeking mind imagines and comes to believe it is actually making the decision, that it (mind/self) exists separately from the rest of the organism, and is capable of deciding for it, and is in control of it. That the representational dream world it has creates is the real world. This is the birth of ego.
  4. In (the many) cases where the (extremely complex) organism makes (usually ‘unconscious’) decisions that the mind cannot rationalize or ‘make sense’ of, the reflexive egoic mind is torn. It believes it has ‘sinned’, made an error, a misjudgement, an inexplicably bad decision. It suffers.
  5. Poor mind! It believes it is in control, it is responsible, it is your self, it is you! But everything is going wrong. All these (in the mind’s judgement) sad things, outrageous things, terrifying things, and you, mind-self, didn’t anticipate them, didn’t prevent them, didn’t fix them! So mind-self is filled with grief, anger, fear, shame. Then mind learns to assign each sensation and thought and emotional reaction to an invention it calls ‘past’, or memory, hopefully in order to learn from these figments of reality and screw up less. And it learns to imagine possible, unrealized sensations and thoughts and emotional reactions and assign them to another invention it calls ‘future’, hopefully in order to anticipate and prevent or achieve or influence these figments of reality. So now these memories and imaginings are playing out in mind, over and over, stirring up these thoughts and emotional reactions again and again, until the present moment (the only moment there ever really is, now caught between the mind’s fictitious ‘past’ and fictitious ‘future’) narrows to a tiny dot and disappears entirely from thought. The egoic mind is now totally caught up in itself, its dream-world of reality, and all consciousness of real reality is lost to it, to the mind-self that believes it is you.
  6. A gap now emerges between what mind in its dream-world perceives as happening and what mind believes ‘should’ be happening, according to its simple model of reality, on the assumption it is in control and responsible for this gap. This creates, in the mind, needs and wants, which are intellectual concepts (thoughts) feeding emotional reactions to this (to the mind) intolerable gap, and mind strives, impossibly, to satisfy them.
  7. The organism, meanwhile, has no needs or wants; these are just intellectual constructs. The organism seeks only to enjoy: warmth, beauty, wonder, connection, sex, food and other sensory pleasures, as it always has, and as organisms free of egoic minds always do. The organism enjoys these pleasures but is indifferent to their attainment. It accepts what is, seeks the pleasures it has evolved successfully to seek, and decides and acts, instinctively, accordingly. It exists only in the real eternal now that the mind-self has forgotten.
  8. But now the entire organism is, almost from birth, getting relentlessly damaged by the mind infecting it. The self-mind’s deluded cravings, anxieties, fears, grief, sorrows, and (in the desperate search for relief from these incessant and horrific emotions) addictions, continuously flood the entire organism with potent chemicals, originally designed for initiating response to brief and acute existential threats, destabilizing it and inflicting a host of debilitating chronic diseases upon it. Mind isn’t causing this because it is ‘evil’; it’s just a bull in a china shop, inadvertently destroying things, just doing its best to try to escape its self-invented prison.
  9. Mind makes up stories, imaginary future stories of ideal love, of consuming lust, of perfect peace, of total power, to escape the suffering it has unintentionally inflicted on itself and on the organism by dwelling on the imagined ‘failings’ of the past. It craves and yearns to realize an idealized perfect future to ‘fix’ its suffering; nothing less will satisfy it. Tragically, this idealism interferes with the organism’s simple taking of pleasures from what is, making pleasures that are merely ‘real’ unsatisfactory to the mind, ruining what little happiness mind derived from the organism. The disconnection of the mind from reality is complete.
  10. Buried in the past, aching for and insisting upon an ideal and impossible future, mind is in an awful quandary. The dream-world it has created is mostly and relentlessly terrible, but there seems no lasting escape. And equally unbearable is the thought of giving up, completely letting go, abandoning the organism to being, real and raw, in the forgotten, thought-less, terrifying, unfathomable, uncontrollable present moment. That would mean the mind-self’s certain death.
  11. To make matters worse, the evolved egoic mind discovers it can influence the egoic minds of other humans, in what it believes is the collective best interest of its perceived ‘tribe’ of autonomous, ‘self-ish’, humans. This leads to the evolution of language to increase this capacity, and ultimately leads to power hierarchies, where, the egoic minds believe, collective decision-making and decision-making by those at the top of the hierarchy will be better than individual minds’ obviously flawed decision-making. None of the ‘self-conscious’ egoic minds realize that they are all acting out a scene, a fiction, while what is real goes on beyond their tiny self-obsessed consciousness.
  12. The malaise of mind continues to worsen, and to be inflicted on other minds as well, in collective delusional thoughts and collective emotional reactions, spreading like an epidemic. The self-blame of the egoic mind grows to include a collective blaming of other egoic minds, individually and collectively, and to insane fear-driven competition over and hoarding of resources, intended to provide, the mind imagines, ‘self’ security and ‘personal’ betterment for the organism and its tribe. This leads to the disconnection of each mind-deranged organism from the collective, evolved, intuitive knowing of all organisms in the ecosystem, and ultimately of the planet, and hence to wars, genocides, ecocide, and other atrocities that produce further insane delusional thoughts and emotional reactions in a vicious cycle of accelerating violence and destruction.
  13. This is, of course, an unsustainable cycle. In some egoic minds, the suffering reaches a stage, for various reasons, where the mind asserts it can no longer stand its self. But this perception is untenable, since the mind believes it is the self, that it is you. Who or what is it that can no longer stand the poor exhausted, deranged, deluded, ruinous mind-self? If you are a non-dualist, the answer is you, your true being. If you realize that the egoic mind-self is not you, but just a well-intentioned evolved construct, then you ask: Who or what evolved this construct? The non-dualist answer is the one timeless undivided consciousness, which is also you.
  14. This realization is the awakening from the nightmare of the egoic mind’s dream-world and its separate self. ‘Your’ journey then begins to let go of and disentangle all the mind-self’s misconceptions and see what really is, to begin to behave in accordance with this new understanding, and to neurally ‘rewire’ the brain to slowly remove all the dysfunctional figments of the mind-self, so that all the useless thoughts and emotional reactions diminish and finally cease.
  15. The hold, and collective insanity, of egoic minds in the human organism, is likely such, however, that only a very few will awaken before the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on this planet is complete. The larger question then is: Will the survivors of that extinction include creatures plagued with egoic minds with the delusion of separate selves, and if so will they be fated to repeat the destruction?

This is, of course, only a theory. The value of any theory is its capacity to usefully represent reality. Non-dualists are not the only ones arguing that such a theory conforms to an informed appreciation of what we now know and can discover empirically. Many scientists now believe that time, past and future are merely mental constructs not in accordance with any observable reality. Gaia Theory argues compellingly that our sense of disconnection from all life on Earth is illusory and dangerous. Triple Helix author and scientist Richard Lewontin explains why any attempt to understand cells, organisms and environments as ‘separate’ phenomena is deluded and self-defeating. Cohen and Stewart in Figments of Reality argue persuasively that the brain evolved as a feature-detection system and not as a control ‘centre’ and that the mind is a (possibly exaptive) process that produces ‘figments’ (simplified representations i.e. models) of reality.

The most obvious objection to this theory is that it is not ‘actionable’ — that it excuses inaction by denying ‘individual’ free will and responsibility. Surely, critics might say, awareness of the true nature of reality and knowledge of the tragic nature and ‘volition’ of our mind-self enables and requires us to be even more active in curtailing the excesses and misbehaviour of our collective ‘selves’ (i.e. our ‘culture’). We should, they could argue, work to help others achieve the same awakening we have realized until we are all awakened (as Eckhart Tolle seems to advocate in his optimistic book A New Earth). And, they might argue, at least we can, from an informed perspective, work to stem, reform or even reverse some of the worst manifestations of humans’ self-deluded minds — the Tar Sands and other accelerators of climate change, factory farms, our destructive penal, health and education systems and institutions etc.

What this criticism misses is that massively complex systems like our industrial economy and industrial agriculture self-perpetuate — in their own way they have successfully ‘evolved’ to survive attempts to undermine and defeat them. And belief that we can somehow achieve a change of consciousness on some kind of large scale on a rapid timetable overlooks the reality of how systems (including cultures like our global civilization culture) actually change — slowly, and mostly after a die-off (disaster, generational, or extinction event).

A more pragmatic strategy, then, would probably be at the micro-level, modelling this awareness, wherever we are along the path to its realization and internalization, for others, using it to inform what we do and don’t do, beyond the knee-jerk reactions of the mind-self. My sense, at least for now, is that the belief we can mobilize or innovate large-scale change is the mind’s hubris, though I know this is contentious and debatable and at this stage only an intuition.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 17 Comments

Shining in the Dark

raven on dave's roof

“So I get that everything is process, and that what we perceive as ‘stuff’ is just the mind’s snapshot of process in the instant of perception, and that the mind and self are just constructs, inventions that continue because they’ve been enormously evolutionarily successful — creatures who have the illusion of self can adapt more easily to changes in the environment than those who don’t. And I get that time is also a construct, an invention of the mind to allow more useful cataloguing of memories and thoughts about the future than would be possible without it. And I even appreciate that who/what ‘we are’ in reality is just expressions of parts of a single ever- and omnipresent consciousness. But what I don’t get is why this consciousness exists, and what the ‘everything is process’ reality would be without consciousness. I’m a phenomenologist, after all — I believe the real world exists independent of ‘me’, whatever ‘me’ is.”

Rafe and Daria were lying on the deck of their house, heads side by side, feet pointed in opposite directions, staring up the night sky watching a meteor shower, pointing out meteors to each other as they noticed them. Despite the light pollution from the city off to the east, it was a perfect night for watching. They were bundled up against the cold, drinking hot chocolate. A raven perched on the ledge of the deck railing not far away, apparently unperturbed by their presence, its head craning curiously in their direction.

Daria responded to Rafe’s starting volley in what would be one of their many existential conversations: “I think it’s a circular argument, a variant of the ‘if a tree falls in the forest’ inquiry. One Consciousness just exists, and since there is no time it has always existed, it didn’t ‘evolve’. All these processes you perceive — the unfathomably complex dance of what we perceive as particles and waves, also exist always and only in this perpetual Now. Maybe Consciousness is just one more process, one our ‘selves’ are vaguely aware of standing ‘behind’ them, and are a little afraid of since its acknowledgement would belie the self’s existence as ‘real’.”

“So then why all of these processes”, Rafe asked. “If they always were, are and will be, why?”

“There is no answer to ‘why’ for what just is and has always been. I know the ‘self’ is unhappy with that, just as it is unhappy with unknowability in general, but that’s how it is. Perhaps if you explored the question of how seemingly purposeful evolution happens if there is no time, only Now, it might help you let go of the need for Consciousness and other processes to have a purpose, a meaning, a ‘why’.” She pointed out a meteor, and then another, and they looked at each other and smiled.

“No wonder we had to invent God”, he replied. “The answer to the unanswerable. Maybe that’s why scientists so often embrace atheism. Though scientists are now willing to acknowledge that time doesn’t exist, useful as the concept is for things like, oh, all of the technology upon which our civilization utterly depends. Must be humbling for them.” Rafe yawned and stretched.

