Mandala of Being, based on a sketch © Richard Moss
I started today to write a rant about Obama, and about the mainstream media — a complaint that until we give up relying on the political and economic system and the media to bring about needed reforms “we’re never going to learn how the world really works, and then start making fundamental changes to our own personal beliefs and behaviour — which is the only way we’re ever really going to make a difference, to make the world a better place”.
But then I realized I’ve said all this before, and that I’d only be preaching to a choir, including myself — people who already appreciate these truths, but who, like me, are mostly ‘stuck’ trying to figure out how to change, how to start using that knowledge effectively, to make a real difference.
It occurred to me it might be more useful to readers for me to talk about how I have been trying to become ‘unstuck’.
My friend (both in real life and Second Life) Paul Heft and I have been talking a lot about this. After my Anxious Time article, Paul replied (in part):
The ordeal of a life in Anxious Time may be normal for modern civilization, but you recognize that such normality is pathological, so please point our way out of it. I suggest the way out involves deconstructing the world even to the point of deconstructing our personalities, our habits of thought, the stories we unconsciously act out–so that we can more consciously choose how to live.
You, and many of us readers, have already cast off so many limiting beliefs; why stop part way? … If we really are just space through which stuff (thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions) passes, why are we so stressed? Why can’t we just live… Why can’t we know the possibility of pain and sorrow…without feeling the victim of life or living in perpetual worry?
Those are the questions I feel it’s most important to ask right now as we strive to know how the world works. Sure, it’s always interesting to learn more details about our economic and political systems, threats of various sorts (climate change, pandemics, depression, war, fascism, limits to growth, institutionalized mind control through mass media), and ideas for the future (intentional communities, polyamorism, unschooling, localization, permaculture, innovative technologies). But let’s also wonder why we are constantly anxious; why our minds are so often caught up in past wrongs and future disasters that we are unable to be in and handle the present; why we so often claim ideals yet fail to live in ways that feel right.
Like me, Paul has done a lot of reading and tried a lot of approaches (Buddhism, meditation) as a means to, as he puts it, “help us deconstruct our selves– personality, beliefs, thoughts, emotions, mental states– so that we can discard the parts that distort reality and reveal the ‘true self’ that’s ordinarily hidden.” I’ve described this as learning to live in ‘Now Time’. I’ve claimed that wild creatures and perhaps some indigenous cultures (and even some artists) live their lives in Now Time, except during those moments when an external stress provokes the ‘fight or flight’ response and forces them to live momentarily in what I’ve called Anxious Time — the time in which most of us now live our whole lives.
Paul is currently reading Richard Moss’ book The Mandala of Being, and I was intrigued enough by his description of it to buy a copy myself (the first time, to my knowledge, I have ever bought a book in the ‘New Age’ section of the book store).
The book’s thesis (my paraphrasing) is this:
When we are not living in the Now, our minds take us to one of four ‘places': the past (where we recall stories of what happened, that we may feel guilt, nostalgia or regret about); the future (where we dream of an idyllic future, or worry about a catastrophic one); to judgements about ourselves (who we think we ‘are’ and should be, perhaps grandiosely or depressingly); or to judgements about others and the external environment (who/what we think they ‘are’ or should be, perhaps jealously, angrily or bitterly). When we are in these fictitious ‘places’ we are not ourselves. What we must do is learn to be aware of our lack of presence when we are in these other ‘places’, and how to bring ourselves back to the Now, so that we are continually ‘starting over’, beginning again and afresh, with none of the ‘gunk’ that is not us, being present Here and Now.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you can appreciate why I would find this compelling. The idea that modern humans have come to live so much in their heads that they are no longer really alive, and are constantly unhappy, is one I have floated here often. There was a recent anthropological/psychological study of prehistoric art and writing that even suggests this modern human idea of time and of ourselves as ‘individuals’ apart from all-life-on-Earth is an astonishingly recent cognitive development, the result of a modern social/culture propaganda (stemming largely from the invention of language) about reality that starts at birth and has literally rewired the human brain, so that living in Now Time, which comes so easily to most creatures, is almost impossible for us. No wonder we are always so anxious — that’s how the neural structures of our modern brains have been formed to ‘inform’ us (or more accurately misinform us) of who we ‘are’.
The problem for me with The Mandala of Being is that, while I am convinced that Moss is onto something very important, he doesn’t seem to be able to communicate it very well (either in writing or in his free audio seminars). I am inclined to believe that his problem in explaining his ideas (like the problem of many expert, infuriatingly happy meditators I know) is due to limitations of language — how can we possibly use language to explain that modern language and culture have led us to live fictional lives in Anxious Time, or how to bring ourselves back to non-linguistic Now Time?
(Heh, Gil Friend, who has a great new book on sustainable business out, just tweeted me to say he’d met Richard Moss and found him “masterful”.)
Our problem, Moss argues, is that we believe we are, and the world is, what we think. So we do not live life directly, and we don’t really know ourselves. Except in rare times (like when we are ‘in love’) we therefore ‘become’ who we are not, an idealized self with an idealized sense of the world. Others (e.g. church and school) reinforce this by telling us who we should be, and ultimately, we start to filter information that reinforces our (false) beliefs of what is true and ignores information that could tell us who we really are.
Even when we try to ‘pay attention’ to the moment, our intellect gets in the way, defining and analyzing what ‘attention’ is instead of allowing us to just experience it. Moss proposes some exercises to focus our attention first on some other object and then back towards ourselves, until we experience ourselves as a “space of no-thing-ness” that is “more truly you than anything you can imagine about yourself.” The space through which stuff passes! Or as Moss puts it “Who we ultimately are, in our essence, is a potential for awareness, but the experience of awareness itself is never reducible to a ‘thing’.”
Thomas King in his book The Truth About Stories says “stories are all we are”. King is from an indigenous culture, and has studied various cultures. So if as Moss argues, these stories about us are fiction, not who we really are at all, isn’t he saying exactly the opposite of King?
Stewart and Cohen in their book Figments of Reality, say we are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit…Our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. We are in essence a collective, they say. But Moss argues that we are not our bodies, singularly or collectively — ‘We’ are only awareness, a space, a no-thing.
Can these three conceptions of who ‘we’ ‘are’ — stories, organisms, and awareness — be reconciled?
That’s what I am trying to resolve as, with Paul, I work through this book.