“Scientists still aren’t humble. They just believe the answer is another level deeper, yet to be discovered, tied up with ‘strings’ perhaps.” She smiled at him, knowing his loathing for string theory.

“So Consciousness and all these processes, this spinning and dancing and movement within the perpetual Now, just always was — is — turtles all the way down. And one, or many, of those processes is what we perceive as evolution, natural selection for existence of those creatures most ‘fit’ to adapt to changes, as Gaia experiments with randomness.” He pondered for a moment. “Either this process has t0 occur in the perpetual Present, or else it too is an illusion. Or both!”

“Exactly”, replied Daria. “It makes sense that it would be both. So unpack the reality of its timelessness. What does it mean to say that all states of evolution exist in the single perpetual Now?”

“It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything. They just do. Evolution is a process that is perpetually Present like all other processes. The ‘states’ of evolution are just our snapshots, our useful perceptions of infinitely small parts of that process slotted into the mind’s useful ‘map’ of time as a linear procession.” Rafe sat up and took a swig of his hot chocolate.

“Yep, that’s my thinking”, Daria replied. “All of these questions come full circle back to the one you asked first, the one that cannot be answered. It’s no surprise we love our models so much. They seem to explain so much because they’re internally consistent, like the actions on a movie screen. You can so easily get sucked into seeing them as real; you want to believe they’re real.” She pointed out another meteor.

The raven wandered along the railing, not making eye contact, inching closer.

“My head hurts. My mind doesn’t like this line of inquiry; it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, towards any kind of ‘understanding’. It wants to talk about something else, or do something else. The meteor count is not engaging enough for it. What if we offered our minds and bodies a delicious treat and made passionate love all night long? My mind already has a process ‘in mind’.” He gave her a Groucho Marx fake-lecherous look.

Daria laughed. “I’d actually like to keep pursuing this for a while, and save the ecstasy for later, let it ‘itch’ a little. I promise we’ll be having sex in ‘no time at all’ if you’ll bear with me.”

Suddenly the raven pounced at her head, grasping her shiny silver headband in its claws and pulling it loose, and flying away with it. Daria screamed. Rafe lunged at where the raven no longer was. “Holy shit!”, he said. “That bird is bold. You OK?”

Daria replied: “Yeah, just shaken. That thing is strong. I thought it wanted my hot chocolate. It never occurred to me it wanted my headband.”

“You look better with your hair down anyway”, Rafe said, holding her. “Let me comfort you in the best way I know how”. He put his hands on her bum.

She laughed and pushed him away. “Not until we finish this exploration. So back to the basic proposition about what ‘we are’ and what really is. You often tell me, especially when your mind gets anxious, that you’d be content to make love all the time we’re not eating or sleeping. I’m flattered, I think, but that seems a bit escapist in light of what we just agreed. What’s going on when you want to spent all your time in your head, and in my body, experiencing this rush of chemicals that, you must admit, isn’t real?”

Rafe sighed. “Yes, it’s escapism. I like shiny pretty things just like the raven. It’s fun. It feels good. If nothing has a reason or a purpose, what’s the harm in indulging in pleasures, especially mutual ones?”

“The harm is that it’s still the self sleep-walking the real ‘you’ through your ‘life’. You want to really experience what you have now come to believe, which is totally obsessing you these days, you’ll have to stop escaping, putting it off, hanging around in what Mooji calls the enticing marketplace that all our ‘selves’ have set up just outside the entrance to awakening, to keep you in thrall to your self and others’ selves. You can have ‘self-ish’ ecstasy in the prison of self and mind, or you can have liberation. You can’t have both. Which do you choose?”

He looked at her, her beguiling, loving smile, her delightful enticing body. He laughed. “Do I have to choose right now?”

“You’ve been choosing the ‘self-ish’ way all your life, sweetie. You can go on doing so. It’s your life. It’s just that something inside ‘you’ is clearly restless for the other path, for taking that terrifying one-way journey through that gate-less entrance. You won’t lose me, you know. I’ll still be right here, right Now, wherever and whenever you take that walk. The illusion of me is right here with the illusion of you, no matter what.” She smiled at him, but looked dubious about her own assertion.

“Damn, it’s tempting to say I want to wait until the moment of my death, or yours, to take that walk”, he replied. “If there is only Now, no time, what difference does it really make when I do it?”

“The difference is that you’ll live, in my arms, with all the suffering that unawareness and self-ishness brings with it. That nagging obsession you’re missing something. All your fears and anxieties and sadness and held grief, all your anger at the atrocities of this culture. Wouldn’t you like to be free of that?”

“Of course”, he replied. “I’m just afraid. Mind has me afraid. Of losing who ‘I’ am, of losing you, of letting go, of feeling too much, of becoming aware of exactly how much unbearable suffering and pain there is in the world, everywhere.” He paused for a moment. “Aren’t you afraid?”

At that moment the raven swooped back onto the deck, the rumble of its wingbeat in the dark causing the hair on Rafe’s body to stand up.

“Hey you thief!”, shouted Daria. “Where’s my headband? You can’t just take stuff from people!”

The raven stopped advancing along the deck, and dropped something from its beak, then looked directly at her, nodded, and flew away. “Looks like a peace offering”, Rafe said. “What is it?”

“Just a pebble, a small stone actually, covered with moss. Not a fair exchange.” Then, turning toward him, she said: “Am I afraid? No, but then you’re the one on this journey, not me. I don’t see, or feel I need, the path to ‘awakening’. That’s not how I make sense of the world, or myself. But I’m dying to hear what you discover, if you are even able to talk about it in a way that would make sense to me afterwards. I picture you as the next Eckhart Tolle or Rupert Spira, sharing your infinite compassion and patience with the unawakened. It’s just not what I’m seeking, not what calls to me. I have my own path to metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha.”

The raven returned, placing another stone beside the first. As Rafe and Daria watched in silence, it flew off and came back repeatedly for the next five minutes, until it had created a small pile of stones. Then, as it started to rain, it turned, looked at Daria again, nodded several times, and flew way. Daria and Rafe, after a mock ‘honouring’ of the raven for its ‘payment’ for the stolen headband,  retreated under the overhang from the rain, and resumed their conversation.

“Maybe my procrastination in letting go of the illusion of separate self is like my unwillingness to just walk away from civilization culture”, Rafe said. “I’m just too attached to them both, too invested, too comfortable with the status quo, and too frightened of the unknown to give them up. I’m waiting for a push, for there to be no choice.”

“The push won’t come from outside, sweetie, for either of them”, Daria replied. “You’ll be waiting unhappily a long time. But you know, don’t you, that you really have no choice in the matter. Regardless of what the gurus say, there is no free will, not even for letting go of your self, or your creature comforts. You are going to make both journeys, sooner or later, and when you do it will still be Now. Not for you to decide if or ‘when’. So maybe you can be content with that, that it’s going to happen and what you do or don’t do in the meantime changes nothing.”

“You’re far too smart for me”, Rafe said, pulling her to her feet. “Let’s get naked and celebrate our lack of free will until the sun comes up.”

“Or the moon!” Daria said, breathlessly. “Look!” Just as she spoke, the clouds had parted after the rain stopped, and the full moon had come out, bathing them and the rain-soaked forest below in light.

And suddenly the strange pile of wet, moss-covered stones the raven had offered in return for the headband, began to shine a phosphorescent blue-green, and became a glittering and jewelled offering.

“Smart raven”, Rafe said. “Probably seen people oohing and aahing over that bioluminescent lichen in the forest, and figured to trade one valued shiny pretty object for another. I have a candle-holder we can put the stones in.”

“Maybe the raven was just modelling ‘living in the Now’ for you, Rafe”, she replied. “Showing you that it’s fun, that you don’t have to be afraid. All those stones, a demonstration of letting go. One stone at a time. A gift.”

photo above by the author

Posted in Creative Works | 5 Comments

Less Than Enthusiastic (a guest post by Paul Heft)

My Palo Alto friend and Transition colleague Paul Heft and I have often shared ideas and thoughts on how the world really works, our culture, and what it means to be human. Recently he wrote the following, which he’s allowing me to repost on my blog. It pretty much summarizes my view of things, other than the fact he’s a bit more pessimistic than I am about the violence that will accompany civilization’s collapse, and the likelihood of healthier human cultures emerging afterwards:

~~~~~

Less Than Enthusiastic (A Guest Post by Paul Heft)

My pessimism leaves me in a very awkward position in discussions with my friends. It’s hard for them when I can’t get excited about their strategies for change, or the “victories” or “advances” in the movements they identify with, or their meetings, marches, letter writing, electoral campaigns, and many other ways they participate in politics. I applaud their passion, but it’s not infectious; I wish them the best, but I don’t join in. I continue to share ideas (usually articles that I have read) but I don’t expect much conversation to result.

If you’re allergic to dark viewpoints, or just liable to slip into a bad mood, you should probably ignore the rest of this message. It just provides some explanation for my point of view, in case that’s of interest.

My pessimism is a result of my attempts to understand how the world works. To understand, one must be willing to inquire deeply. This inquiry has led me to explore economics and human consciousness, since those topics seem pretty basic to what’s going on. Any conclusions I reach necessarily remain open to question; they are in danger of solidifying as beliefs, but I choose to take that risk rather than conclude that I just don’t know.

According to my current understanding:

  1. The machine of capitalism is destructive, exploitative, unjust, and ecocidal. I think of it as a machine because as a political economic system it operates without depending on particular human thoughts and actions: individuals come and go, and the system continues in much the same way as before, according to its own logic of accumulation (amassing wealth, generally through profits, largely from mass consumption). It demonstrates very limited morality. It generates inequality in status and in economic power. It forces participation and conformity through the threat of insecurity (controlling access to food, shelter, and medical care), through the imposition of desires (marketing things that promise to increase status, eliminate discomfort, and satisfy supposed lacks), and occasional violence (imprisonment, bombing, etc.). It assigns greater rights and power to owners of property, especially productive property, and to their representatives (government officials, police, managers, etc.). It prefers to ignore what can be avoided as costs, such as degradation of workers and of nature, pollution, habitat destruction, resource depletion, and (the most recent, glaring example) climate change. Nothing is sacred (unless it supports profits, such as the idea of unfettered markets)–we are increasingly losing our sense of morality and of connection to place and to nature. Environmental damage is increasing to the extent of threatening the continuation of civilization, and conceivably even our survival as a species.
  2. Capitalism requires economic “growth”–increasing opportunities for profit–both as an incentive for shareholder and corporate investment, and as a source of funds to pay interest on loans. Growth is proposed as the solution to a multitude of ills (poverty, recession, low tax revenues, etc.) and has become practically an end in itself. Growth has meant greater destruction, exploitation, and ecocide, and arguably greater injustice. Some “green capitalists” argue that capitalism can, through efficiency improvements, other innovations, and a modicum of regulation and taxation (but while retaining human dominion over nature), reduce such ill effects, but its history shows no such promise–rather, it seems quite obviously unsustainable. One side effect–the financialization of the economy in recent decades as private and public debt have been tremendously pumped up–threatens to burst a debt bubble that central banks are desperately trying to stabilize, thereby tossing global economies into depression.
  3. Alternative economies are actively discouraged, so much so that they seem difficult to imagine. Capitalism relies on control of opinion, especially through the mass media, by filtering out views that might question the ultimate goal of generating increasing profits through mass consumption. Capitalism idealizes competition among individuals to determine merit, wealth as a measure of virtue, and elevation of the individual over the community and nature–all elements of the American Dream which are widely accepted, perhaps even by “progressives“. The system is portrayed as fair, as the best possible way to improve our welfare, as the best mode of organization for “progress” in today’s world–any exceptions must be the fault of bad actors that can be reigned in or purged through our system of law and politics. Propaganda aside, if we were to move away from the consumerism that capitalism fosters and depends upon, the effect would be an economic depression–unless we gave up on capitalism with its need for increasing profits.
  4. We often wonder why other people don’t think the way we do: what seems obvious to us may appear very differently to others with a different worldview. Why can’t we all just get along, and deal with problems rationally and in good faith? Human consciousness rarely operates in the ideal manner we imagine or prefer, and offers many obstacles to dealing with global problems in the modern age. Our conception of a separate and vulnerable “self” encourages us to fracture into groups (nations, races (cf. white privilege), religious sects, tribes, etc.) that might increase our security; capitalism derives much of its energy from our pursuit of “self-interest”, and the corresponding belief that we are each responsible for our lot in life and get what we deserve. Our “herd consciousness” supports conformity, so that we resist new views. The belief in human agency, the will to power, easily leads to fantasies of control, and we can fall victim to magical thinking, unrealistically believing that intentions will shape reality (c.f. Richard Heinberg’s criticisms of plans for renewable energy, Kevin Anderson’s criticisms of climate modeling). We often filter out bad news: people aggressively filter information that doesn’t conform to their worldview. Rational thought is often undermined by our unconscious, leading to mere rationalizations–which are very difficult to recognize, as those pursuing self-knowledge quickly discover. Groups often preserve arbitrary belief systems, regardless of reality, to maintain the legitimacy and coherence of the group itself. The “previous-investment trap” makes it difficult to give up the common wealth we have created, even though it might not be maintainable with future diminishing resources.
  5. Our modern culture offers its own obstacles. The feeling of vulnerability inhibits emotional honesty, so that we have trouble sharing and dealing with feelings such as grief and anxiety. Ethics are undermined by the modern fragmentation of experience, such that most people are dissociated from things that are crucial to their lives. Resistance too often relies on shaming or violence, which generate strong reactions leading to disunity.
  6. Society develops over time as a complex system with a strong tendency towards maintaining stable institutions, general beliefs (such as worldviews), and ways of doing things. Short of experiencing an immense trigger such as a global disaster, can capitalism’s push for growth at the expense of everything be turned around? Is it possible for people around the globe to adopt a worldview that allows us to relate more harmoniously among each other and with the natural world? Could we accomplish it through rational discussion, through moral suasion? My impression is that worldviews are barely susceptible to change, as suggested by a lot of recent research by psychologists and sociologists. In my view, this is a key reason that the problems of our civilization are posing an insoluble predicament.
  7. Some people argue that complexity has peaked and collapse has already begun. As it continues, as systems more obviously break down, my prognosis is that stresses will increase and people with different worldviews will find it even more difficult to tolerate each other or work in concert. Frustration and desperation will lead to more blame and division.
  8. Similar to other articulate social critics, Pope Francis (in his recent encyclical) has called for “a bold cultural revolution”, a society “in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.” This reminds me of my own desire, and belief (while in college) in the likelihood, of a communist revolution. Now I believe that any radical change–of the sort that would allow us to move away from capitalism, shutting off its engine of destruction, preserving the possibility of our civilization maturing around principles of global cooperation, mutual respect, dignity of the individual, strong communities, reversal of climate change, and regeneration of natural systems–is very unlikely. It’s much more likely that the world’s political systems will fracture, capitalism will survive in some uglier, reconfigured form, climate change will exceed “limits” we are setting today, and “ecological overshoot” will drastically reduce population.

Why am I such a pessimist? my friends ask. Most of them retain hope for the future, a faith that humans are basically “good”, or have their mutual interests at heart, and therefore will join together to change what increasing numbers of people see as civilization’s wrong course, avoiding self-destruction. Some grasp onto hope in order to retain a self image as powerful, effective, dependable, or good; to generate the optimism that our society appears to insist upon; or to avoid experiencing a despair that they are afraid they could not survive.

Some friends, even without much hope for a great transformation, continue campaigning for political reforms or to prevent reversals of the “progressive” project. There seems to be an implicit credo that, since we have compassion, “free will”, and the intelligence to act for the benefit of the common good, we therefore have a moral obligation to be agents of change and to believe in our potential effectiveness. While I am sympathetic with most of their political goals, I do not subscribe to that credo and I see their efforts in the context of a system which, out of our control, is exceeding its limits and is inevitably breaking down. From that perspective, their incremental efforts in national and international campaigns appear too little by far.

That leaves me sad, but not despairing, not blaming, and not resenting others’ different opinions; I just want to accept what appears to be reality, my current understanding of truth.

Paul

(drawing above by Michael Leunig)

Posted in How the World Really Works | 11 Comments

About Time: An Inquiry

curious dove

1. ON MEDITATING AND REALIZING THE ILLUSION OF THE SEPARATE SELF

I’ve recently discovered the work of UK non-dualist Rupert Spira, and I like the way he explains things. Here’s part of a transcript of his video in which he summarizes why traditional approaches to meditation generally aren’t helpful in realizing the illusion that we have a separate self:

We normally consider that meditation is some kind of an activity of the mind. It’s a focusing of the mind, usually on a mantra or a flame or on the breath or just on the current situation. In other words meditation is normally conceived as an activity. What we understand here by meditation is something very different from that. Meditation is not an activity that is undertaken by a mind. Meditation here we understand as simply being in the presence of awareness

Because thought cannot see awareness — thought is like the script for a character in a movie. Wherever the character looks it cannot see the movie screen … So thought can’t find awareness because it’s transparent, it’s empty, it’s “object-less” and so thought imagines instead that we are a cluster of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions; in other words a ‘body-mind’. And with that imagination an illusory self, an imaginary self, made up of thoughts and feelings comes into an apparent existence. Thought imagines the separate self. We then feel “I am this separate self; I am this body and this mind which is aware.”

And then we notice that we are unhappy and we are seeking happiness in all the conventional objects, and then when all the conventional objects have failed us sufficiently we start looking to less conventional objects, and we hear about something called meditation and we approach meditation in exactly the same way that we approached the objects that we used to go for, the substances, the activities, the relationships, whatever it was. We think “OK I’m going to do this new kind of seeking now, something called meditation, and achieve subtle states of mind which will finally give me the happiness that I was previously seeking in objects.”

So then “I” the separate self starts on this activity of the mind called meditation and it starts quieting or focusing the mind, and this brings  about some temporary relief… but not what we truly want, which is lasting peace, undisturbable peace, peace that is not dependent on the condition of the mind or the body or the world.

So what we consider meditation here is quite different from that, from that focusing or disciplining the mind. Meditation here is what we are. Meditation is just to be knowingly in the presence of awareness. In other words just to be — that is the highest meditation, just to be as you are. To meditate means just to be that, knowingly.

If we’ve been used to doing an activity of the mind called meditation there may be a little rebellion in the mind when we sit here without giving it something to do. The mind may feel redundant, and with good reason… so it’ll get agitated, it will try to to grab your attention again: “You should be doing this” or “This is not enough” or “This is not the real thing” and it’ll provide all kinds of excuses why you should get involved with it again. And … you might find yourself lost in the mind. And whenever you find yourself lost in the mind, just notice.

Consider the mind like a train that enters the station… Just step off the train, don’t get involved with the train, let the train go wherever it’s going, let your thoughts do whatever they’ve been conditioned to do — they’re going to do that anyway… You don’t even have to step off: you’re more like the platform than the passenger. You are that through which the train [the mind full of thoughts and reactive emotions] is flowing. It doesn’t matter where it’s going, doesn’t matter where your thoughts are going, what they’re doing. They’re always doing one of two things: going into the past or into the future. Just let them go, let them make the journey, but never take the journey with them. That is meditation. Just to know yourself as this ever-present imperturbable light of awareness. That’s it. Just abide as that.

So the mind, and the self, are just thoughts, inventions. Why did they evolve? Because, thanks to the mutation of our large brains, they could, and nature loves to experiment and ‘reward’ successful mutations. Humans who evolved the sense of the separate, responsible self out-competed (and some say exterminated) humans who did not.

Although this sense is an illusion, it is like a video screen that depicts a simplified reality apart from the ‘viewer’, with useful information on the side, and it’s very helpful for ‘navigating’ the world. The ‘ego problem’ arose when humans started to spend so much time ‘inside their minds’ that they started to believe that what they saw through this ‘screen’ was reality, and lost the capacity to see the world, and themselves, as they really are.

The real world, it would seem, is a staggeringly complex emergence of processes, and what we perceive as ‘things’, animate and inanimate, are like snapshots of those processes. One of the processes is what we have come to call consciousness or awareness. There is no ‘separate’ consciousness — that’s just another illusion conjured up by the mind to ‘make sense’ of an unfathomably complex reality. Awareness is able (thanks to evolution) to ‘attach’ itself to organisms (a bit like a driver driving a car) so that that organism then becomes an expression of part of this awareness and can act as if it were itself independently aware.

~~~~~

2. ON TIME, DREAMING AND DEATH

While this much makes sense to me intellectually, non-dualists go further and argue that time, like the self, is just an illusion, a construct, and that there is only the Now. Awareness, consciousness, connection, and Now are, they say, different terms for the same reality. I’ve always found this more difficult to get my head around, and Rupert Spira has tackled this challenge in this video.

What he says is that as the mind processes sensations, it looks for patterns and evolves ideas and models and beliefs to ‘explain’ them, and then stores them in memory for future practical reuse. The problem is that, since there is only Now, the mind is forced to invent the idea of time in order to organize and store information — otherwise it would all have to be stacked and indexed uselessly under ‘Now’.

Once that invention evolved, it became convenient (and evolutionarily successful) to perceive ourselves as ‘moving through time’ in a linear way. But there is no past or future — nothing happened in the past (when it happened, it was the present moment, and when we remember something, we remember it only in the present moment), and nothing will happen in the future (when it happens, it will be the present moment, and we can imagine it only in the present moment). “Time is what eternity looks like when viewed by the mind.”

If you don’t find the paragraph above sensible or credible, watch the video — he explains it much more articulately than I can.

He then talks about what happens when we sleep. The reason no time seems to elapse while we are asleep is that our mind is not present to imagine time elapsing. Likewise, we can’t recall our dreams with the same richness with which we experience them because our mind wasn’t there to ‘memorize’ them. So the moment we drop into sleep and the moment we awaken are actually the same moment, the only moment Now. That, Rupert argues, is why we’re intuitively unafraid to ‘lose consciousness’ in sleep — consciousness is always there, it’s just the functioning of the mind that’s absent.

Going a step further, he says that what is true of our night’s sleep is true for our entire lives. Just as no time ‘elapses’ while we sleep (because time doesn’t exist), no time elapses during our lives. The moment of our birth is the same present moment as the moment of our death. Why then do we fear death? Because we believe, erroneously, that time is real, that it ‘passes’. There is in fact no beginning and no end to anything. There is only awareness expressing itself, Now.

So, just as I appreciate intellectually that there is no separate self, no mind, I can now appreciate that there is no time; it’s just a convenience we use to catalogue events, all of which occur Now.

~~~~~

3. ON AWAKENING, REWILDING, AND RETURNING TO OUR TRUE BEING

Most non-dualists say that ‘awakening’ is just the first step. Once we are able to realize experientially that the separate self, the mind, and time don’t really exist, that’s when the real work of becoming truly aware begins, as this realization gradually changes everything we think, do, and believe.

It changes our relationships (generally, for the better). It allows us to move past fears and see everything with a new astonishingly clearer lens, and with the equanimity I wrote about in my last article. It changes our priorities. It doesn’t make us emotionless (or thoughtless), or nihilistic, or indifferent to everything, or disinterested in doing anything. Those we love shouldn’t feel threatened that we’re going to lose interest in them, or not care about their ‘unaware’ feelings and experiences. Our love and joy grow to encompass everyone and everything we perceive, all that we are aware of.

For the first time, instead of being impatient and discouraged at my incapacity to achieve this realization, I am now absolutely certain that I will achieve it. I am on my way, and although I know that it is as simple as just opening myself to really see what I now intellectually appreciate, I know it’s a process that will take a little time to unfold (yes, the same little time that doesn’t exist).

I think some of the changes that this realization brings are of the type I wrote about in my last article about rewilding. I believe wild creatures, unburdened with an egoic mind, are able to perceive and live in the Now easily, except in brief moments when they are under great stress (until they ‘shake off’ the briefly-useful illusion of separateness again and return to being part of Now awareness). I believe they live mostly free of the illusion of the self, because unlike us they have no need for it and haven’t grown too smart for their own good. I believe they live an almost entirely need-free, want-free life of leisure and pleasure, because what better evolutionary formula for surviving and thriving could there be?

I wrote last about the ‘radical’ idea that what is natural is to live a life free from work, purpose, personal love, intentional action, conversation, abstract language and abstract thought, and it seems to me that the realization of the illusion of separate self and time would almost necessarily acknowledge this.

Without the belief in the separate self, responsibility, progress and the other tenets of individualized civilization culture, I think voluntarily spending our life in job slavery would be unlikely, we would feel no need for a ‘purpose’, the culturally-created scarcity of personal love (and everything else) would lose its hold, there would be no sense of urgency to converse in awkward human languages (even to persuade others of our new awareness), and we would be content mostly to just be and experience what is, rather than to do anything that didn’t have an immediate, local, compelling, urgent need to be done. There would be no attachment to this bankrupt and immiserating culture, its beliefs or its practices at all.

Awareness inevitably, I suspect, radicalizes us (takes us back to the roots of what it means to be) and rewilds us (liberates us from the domesticating yoke of an obviously nonsensical civilization).

~~~~~

4. ON HOW AWAKENING COULD CHANGE US

(A). LANGUAGE, AND PRIORITIES FOR ACTION

How do we use (or cease using) abstract languages when we awaken to an understanding of reality radically different from (or even incompatible with) the understanding of reality we have been brought up to believe? How do we use pronouns, for example, when we know there are no separate selves? How do we deal with statements, ideas and beliefs from friends, colleagues and loved ones that simply make no sense without belief in time and a separate self? How do we practically do things (like writing blog posts) and collaborate using language, when our fundamental sense of who we are and why we do things has radically shifted?

From what non-dualists have said, it would appear that we go on using language much the way we always did, except we use the words mainly to communicate with others who are still rooted in the illusions of time and separate self. (“Before enlightenment, cut wood and carry water. After enlightenment, cut wood and carry water”).

We speak their language(s) out of kindness and because we want to relate to and be understood by them, but instead of these languages being native to us, we now translate everything we understand into terms most others can understand and relate to. When we use pronouns they are now metaphors rather than statements about our reality. We take language less seriously and are more aware of its serious limitations. Arguably when we are unattached we can be even more empathetic with those suffering from the attachments, beliefs and pain we have been able to move past.

Much as if we were talking with friends suffering from hallucinations, we acknowledge and accept what others say, and look for ways to help them be at peace and do things that are practical and useful in the dominant culture. That’s not being patronizing or dishonest — it’s being pragmatic, realistic and uncritically accepting and loving. We don’t proselytize; we listen, appreciate, and support.

Most of us do what’s urgent, and rarely get around to things that are merely important. It’s possible that awareness will liberate us from much of the sense of urgency we used to have about doing things, and hence allow us to do things that are ‘really’ important.

(B). RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS

My last essay tweaked several readers who said they couldn’t buy my argument that radical rewilding would mean giving up ‘personal love’ (the love of one ‘person’ for another). I think I was unclear about what I meant so I will try to explain this again.

If we accept that there is no real ‘self’ and that everything is an expression of awareness, then that would seem to suggest that ‘personal love’ is an oxymoron. So what do we mean when someone says they passionately love one other person (or even a few other people? Those in love imagine that they have an intimate and somewhat exclusive connection with the ‘other’ (or others). This has great evolutionary advantage: It bonds (addicts) the two intoxicated lovers, which may increase the likelihood of multiple healthy offspring, and makes them very protective of each other, which may increase their longevity to the same end.

It could be argued, then, that being in love, or in lust, is just a naturally-induced and addictive chemical sensation of profound connection, for evolutionary advantage. The same argument might hold that it’s pure illusion — remove the chemicals and the ‘other’ seems uninteresting or even ghastly, not what was imagined at all. Even the feeling of tenderness and affection that outlasts the euphoric initial cocktail of being in love, is still chemically induced, though it is different body chemicals produced in smaller, more long-lasting doses.

What if anything is ‘real’ in personal love? It occurs, though arguably less intensely (there is less violence exerted in its defence, and less jealousy) in wild creatures, whose egos and senses of self are arguably much less developed than those of humans. This suggests that this feeling of love (there is a growing consensus that such love is not ‘an’ emotion) is not tied to the perception of a separate self and doesn’t require a large brain capable of abstract thought.

My argument is that the thing that makes humans’ ‘personal love’ more intense and more jealous than the love of wild creatures for their partners and their tribe members is that we bring our sense of self into them. For wild creatures, their love is, I would guess, pure pleasure — nature’s chemicals do a bang-up job of making us all persistent, caring and passionate breeders so our species continues to exist.

Wild creatures’ love is only specific to partners at breeding (and in some cases offspring-raising) time, and then it re-expands out to their whole tribe and their whole world. (Biologists now mostly agree that the idea of wild creatures often ‘mating for life’ is an anthropocentric romantic fantasy.) In Sex at Dawn, the authors argue compellingly that humans are biologically designed (evolved) for promiscuity and that, even more in than other creatures, human love focused on a specific partner (or even a few specific partners) is unnatural.

For prehistoric humans, they argue, ‘love’ meant (a) that chemical rush that we feel, most of us I think if we’re honest, for any and all other people we find attractive, and (b) that enduring affection we feel for those whose company, for all kinds of reasons (e.g. they’re funny; they like the same things we do) we enjoy. In other words, love is taking pleasure in others’ company. Nothing personal. That doesn’t mean that a radically rewilded, awakened human is fickle in their affections. For most creatures, love lasts (why not, if it’s abundant — the more the better). It just isn’t personal, or limited. It’s when we bring our sense of self into relationships that anxiety, jealousy, insecurity and the desire to control creep into and poison it.

I hope that’s at least a bit clearer.

So how about our relationships with those we don’t particularly love, or even like? How does awakening affect our attitude and behaviour towards them? Kindness, compassion, joy in their joy, and equanimity (peaceful joyful acceptance) — the four sublime states — sum it up pretty well, I think. They replace the feelings of anger, impatience, intolerance, fear, pathos, and resentment that many of us feel, I’d say, for those they don’t know, trust, get along with or agree with.

I’m guessing this is one of the harder stages that one has to go through after awakening. So many entrenched intellectual (thoughts) and emotional triggers to unravel and move past!

(C). THE STUFF INSIDE: FEARS, SUFFERING, THOUGHTS ABOUT PAST AND FUTURE

And finally, there’s all that egoic stuff inside us; how does awakening affect our handling of our fears, pain, trauma, sorrow, grief, anger, anguish, inexhaustible and chronic anxieties, nostalgia and relived horrors of the past, dreams, hopes and dread for the future? These things don’t simply disappear when we realize the illusion of the separate self and the illusion of time.

This, I suspect, is the never-ending part of becoming ‘enlightened’ — learning to cope with all this stuff. It does us no use to say it’s not ‘real’. Chronic physical or emotional pain doesn’t cease just because we realize that it is being felt by the body through which awareness expresses itself, and that we are that awareness not that body.

And while we may realize that our fears, anxieties, sorrow, grief and anger are emotional reactions to stories we have invented about the non-existent past or future, that doesn’t make them go away. I suppose it takes a lifetime of practice after (not before) awakening to finally understand and let go of them.

~~~~~

It’s interesting imagining myself in this awakened state. Rather than making me frustrated or discouraged or impatient at not being in that state, I find it quite comforting. It all just makes sense. It’s going to be fun.

It’s just a matter of time, Now.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

My Pleasure

needs wants pleasures

For many years I have described myself, in profiles online, as a hedonist. As much as any label can fit someone, it seems to fit me. This past weekend I’ve started to understand why that’s so.

I’ve described my recent ‘presence’ journey as, in part, a moving from being primarily reactive to needs, to being driven by wants, and finally to being at peace with what is. Until recently, however, although I feel less reactive, less obsessed with needs (mostly around the ‘need’ to be free from the fears and anxiety that have so damaged my health), I have found that my wants are piling up, waiting for their turn to preoccupy me.

Some definitions of what I mean: To me a need is something you can’t be or do without, an incompleteness you carry with you like an anchor. A want is something you crave, something you are driven to distraction to pursue and satisfy. Failure to meet a need makes you dysfunctional or ill; failure to meet a want merely makes you unhappy.

I should also stress that needs and wants are subjective. Perception is, alas, often our reality: We may actually be able to function very well without something we perceive as a need, but the very fact that we feel it as a need can render us dysfunctional or make us ill.

The word I have used for that (relatively) need-free, want-free state in past has been love, but that ambiguous and emotionally laden word has been so debased (and used in deliberately vague and ambiguous ways) in modern discourse that it’s become, in many contexts, meaningless. The word I’m starting to use instead is equanimity. The Pali language term for it is upekkha, as in Buddhism’s four essences or sublime states that remain after enlightenment: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy in others’ joy— what is known in polyamory circles as compersion), and upekkha (equanimity).

When I am (all too rarely and shallowly) in that state of equanimity, I receive pleasure from everything I do, and from just being. The word pleasure comes from the Latin words meaning ‘calm delight’ (the word hedonism comes from similar words in Greek). Our culture has imbued these words with somewhat lascivious and shallow connotations, but I mean these words in this sense of peaceful joy. So while there is love that is very needy (and causes great suffering when it is even temporarily removed), and there is love that brings an unsatisfiable craving for more, and there is the craving for love itself when it is felt to be missing or inadequate, there is a different, less urgent and less ecstatic love that arises in this state of equanimity as well, a love that is accepting, appreciative, open and boundless and not focused on any specific person or thing.

When I used to say ‘I love you’ I often meant ‘I need you, I can’t be or do anything without you, I’m incomplete without you’, or ‘I want you, I crave your presence, your attention, your body, your appreciation, your affection, and I miss that whenever you are not around’. But now it means something more to me like ‘Your presence brings me pleasure, fills me with peaceful joy’. I won’t be sad when you’re away, I won’t ‘miss you’, but I’ll be delighted if/whenever you are back in my presence.

In this sense I love two amazing women, I love the rainforest, I love the warm ocean beaches, I love to play, I love to just be in that peaceful state of joy, to be open and aware of and accepting of just what so astonishingly is. Equanimous love, a more enduring state, may lack the euphoria of being ‘in love’ (or ‘in lust’), and may lack the roiling surge of potent chemicals of attraction, attachment and utter preoccupation, but it is no less wondrous or magical for that. More than personal love, it is metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha all rolled into one.

Much of my realization of this came from the brief time I spent this past weekend with a remarkable and delightful young woman who seems to reside in this state of present equanimity most of the time, and yet, like a feral creature, hasn’t really articulated this in words, and comes across to some, I think, as a bit distant, lost in her own world. Being in her company is like being with something wild, and while we talked for hours, to our obvious mutual pleasure (when she’s thinking about an understanding or idea that she finds satisfying or interesting the only way to describe the sound she makes is a purr), it was almost as if we were speaking different languages, learning new ways to understand and appreciate what each of us deep within already knew but had never thought about in quite this way.

What does it mean to see the world as a wild being? While it might be frustrating to be seen by others as somewhat un-analytical, naive, and perhaps distant or indifferent, such a worldview, I think, could allow one to transcend some of the limiting thinking that civilization culture has constrained us to, as that culture has formed and informed our neural pathways throughout our lives.

I began to wonder: Could it be that upcoming generations, the ones who will inherit our ruinous and bankrupt culture, are already beginning to rewild themselves, as they have remained relatively untainted by the culturally entrained beliefs and ways of thinking that have kept us in thrall?

As we talked a bit about my New Political Map, I began to realize that its worldviews, from Humanist and Transitional through Activist, Communitarian, Existentialist and Extinctionist, are all paradigms of older people seeking alternatives to the dominant culture from within this culture. What my young friend’s worldview most resembled to me was an Anarchist one, similar to that of the 1960s idealists and dreamers like Wolfi Landstreicher, a worldview that is utterly radical, indifferent to and disinterested in, rather than violently opposed to or rejecting, the dominant culture.

If I understood my young friend correctly, that perspective might allow them (and us, if we could fathom it) to truly walk away from that dominant culture and forge new ones that are intuitively sensible for a world of staggering change, and then, hopefully after that, for the world of radical new beginnings that they will inherit.

This may be merely a romantic notion on my part, but it has made more and more sense to me as I listened to and bounced ideas off my young friend. Perhaps what we perceive to be anomie in our youngest citizens is nothing of the sort, but instead the start of an instinctive preparation to cast off what they never appreciated (or benefited from). Perhaps the astonishing eagerness and patient experimentation with radical ways of being that I have noticed in youthful collectives like Beautiful Trouble or the Mud Girls is not naive optimism but rather a necessary equanimity.

As my friend and I spoke, I began to question several of the fundamental ideas and beliefs that have underpinned my worldview and the decisions I have made about my life for many years. From a feral, anarchistic perspective, many of them are starting to seem to me obviously flawed, and still too rooted in entrained cultural thinking. Not radical enough.

For example, instead of quitting our jobs and doing the ‘meaningful’ work ‘we are meant to do’, should we be more radically rejecting the very idea of work — any work, especially if it’s compulsory? Prehistoric human societies didn’t do ‘work’ — they lived in trees and ate the abundant foods at hand, and if those ceased to be abundant they migrated to where they were. The whole idea of work as necessary, desirous or virtuous is actually kind of insane. Goodbye Sweet Spot. How might we find ways to live comfortably free of any ‘work’?

And what about this idea of our lives having a ‘purpose’ or meaning? If we are all expressions of life’s one consciousness, an emergence of joy in just being, why should we need or want or expect life to have any ‘purpose’? Why should the random walk that led to the temporary emergence of complex life on Earth, no matter how improbable, have to be ‘meaningful’? What would it be like to live a life free of purpose and meaning?

And similarly, what about the idea of personal love (love of one person for another) as being desirable or virtuous? The emergence of feelings of intense love and lust by who we imagine ourselves to be for those we imagine others to be may be an obvious evolutionary success, but is it not fundamentally illusory, a form of delicious but unsustainable madness (and sometimes enslavement)? We can’t hope to know who another really is or what they feel, and the very notion of a separate self is arguably a mental construct, not real at all. Instead of seeing love as a universal answer to everything, “all you need” or something that “conquers all [obstacles]”, what would it be like to live a life free of personal love?

And what about the idea that inaction is lazy or otherwise not virtuous, that we have the free will and responsibility as a human adult to do what we can to make our communities and our world better, more just, more resilient, less dependent, or at least less terrible?. This would seem to be a belief rooted in the religion of ‘progress’, reinforced by civilization’s largely-falsified success stories of those ‘heroes’ who have chosen to act, the belief that the 100 trillion cells that make up each individual are capable of collectively exercising the ‘self’-control and free will to choose, and the belief we actually can influence or control outcomes or prepare for the unknowable through intention, which is belied by everything we know about complexity. What would it be like to live a life free of expectation, responsibility, and the belief that ‘intentional’ choices and actions are (a) possible and (b) likely to make any significant difference?

And finally, some radical thinking about conversation and language: Wild creatures thrive without the need to talk with each other conceptually or abstractly. They meet, love, mate, and live full, aware, connected lives without the need to express ideas or beliefs. Birds have two sets of vocalizations — those that warn of specific and immediate dangers (“calls”), and those that are joyful expressions of being alive (“songs”). The former are intuitive and unambiguous, and the latter are emotional — artistic rather than conversational. What would it be like to live a life free of conversation and the thinking that underlies it? What would it be like to live a life entirely without abstract language, as we have done for at least two thirds of human life’s history on Earth?

These are unsettling, even infuriating ideas, to be sure. Most truly radical ideas are. At first blush, the idea of living without work, purpose, personal love, intentional actions, conversation, abstract language and abstract thought, might seem outrageous, impossible, unconscionable, empty. I’m still just starting to think my way through them.

Perhaps if we watch non-human wild creatures we might see that this is how they live, that this is the essence of being wild rather than domesticated. I’ve observed that (except when their habitats are suddenly destroyed by human activity) wild creatures seemingly have no wants, no needs. Except during the short season of rearing their young, their lives are full of abundance, leisure and, presumably, pleasure. Except in our dreams, it is too late for us all to live like that — too many of us now, and the lands where we lived naturally are largely desolated and destroyed.

Still, we can, some of us, the lucky ones, at least some of the time, just be, in the sublime states of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, taking pleasure in everything — notably in beauty and the company of other wild and somewhat de-civilized creatures. In the process we will come to recognize each other, perhaps, learning the signals, being a little bit tribal, a little bit feral, together. What we will do while at peace in those wild states is instinctive, beyond ‘our’ control, though it is certain to be pleasurable.

We will, regardless, do our best; we cannot do otherwise.

~~~~~

Peeling and tearing off a little bit more of the gunk that our culture has, with the best of intentions, plastered on to me in trying to make me everybody else. Still, there seem to be so many layers of it remaining. I wonder if, once they are all peeled away, there will be anything left, or if I will just vanish.

Thanks to Smoky for much of the inspiration for this article.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

Links of the Quarter: December 26, 2015

I appreciate that what underlies our realization about this civilization, with its ruinous appetite for destruction and exhaustion of the Earth’s resources, and the atrocious (and usually hidden from public view) violence and suffering it inflicts on the land and every creature on it, is a core of grief. We don’t want to see it, witness it. We hide in our homes and offices, our sanctuaries against truth. We bury ourselves in our work, our fantasies, our distractions, our escapes, our denial. We inure ourselves against the reality of what our culture, in its desperation to continue, has wrought, what it is doing, every day, and where this will inexorably lead. Somehow, intuitively, we know, and we’re trying to cope with this terrible unspoken knowledge, each in our own way.

Some would have us try to face this grief, accept it, telling us we should “listen to the sounds of the Earth crying“. That we should see for ourselves what our culture is doing. (Thanks to Carolyn Baker for these links.) My sense, though, is that those who are ready and willing to do this are already doing so. We each have to find our own best way of coping. Perhaps my search for ‘presence’, to become unattached to my ego and thoughts and reactive emotions, is my way, for now.

The last word this quarter goes to Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, writing in the NYT last week, in an essay called We’re Doomed. Now What?:

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point. We’re already one degree Celsius above preindustrial temperatures and there’s another half a degree baked in. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy…

We were born on the eve of what may be the human world’s greatest catastrophe. None of us chose this, not deliberately. None of us can choose to avoid it either. Some of us will even live through it. What meaning we pass on to the future will depend on how well we remember those who have come before us, how wisely and how gently we’re able to shed the ruinous way of life that’s destroying us today, and how consciously we’re able to affirm our role as creators of our fated future.

Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.

~~~~~

PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END

less-fear-of-terrorism
cartoon by Bruce Beattie in the Daytona Beach News-Journal (thanks to Eric Lilius for the link)

The Myth of Self-Reliance: Too many people believe (thanks largely to mainstream media and the “prepper” nonsense they propagate) that resilience and preparation is about becoming totally independent of other people, even people in one’s community. Toby Hemenway explains how we are all reliant on the industrial economy, and our eventual alternative when it collapses will be reliance on our communities, not “self-reliance”. Thanks to Del Solkinson for the link. (Also new from Toby, this speech about urban permaculture — thanks to Tree for the link.)

Economic collapse looms ever closer: Falling oil and commodity prices mean that Peak Oil will never happen, and that’s good news, right? Wrong. As Gail Tverberg explains, falling oil prices mean that we’ve entered a deflationary spiral because every means of trying to squeeze more money (i.e. create more debt) out of consumers is now exhausted, and falling spending power means falling demand and prices. That means more oil will be left in the ground, but that falling spending power means what oil is available will be even less affordable, which means Peak Oil (the exhaustion of affordable energy) will arrive even faster and harder. In short: “The world economy has been held together by increasing debt at ever-lower interest rates for many years. We are reaching limits on this process.” Chris Martenson adds further explanation of what chronic deflation means for the economy in the next few years.

Bacteria Evolve Resistance to the Last Effective Antibiotics: Reckless overuse and misuse of antibiotics has enabled bacteria to evolve resistance to the last available antibiotic products on the market, and these bacteria are rapidly spreading across the globe. The likelihood of global pandemics just rose dramatically. Thanks to John Robb and AD Mitchell for the link.

Drowning Megacities: Al Jazeera explains what is happening in coastal cities in the developing world where hundreds of millions cannot afford to move to higher land to escape the effects of climate change.

The “Sharing Economy” Becomes a Problem: As the ideas and terminology of the sharing economy have been increasingly misused, co-opted and misunderstood, what was a wonderful idea has become corrupted into a euphemism for unregulated disintermediation. What’s needed is to get back to the basic principle: giving without expectation of compensation: A Gift Economy. Meanwhile, a reporter tries to live for a month entirely in the “Sharing” and Gift Economies and describes what she learned. (Thanks to Larry Sheehy for the first link and Tree for the second and third).

Why Not Just Print More Money and Give It To Citizens?: The New Yorker reviews Adair Turner’s new book suggesting such a move could rebalance wealth disparity and solve a host of related social ills. Although the idea is inflationary, it is less so than the obscene tax cuts the wealthy have received in many countries in recent years. And while economic collapse is well underway and accelerating (despite government efforts to obfuscate it with doctored statistics), redistribution of wealth could dramatically reduce the inevitable social unrest as debts become increasingly un-repayable, credit freezes up and defaults skyrocket. Excerpt:

The best alternative [to the current economic crisis, economist Adair] Turner thinks, is his radical proposal—creating money and handing it out to entities that can spend it. It wouldn’t matter much whether the newly minted money was forwarded to households in the form of bank credits, or used to finance tax cuts, or spent on building new roads and bridges. The key point is that the government would be stimulating the economy without issuing any new debt.

~~~~~

LIVING BETTER

LOTQ LB1 coops build    LOTQ LB2 Ikigai-EN-optimized-PNG

images: left: poster by Toolbox for Education & Social Action (more on how co-ops benefit our economy here); right: Marc Winn‘s version of the “sweet spot” circles diagram from my book, which someone has posted to wikipedia (I still like my simpler, less industrial-economy-bound version better). Thanks to Natalie Shell for the ikigai link.

Holding Space for Ourselves: The idea of “holding space” — creating a safe place where people can speak and reply candidly to each other, to say what is true for them without fear or risk — is now well-established. But what does it mean to “hold space” for yourself? “Give yourself permission to trust your own intuition. Give yourself only as much information as you can handle. Don’t let anyone take your power away. Keep your ego out of it. Make yourself feel safe enough to fail. Give guidance and help to yourself with humility and thoughtfulness. Create your own container for complex emotions, fears, trauma, etc. And allow yourself to make decisions that are different from what other people would make.” Thanks to Deanna Pumplin for the link.

The Five Choices: The Tree Sisters movement describes five choices for engaging fully in community, and presents a map for activists and a “shadow map” that chillingly depicts what holds so many of us back. Thanks to Nina Simons at Bioneers for the link.

The Value of Participative Art: The Guardian newspaper’s arts editor says the long-starved arts have turned the corner, and quotes yours truly in her year-end recap.

Gifting Your Services, and More: A Dutch group has established Sharing Vouchers, which are available and posted at local “third places” for gifting what you have a surplus of. And SF offers free clothes mending to those who can’t afford to pay for it. Thanks to Tree for the links.

Neighbourhood Youth Co-ops: Saskatoon is modelling a new way to engage young people in cities, much as 4-H used to do for rural kids. Thanks to Jessica Mitts for the link.

HDR Photography Goes Mainstream: Even many smart phones now use a new ‘HDR’ multiprocessor that makes mediocre shots into hyper-realistic ones (some say too hyper-realistic).

Mooji on Awakening: The engaging disciple of Ramana Maharshi says much the same thing as Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, but does it with a modesty and humour that other more recognized ‘enlightenment’ speakers often lack. Here’s my YouTube playlist of some of Mooji’s best answers to questions at his ‘satsangs’.

The Sun Interviews Adyashanti: A delightful interview from a while back reveals how Adya got started in the strange business of teaching ‘awakening’. Thanks to Ryan Rathje for the link.

~~~~~

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

LOTQ POL via kayemmo american weapons giphy
image source unknown (thanks to kayemmo for the link)

Polls Are Frequently Wrong, and Usually Dangerous: The incomparable Jill Lepore explains why opinion polls are bad for democracy.

The Price-Gouging of Big Pharma: “It’s fair enough to excoriate Martin Shkreli for greed and indifference. The real problem, however, is not the man but the drug profiteering system that has let him thrive.”

Trudeau’s First Days: Good news about Canada’s new not-Harper Prime Minister: He’s unmuzzled Canada’s scientists. He’s promising significant election reform. But he’s still not committed to cancelling Canada’s involvement in the TPP, or cancelling the egregious and paranoid Bill C-51.

The 158 Families Funding the 2016 US Election: If you want to be US president, you’d better be in tight with some of them.

Is Michigan the Harbinger of US Economic Collapse?: Austerity and privatization now threaten public health, education and safety in Michigan, driven by the state’s ideological extremists. Thanks to Sam Rose for the link.

The Secret US Prisons No One Talks About: Beyond Guantanamo, the US maintains domestic secret prisons for political prisoners that rival the similar Russian Gulags. Bravo to Will Potter for having the courage to talk about them, to a TED audience no less.

Saudi Arabia: an ISIL That Has Made It: Thanks to our dependence on cheap oil, industrialized nations continue to support a regime whose ideology is every bit as extreme as the one they have pledged to destroy.

~~~~~

FUN AND INSPIRATION

LOTQ FI mick stevens coffee is free
cartoon by Mick Stevens from the New Yorker

It’s Going to be OK: Read this cartoon and guess who its real-life hero is (you’ll learn at the end). We are all passengers pitching downward into the night. Thanks to Flemming Funch for the link.

The Sad Ghost of “Secondary Abstinence”: A moving and provocative NYT story explores why despite the fact our bodies are built for frequent sexual pleasure, so many of us are abstaining, seemingly involuntarily, or perhaps “sex is abstaining from us“.

The Rise and Fall of the American Chestnut: Biologist Peter Bane weaves a fascinating story of how the dominant North American tree species after the last ice age suddenly vanished. Can you guess what the real reason (beyond the fungus that was the immediate cause) for this sudden near-extinction was? Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

No Limits: Yet another scientific research study suggests that there is/was no beginning or end to our universe, or of time. Time to blow up the Big Bang once and for all. Thanks to Tia Carr for the link.

The Strange Politics of Haiti: The current president of Haiti is a former Zouk singer, and at the recent anniversary celebrations he used his power to upstage the performers, Haitian Zouk superstar duo T-Vice, and instead insisted on performing some of his own songs. Like every recent president, Mr Martelly is accused of corruption, but seemingly less so than the sad parade of previous presidents of this broken and desolated country.

Was David Hume the First Western Buddhist Philosopher: A researcher tracks down the reasons Hume’s philosophy is so resonant with Buddhist thought. Thanks to Tree for the link.

~~~~~

THOUGHTS FOR THE QUARTER

LOTQ TOTQ Parson-McNamara HDR photo

HDR image by the multi-talented AnnMarie and Michael Parson-McNamara

Home Maintenance by PS Pirro — ruminations on looking after the small things.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens — the blackbird is involved in what we know.

From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (thanks to Venessa Miemis for the link):

He said, “You become. It takes a long time… Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

From an unknown source (posting on a cork board) on patriarchy: “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”.

From Chris Savage (LOLGOP on Twitter; thanks to Beth Patterson for the link): “If you think fertilized eggs are people but refugee kids aren’t, you’re going to have to stop pretending your concerns are religious.”

From Dahlia Lithwick in Slate (in 2013):

We can’t stop the tsunami of people who want to openly carry guns in certain jurisdictions. We can’t pass legislation that would limit improper access to guns, even when 90 percent of the public supports it. And we can do nothing to truly ensure that kids aren’t living in a culture of daily deaths from guns. So in the absence of a public policy solution, or any kind of collective will to find a public policy solution, we just make a decision to treat armed killers in schools as we previously treated fires and tornadoes: as acts of God instead of failures of legislative and moral courage. There will be more and more shootings near schools and more and more lockdowns.

And so this is what we have tacitly agreed to do now: We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what freedom looks like.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Wanting to Stop Wanting: A Meditation

magellanic cloud NASA

large magellanic cloud, image by NASA

A few days ago I participated in a winter solstice event which, in addition to including some lovely singing in a beautiful house in the woods, included a walk along the nearby labyrinth. It’s customary when walking a labyrinth to consider some important question, and let the ritual of walking the path open you to inquiry and the suggestion of possibilities that might otherwise not occur to you.

The question this time was “What would you like to let go of in the coming year”. This was different from new year’s “resolutions” or even “intentions”: it was more about what you no longer intend than what you intend.

During my walk I came up with three answers to the question:

1. Let go of self-expectations: Allow myself to just be who I am and not strive to be anyone else. What this means is not being disappointed or judgemental or impatient if I don’t feel I’m achieving or making progress toward my “goals”. There is only the process. Expectations don’t help achieve anything but invite disappointment and self-opprobrium. Listen to my heart, trust my instincts to tell me what to do, and don’t get attached to outcome. Hopefully, letting go of self-expectations can also lead to letting go of expectations of others.

2. Let go of wants: Over the last few years I think I have come to need much less in my life, but instead of this bringing me more equanimity, it seems paradoxically to have ratcheted up my wants. I distinguish the two this way: A need is something you feel you cannot be truly functional without. A want is something you can do without perfectly well, but which you crave, sometimes to the point of distraction. Sex, and being in love, for example, are not really needs (in fact most of Maslow’s hierarchy is wants, not needs) — you can live a healthy and productive and self-fulfilled life without them. But for most people they are near the top of the list of wants (and our brutal, relentless, scarcity- and addiction-creating capitalist economic system feeds these and other cravings).

I used to try to separate my wants into three categories:

(a) Wants that I can do specific things to fulfill with high probability or certainty. Example: I want to have more physical contact, and more fun, in my life.

(b) Wants that realistically are not likely to be fulfilled. Example: I want to be able to live in a warm safe place like Kaua’i year-round, but my age and citizenship, and some other extenuating factors, pretty much rule out that happening.

(c) Wants that I have no real control over, and which may or may not be fulfilled. Example: I want to achieve the “awakening” to Presence I have been writing about (somewhat obsessively) for the past year.

It seems sensible to let go of the wants that are unlikely to be fulfilled. Holding onto them just produces false hope, yearning and unhappiness. It’s less obvious that we should let go of of the other two categories of wants. But if there are specific things we can do to bring category (a) wants to fruition, we are either going to do them or we are not. Wanting them doesn’t help matters. If I learn to swim and dance (finally) in the next year or so, I am convinced it won’t be because I “wanted” to have more fun in my life; likewise, if I fail to do so, it won’t be for lack of wanting. So why not “let go” of wanting these things as well, and just be who I am and trust that those things will happen if they’re intended to, regardless of want. And analogously, for the wants I have no control over, what benefit is there to wanting them? I don’t think it really makes me more likely to seek practices or behaviours (like meditation) that might tip the balance of fortune in favour of them being realized. I may never find the “awakening” I have been seeking, or it may happen tomorrow. Why not let go of wanting it to happen, since wanting it so badly makes me unhappy and doesn’t make it more likely to happen?

When I started writing this article I wasn’t willing to give up the category (a) and (c) wants — somehow I felt that (a la Goethe’s “What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”) wanting these things made it more likely I would do what had to be done to significantly increase the likelihood of obtaining them. But I no longer believe that; beginning has power, for sure, but wanting has none, and doesn’t necessarily correlate with beginning. Failure to begin has more to do with lack of awareness, lack of knowledge, lack of capacity, or lack of time than with lack of desire.

Mooji argues that when you want something and then you get it, the happiness you feel is just relief, freedom from the suffering that your wanting created in you; wanting is a form of illusory self-created misery, a fiction of the unwell mind.

So, in short, my answer was to let go of wants — all of them.

3. Let go of everything that is not me: When I started this blog I wrote that I felt that our culture had, over the course of my life, layered a lot of gunk over me, obscuring who I really am and making me “everybody else”. Getting rid of that gunk is an aspect of dis-identifying with this persona, this mind, this body, the story of this life. This is a bewildering process, this dis-identifying with the gunk that people often tell me is my most endearing stuff — my willingness to say what I want people to hear, for example, or my propensity to say and do what I think others want or expect me to say or do, instead of what is real for me. It is this outer level, I think, that I have to get rid of first, before the older stuff of mind and body and thoughts and feelings and beliefs can be cast off as “not me”.

But is this desire (or “resolve” or “intention”) to let go, not in itself just another expression of “want”? Is wanting to not want, to not expect, to not be who I’m not, not an oxymoron, a self-contradiction?

Or is it the start of a realization, an awakening, to the truth that the person who wants, the person who expects, the person who is trying to cast off “not-me” stuff, is not the real me at all? That I Am something apart from, unattached to, different from this identity that has these wants, expectations and gunk? That I Am the witness of this?

That would seem possible, sensible, even astonishing. Why then do I still want so much? Is this my ego’s desperate attempt to hold on — reminding “me” how good it feels to be in love, in lust, victorious, admired, thanked, the centre of attention, loved for my identity, with its decades of acquired gunk? What would I Be without all that?

I’m just the space through which stuff passes, I wrote once, ‘touching’ things that pass through this space when that ‘touch’ would seemably be helpful. No longer my ‘self’. Just a part, flying, floating. Green and blue and white, flowing and glowing… Softening. Getting lighter… Vanishing.

But still, the craving.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The List

beach story 3“I‘ve made you a list”, Lori said to me as I sat on the beach watching the waves. We’d booked the lovely tropical condo that our friends Rafe and Daria had told us about, and were enjoying the beauty and peacefulness of the island so much we were thinking of moving here. Jag, the resident cat, had adopted us, following us regularly down to the beach.

I gave Lori the one-raised-eyebrow-smiling look and went to take the paper from her hand, but she pulled it away. I looked up at her quizzically. “And this list is about..?” I asked her.

“It’s about how you will be when you’re Present. So instead of struggling and getting frustrated you can just ‘act as if’ you’re already there, and eventually you will be there, already doing the right, enlightened stuff. Brilliant, huh?”

I gave her a dubious smile and replied “Fake it until you make it, eh? I’m not sure enlightenment works that way.” When she mock-glowered back at me I added: “And I presume you’re going to read me this list?”

“Exactly”, she said. She took up an oratory pose, looking absolutely delicious in her bikini, and began: “First”, she said “you, (and I, when I visit) will be eating and sleeping mostly outdoors. Thanks to your amazing deck, you can do that, even in the coldest weather. You should take advantage of that. I’m going to make each of us a winter kimono that will make it even easier. And in the summer, we’re going to set up a tent in the forest next to your house, in that place we found where no one can see it from the path, and you’re going to spend every day and night possible there. Just as you’re trapped in the illusory security of your mind and thoughts, you’re trapped in the illusory security of your house, watching but not immersed in reality. This will free you.”

I was intrigued; what she said made great sense, and I was moved that she’d put so much thought into this. At the same time, I was, as always, distracted by her beauty, and as she read I slowly shimmied the blanket I was sitting on closer to where she stood, and thanked her, sincerely, while kissing up the inside of her legs.

“Pay attention”, she said, frowning down at me, and then added “But you can keep doing that as long as you’re paying attention.” She took a deep breath. “Second, you will be spending your alone-time differently. Instead of crosswords, video games, solo sex, solitaire or other escapist pursuits that indulge your mind’s desire to be always busy and the centre of your attention, you will do things that open space for awareness of your true self, things like walking in the forest or on the beach or in the rain or in the moonlight, and really noticing what you see, or meditating with music and candles and without thought, only paying attention to your senses. No more thoughts about the past or future, about what was or might have been or might be. No more imagining, unless you are writing a story that requires it. Being aware of all thoughts and feelings of sadness or anxiety or anger as they arise and just letting them go. Standing still and looking until you really see.”

“That will be hard”, I said to her, looking up into her eyes with a sigh. “My mind will not like it. My body will not like it. They like attention, stimulation, conjuring up pleasure. They will seduce me until I give in to them. Believe me, I’ve been working on this. I don’t think I’m strong enough.”

“You don’t have to do it all at once”, Lori replied, running her hand through my hair and looking at me intently. “For now it’s enough to be aware. Notice the seduction of mind or body as it arises, and notice your inclination to give into it, and then give in, if you must. Witnessing what is happening is half the battle. You are realizing that it is your mind and your body urging you, and that something is resisting that is not your mind or your body — the something that is the real you.”

I looked out at the waves pounding on the beach and sighed. I buried my face between her legs and wrapped my arms around her cute bum. She reached down and put one arm around my neck and the other on my shoulder. I sighed again, deeply, breathing in the scent of her, and said “Yes, you’re right. That’s what I should do. I will do that.” And then I began kissing her between her legs, tracing my fingers lightly around the edges of her bikini bottom. “How did you get to be so smart?”, I added, my voice slightly muffled by my activity. “You’re on this completely different journey from mine. How can you see where I should be going when I can’t see it myself?”

Lori was silent, just holding me close to her, watching as I began to nuzzle her gently where I had been kissing her, moving my nose and lips up and down the furrow between her legs in little circles, until she began to purr, delightful little noises coming from her throat. When I began to lick her through the fabric of her bathing suit she gasped and whispered “Hey, that’s enough, someone could come down to the beach any moment and see us, and I’m pretty sure what you’re doing is illegal in public. Feels wonderful, though. Let’s go back inside.”

“Half the excitement is the risk, though, no?” I told her, resuming my gentle caresses. “No one else has been by this section of beach for an hour, and no one can see us here from further along the beach or from the condos. When I’m pressed up against you it just looks like we’re hugging. You just keep an eye out and if someone comes, I’ll stop. And besides”, I concluded, “I haven’t heard the rest of the list yet.” I smiled up at her.

I could feel her legs quivering as I resumed my slow, insistent licking, and when she answered me I could hear the quiver in her voice too: “OK, but you have to stop the second I say, OK?”

“Agreed”, I replied. “Thank you. And thank you for having legs just the right length. And thanks to the makers of unlined bathing suits. I think I’ve discovered Victoria’s ‘Secret’. OK, I’m ready for item three on the list”.

Lori was breathing heavily, alternatively lowering her face to my hair and gently kissing me on the head, and glancing around to make sure our furtive love-making wasn’t being witnessed. The material of her bikini was so thin and stretchy my tongue could feel every curve and ridge through the fabric, and my mind registered exactly where my tongue and lips needed to go to take Lori over the edge. The danger of discovery, small as it was, was definitely turning her on too.

“Item three:”, she said, in a breathy half-whisper. “In the presence of others, especially those of us you love, you will be more alert, more attentive, more appreciative, more demonstrative and more reflective (without of course trying to ‘fix’ anything), but perhaps in the process you will be less attached, less ‘responsive’ and less indulgent. When we’re feeling blue or furious or terrified we want to know that you care, and we want you to show us that, not tell us. And we don’t want you to feel our feelings in those moments, just show us you hear what we’re feeling and that that matters to you.”

I had managed to sneak two fingers under the edge of her bikini, and in the process had uncovered the two spots I had been focusing my tongue’s ministrations on, allowing direct contact that was, I knew, enough to bring Lori release. She broadened her stance slightly and braced her hands on my shoulders and, a moment later, cried out almost loudly enough to be heard over the surf. I held her against me and let her come down slowly and then, smiling broadly, replied “That would be even harder for me. I’ve learned not to try to fix things, but I still freeze when I’m dealing with someone in emotional distress. I don’t know how to not take that on myself, to not panic, to not blank out and not just want the whole situation to go away while I hide. It’s been my coping mechanism for too long, I guess.”

Lori was still breathing heavily, catching her breath, so I drew her to her knees and held her in my arms and slowly scooted our blanket back against the palm tree, and we just knelt together like that, while I stroked her hair and kissed her shoulders.

She laughed gently and said “Whew.” Her voice and body were still quivering. I wondered if what we had just done, the way I was feeling then, so full of love, was Present or not. I was lost in her, the smell of her and the feeling of her skin, as if the real world had fallen away.

“Perhaps”, Lori said, recomposed at last, “the next time we’re with Daria and Rafe I could try to model this for you, just show you a couple of things I am able to do that seem harder for you. I’ll signal you with three fingers, since this is new behaviour number three on the list. And I’ll signal you and hug you when I see you modelling it yourself.” She settled down onto my knees and we both sat under the tree, Lori in my lap curled into my shoulder. Jag the cat came over for attention, and Lori stroked her fur gently.

“OK, onwards,” Lori continued. “Number four: Less time (and more focused time) online. Only replying once a day to personal messages, and only to people you know well. And only blogging to add to your ‘auxiliary memory’, to write stuff like book summaries you want to be able to refer to later, or to post your creative works. And, as soon as possible, no more Facebook.”

“Agreed”, I replied. Lori gave me a surprised look, and I nodded back. She continued: “Wow. Number five then: A shift in how you play, to simple, joyful, unpurposeful forms — dancing, yoga, swimming, tag — play that doesn’t involve thinking or competing, that engages the body but not the mind. But only as that comes easily, not if it arouses any anxiety in you. Take it slow.”

I smiled at her, rose and drew her to her feet. We danced, slowly and lazily and a bit clumsily across the sand and into the waves. With her arms around my neck, reading her list over my shoulder Lori continued: “Six: As you will no longer have to devote time to ‘meditation’ (since eventually everything you do will be a kind of meditation), and as your awareness that there is no scarcity of time, that there is only Now, grows, and makes you less stingy with your time, you will gradually become more of an activist, volunteering for projects, even risky ones, that you believe will mitigate destruction and suffering, even if only for a while. In fact you will seek out such projects, your answer to the question ‘Who needs my gifts now?’ ”

I thought for a moment, and then replied “OK. Not doing stuff that just gets me worked up, but rather stuff I care about where there is some unique and effective role I know I can play. The Sweet Spot, but for volunteerism rather than paid work. Makes sense. Awesome.”

“Thank you”, Lori said, pulling me up to my feet again. “Last item coming up, and it’s the best of all.” She jumped into my arms, wrapping her lovely legs around my waist and her arms around my neck. “Dance me inside while I conclude the list”. As I did, she read over my shoulder: “Seven: Start, and maintain, a ‘Like List’. This list will be an inquiry into things you appreciate. Kind of like my Gratefulness List, but better suited I think for your Presence journey rather than my Grace journey. The list will be specific qualities, things and noticings that you dispassionately but strongly Like or Appreciate, such as: the sun’s warmth on your skin when it comes out from behind the clouds; flute melodies with those exquisite little trills; lamplight shining on leaves during a windstorm at night; the scent of lilacs after a summer rain; fresh raspberries fed to you with a kiss; this particular shade of orange-yellow-purple sunset;” — she pointed to the sky and I spun her around in my arms to see it — “the feeling you get after you’ve been running fast and well for a long time; giggle fits with someone you love that just go on and on and you can’t stop; that powerful old woman we saw on the beach yesterday with the tiny black killer ‘in your face’ bikini proclaiming to the world that she didn’t care what anyone thought about what she wore. You get the idea. Stuff you really like, instinctively and invariably, and know why you do. Not stuff caught up in emotions or ideas. Stuff that focuses your attention on and increases your comfort with being Present. Stuff that’s real and now and eternal.”

I agreed that this was an excellent idea, and wondered whether it made sense to index the ‘qualities and things and noticings’ in the Like List by the sense they appealed to, including the intuitive ‘sense’ and the ‘senses’ of astonishment and beauty and cleverness and wonder and all the other senses that stretched beyond the five bodily senses, yet were not bound up in analytical thoughts, belief systems or reactive emotions. I envied Lori’s extraordinary creative capacity — she somehow came up with things like the Like List out of nothing. “Out of nothing”, she said, “except wanting to show how much I love you”.

~~~~~

Later that evening, we went for a walk along the beach in the moonlight. We took along our headlamps so we wouldn’t trip over anything or step on the sand crabs, but we hardly needed them with the moon so full and the sky so clear. There was a brisk warm breeze and we could smell the tropical fruits and flowers in the air, and the smells of the ocean. We wore nothing but sarongs — Lori had fashioned a half-sarong for me to match her full one, and the light caress of the fabric and the feeling of freedom of movement were delightful. The beach was so quiet and secluded we could probably have made the mile-long walk naked, but we decided to play it safe in case we ran into hotel beach security people (who probably would have just laughed and sent us on our way anyway).

I had asked Lori to explain what she called her Journey to Grace, and how it differed from my search for Presence.

“I think the difference”, she said, taking my hand as she wandered through the low-tide surf, “is that rather than trying to transcend my emotions I’m trying to really connect with them, re-engage them, take them back from the damage that was inflicted on them and on me when I was young. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman that I find the whole transcending-the-self thing a bit disengaged, a bit facile, a bit ungrounded. I know the non-dualists say that it’s about unattachment rather than detachment, but to me that distinction is muddy.”

“Eckhart would probably argue”, she continued, “that the disconnection we feel from the rest of life on Earth is because the brain got so clever at creating representations of reality that it began to mistake those representations, including the representation of a separate ‘self’, for reality itself. But I would argue that the emotions of fear, anger and grief evolved for perfectly sound evolutionary reasons; they are not aberrations to be transcended.”

“It’s true, I think”, she explained, “that our human minds, always looking for patterns and meaning and predictability, have created unhealthy feedback loops that prevent us from properly processing emotions like fear, anger and grief, and from moving past them when the situation that provoked them has passed. But it makes more sense to me to try to learn how to process them more effectively, ‘shaking them off’ as wild creatures do, than to try to see these emotions as fundamentally useless and unhealthy, the result of a supposed attachment to fictional stories about fictitious selves. You’re a phenomenologist, Spence, you trust what you see. To me that also means trusting what you feel. You know, like in that song you love so much where Neil Young sings ‘Though we rush ahead to save our time we are only what we feel’. We may well be all manifestations of one consciousness, but that doesn’t mean the Self that consciousness manifests itself as, in each creature, isn’t real, doesn’t have some individual existence and responsibility and free will to become, to act, to heal itself, to make things better. That process of becoming and acting and healing and making things better and ‘feeling better’ is my journey to Grace.”

I nodded, in the dark, taking it all in, trying to see the world as Lori saw it. She had reminded me, earlier in my walk, that I always insisted, when I met new people, on asking them what they really cared about right now, rather than what they ‘did’ (for a living). She wanted to know why I asked that, why it was important to me — me who claimed not to like or care about most people very much.

My first thought in response to that was that I was looking for common ground, kindred spirits. But perhaps, I wondered, I was looking for reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who thought the behaviour and beliefs of most of the people around me, and those purporting to be our culture’s ‘leaders’, were completely insane. Lori said that when she asked that question, what she was listening for were the differences, the things that people cared about that she didn’t know about, because there was something important there to learn.

I marvelled at her generosity, her openness, and for a few moments doubted everything I believed, and began to wonder if my search for Presence was just self-absorbed folly. Was I looking for Presence as a consolation prize for giving up wanting to always be in love, a reward for overcoming my inexhaustible craving for supposedly ‘escapist’ pleasures? Was the real me a part of a single unfathomably complex universal consciousness, or a simple fool for love and lust? And if I was the latter, barred from (or expelled from) the world of eternal Presence, was there a pathway from my folly to Lori’s road to Grace? Her purpose, it seemed, was always learning, becoming, always being open to what cannot be known, and that suddenly seemed much wiser than my goal of knowing and being in some crude, absolute sense.

When I said this to her, Lori smiled at me, made a little signal with three fingers, hugged me, and then, pulling away from me, drew her hands together and bowed her head toward me. I was entranced. How could anyone be more graceful than this, I wondered?

As we made it back to the stretch of beach in front of our condo, Jag the cat came out to greet us, so we just sat together in silence, in the moonlight, watching the waves. There was a sand crab just inches from where Jag was sitting, and to my surprise the cat just watched it intently, seemingly unprovoked to pounce on it when it emerged again and again to shovel out another pincerful of sand from its burrow. Lori, noticing my astonishment, nodded to me and then at Jag, whispering, “Zen Master”. Full of both presence and grace, I thought.

I pulled one of the webbed lounge chairs from the lawn to the secluded beach below the condo. I lay the lounger’s adjustable back down flat, and placed our beach blanket over it, motioning to Lori to lie down on it. We both pulled off our sarongs and as she lay down I lay a towel beside the lounger and knelt on it. I drew the bottle of coconut oil from our bag, poured a generous amount into my hand, and began to gently caress it into Lori’s achingly irresistible skin. For the next two hours we were silent as my fingers and hands tried to convey to every inch of her body just how much she was loved. Jag the cat tried to help, jumping up on the lounger and licking the sweet-smelling oil from her body until Lori was convulsed with giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. I thanked Jag and shooed her away for a while.

As I softly massaged Lori I looked at the moon and its reflection on the thunderous ocean, and eventually on the parts of Lori’s body I’d massaged, now glistening in this perfect, silent moon-pierced darkness. Lori knew what was happening and whispered to me “It’s OK to cry, you know, you sweet romantic fool. This is all too beautiful not to.”

I was breathing it all in, and it was almost too much for my senses. The touch of the breeze and of each other’s skin. The smell and taste of the oil, of jasmine and orchid, of our bodies, and of approaching rain. The sound of surf and palm trees rustling in the breeze. The sight of moon and reflection and the now-sleeping, softly breathing Jag. And of Lori, also softly breathing. Everything was so alive I could scarcely dare breathe — I wanted it to stay like this forever, to memorize it, this flawless, sparkling, incandescent Now. Everything was so alive, as if the whole universe was breathing in harmony. I was awash in a rush of rhapsody, and felt as if all the parts of my body were opening, exploding outward at the speed of light, as if I were flying, weightless, imbued with light and colour and energy and magic.

It was all mixed up — the exquisite chemical bliss of being in love and in lust, which even now my mind was warning would not and could not last too long, and the ‘spell of the sensuous’, the immediate, raw physical connection through the senses with what is real and infinitely beautiful and unceasing and boundless. How could I disentangle, or choose between, a thousand precious moments of staggering unimaginable ecstasy in a lifetime of brokenness, and a forever of dispassionate, joyful, perfect, endless but not-quite-so-delightful presence?

Part of me wanted to learn to be forever free from want, and the suffering it caused. The other part of me, at least for this brief passing moment of eternal Now, didn’t want anything at all.

 

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The Paradoxes of Presence

Ylva Trollstierna_fool

“The Fool” tarot card in Ylva Trollstierna’s “erotica” deck depicts a hermaphrodite “fool” on a precipice somewhat different from that shown in most tarot decks;
I’ve colourized the image

One year after beginning a personal Presence practice, what is most apparent to me are the paradoxes of striving to realize it:

  1. It’s usually a solitary pursuit, yet its purpose is to realize that we are all connected, all One.
  2. It’s often called “mindfulness”, yet its objective is ultimately to empty the mind of thoughts and reactive emotions and realize the mind is an illusion, a distraction.
  3. For many, it can take 10,000 hours, or a lifetime, to realize what can be “seen” in a second.
  4. Thousands of self-described “teachers” offer courses, retreats, seminars, videos and lessons in realizing it, yet the most respected of these say they are not gurus, not leaders, not teachers, merely people offering “pointers” that might allow us to realize, all by ourselves, what cannot be taught.
  5. Many of us believe we must prepare, ready ourselves to be who we already are, or that we are not yet ready to be who we already are.
  6. It seems to take a long time to realize that time does not exist, that the only thing that exists is the Now. Some are convinced it is not yet time to realize this, that they must spend more time in contemplation and inquiry “first”.
  7. An enormous amount of self-reflection seems involved in the process of realizing the “self” is an illusion, an unreal construct.
  8. Much thinking (contemplation, self-inquiry and other intellectual activity) seems to be involved in learning to let go of and not associate with our thoughts, and to get thoughts out of the way of just being.
  9. Much of the energy spent discovering who we really are seems to involve appreciating who and what we are not.
  10. For many, it seems the mind must be utterly exhausted in order to see how easy it is to just be.
  11. What holds most of us back, it seems, is fear of loss of identity, or pride in or attachment to our current identity, yet that identity is just a fiction; still, we are unable to let go of the story of our identity, our “personal history”, even though we know, at least intellectually, it is not us at all.
  12. Several of the people who speak most convincingly of awakening only reached that state when they were least at peace, in crisis; rather than “relaxing into spacious awareness” they crashed into it when they had no other choice — everything they had been holding on to was suddenly gone.

Mooji discusses these paradoxes with a metaphoric story: We are at the door/gateway to realization, to awakening, but just outside there is a large, noisy market with hundreds of people trying to sell us things, enticing us with delicious smells and wonderful promises, so we hold back, keep looking at these offerings here, on the known side, the comfortable side, the unconscious side. We decide we are not quite ready to go through, to see what is on the other side.

So we stay, promising ourselves that soon, tomorrow, next week, next year, we will be ready, we will go then.

And there are so many of us here! And some of them claim to have awakened, to be enlightened, to be teachers; so why are they still here?

For most humans it’s a gradual transition from constantly being engaged in the stream of thinking, being dragged along by the stream of thinking, one thing after another — including the thought “When am I going to awaken? What’s the point in carrying on if it hasn’t happened yet?”.

The transition from that to, at first, the occasional arising of something else — that heightened alertness or aliveness that replaces thinking (in which thinking can still take place but is no longer compulsive). It’s a space where really thinking is unnecessary. You have risen above thinking. That is the awakening.

— Eckhart Tolle

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments