Nirvana

nir

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth. – Lao Tzu

The laws of the Universe demand that everything remains perpetually in balance. Death and life appear simultaneously, though individually we usually only experience one of these poles at a time: last year, you celebrated the birth of a child; this year, you mourn the passing of a loved one. On an elemental level, disintegration and manifestation are a singular process as matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. The only realm untouched by the Universal law of balance (or, if you prefer, the eternally balanced stream of Tao) is that of conscious experience. Not of Consciousness, mind you, but individual temporary conscious experience. Because we are unable to apprehend anything more than a mere fraction of the information around us through our limited sense organs, we feel as if any given moment in time is one of good fortune or bad luck. This, in turn, causes us to invent and conduct ourselves according to such conceptual pairs as justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, sinner and saint, good and evil.

This is why human life is so unnecessarily difficult.

The Buddhist concept of Nirvana is wildly misunderstood in Western culture. Much like we’ve done with the idea of karma, we have tailored the word to align with our own philosophical understandings so that most people consider it the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven. It isn’t. Nirvana is not a place, nor is it an afterlife reward for having lived a morally upstanding life. It is simply a state of mind that sees reality as it is and consequently elevates the individual who achieves it to a condition no longer vulnerable to the suffering of ignorance. Though many auspicious lamas throughout the ages have claimed attainment of such a state, I tend to think of it more as an ideal to guide us in our psycho-spiritual development.

I know from direct experience that practices designed to aid an individual in the nurturing of wisdom and calm abiding are effective. Not all are to everyone’s taste, which is why there are a myriad of diverse meditative and yogic techniques for our correspondingly diverse mindsets. I utilize what methods work best for me and can attest to an enormous personal transformation over the course of the past five years from a surly, selfish, nihilistic drunk to…well, whatever the hell you’d describe me as now. But no matter how one might choose to describe me now, it’s an improvement, I assure you. However, I am not enlightened. I do not dwell in Nirvana as I am still just as vulnerable to the dualistic illusions of Samsara as anyone. So in speaking of the Eastern wisdom traditions as I’m obviously wont to do, understand that I only seek a lessening of personal and interpersonal suffering, not its complete eradication. Though I know it’s not always apparent in the words I utilize, I am always attempting to approach matters with the motivation of pragmatism as opposed to divine mysticism.

We tend to base our views of vital issues on the concept of time as it relates to our average human lifespan. For instance, if a person spends the majority of a lifetime struggling for social justice or equal rights and in their twilight years injustice and inequality only seem to have gotten worse, this person’s final thought may be that it was all for naught. That is a shame, because every noble struggle is worthwhile. However, if we really care about such causes for reasons beyond our own self-satisfaction, we need to realize that we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetimes that are but a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Acting from compassionate virtue must be its own reward. Every action sooner or later yields a corresponding reaction; incidentally, that’s the actual definition of karma, not some supernatural system of punishment and reward. So your virtuous actions will yield positive results…just maybe not as soon as you’d wish.

Due to my personal predispositions, I tend to be quite passionate about issues of equality and rights. This goes hand in hand with my spiritual understanding of the inherent equanimity of all beings. As a result, those who have read my ramblings for any length of time have come to expect occasional admonishments of those who discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other surface-level classifications. Effective writing often demands a certain amount of hyperbolic idealism and absolutism, but I understand how things really work. In order for my words and actions to have any effect whatsoever, they must be shared and practiced by countless other individuals (and, of course, they are — usually FAR more vitally) because it is the collective mind that has to shift if any real, lasting change is to occur. Also, to avoid succumbing to discouragement, I have to understand that a massive psychic transformation on such a scale takes time. Whether I live to be 100 years old or die tomorrow, I will not be afforded the time to witness the effects of the virtuous human action of those currently inhabiting the planet. If this is the case, why struggle? Why care? Because spiritual evolution is not about the individual — it is about the forward motion of embodied Consciousness. If our selfish vantage points tell us that such efforts are futile, then we’re missing the point. Those who came before us brought us to the world we currently inhabit. We are doing the same, for better or for worse, for those who will come after us. If you are a parent, you might have a better instinctual understanding of the importance of leaving a better world for future generations. But this is something we all need to understand, whether or not we plan to pass on our genetic code.

So yes, the problems we currently face are bigger than any one of us. From the standpoint of individual efficacy, they are quite literally insurmountable. Yet I know in my heart that if we can take a broader view and drop our personal arrogance and self-protective attitudes enough to join hands and form alliances with those whose lifestyles and outlooks we may not understand, the prospects for a brighter and more cooperative future are great. Here’s hoping we can all make an effort to do just that. And if you still need a little bit of pride to sweeten the deal, I think it’s perfectly harmless to envision a new generation that truly appreciates the bold and kind efforts of its predecessor. We should aspire to go down in history, not infamy. To paraphrase a line from a cheesy Belinda Carlisle song, Nirvana is a place on Earth.  Potentially, of course.  By tapping that potential, we become timeless.

 

Not For The Faint of Heart

Impermanence

Everything is changeable. Everything appears and disappears. There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death. – Shakyamuni Buddha

Though they dispense universal messages applicable to all sentient beings, the wisdom traditions of the East are a hard sell to Westerners unless the truths contained therein are watered down to an acceptably comfortable level. Invariably, when attempts are made to do just that, the end result is a pointless re-rendering of ego-stroking Western thought at the expense of the very wisdom purported to be at the heart of these impotent translations. If this is the only presentation of these philosophies that we are willing to digest, then we aren’t ready to understand the most crucial points that form the basis of Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta.

We cling to ourselves as if there was actually something inherent in our impermanent and interdependent lives worth protecting. That is the entire problem. I can and have dissected this succinct truth and viewed it from multiple angles in the hopes that one of my redundant screeds will break through the mental barriers of those who bristled at previous presentations of the same basic, uncomplicated problem. But I play the fool when I don my guru’s hat and attempt to convince others that I have even the slightest insight into the human condition. If I truly possessed such wisdom, it would be above reproach and the arguments raised in its wake wouldn’t be worthy of consideration. Yet, more often than not, the arguments raised are more worthy of consideration than my original point.  So I continue to let others witness my habit of desperately trying to convince myself of the veracity of my own recently co-opted worldview.  Yet I still feel there’s a method to my madness.

Ego is a Freudian and therefore Western concept. In fact, the solidification of basic ignorance into psychology’s premier bogeyman could only have been accomplished in a culture that refuses to differentiate between individual freedom and personal glorification. This is why an idea like that of enlightenment being a state of non-discriminatory awareness sounds like a contradiction to us. If a system of self-betterment fails to treat each of us as precious, unique and important, it offends our culturally selfish sensibilities. The lama says that attachment is generated by an erroneous view in the separateness of the person or thing we adore or covet. The Western student counters, “But what about my beautiful wife? My adorable child?” The lama stoically repeats, “avoid attachment”. The student rolls up his yoga mat and storms out of the temple, incredulous that such an allegedly wise man could dare question the worth of the key players in his little myopic world. The lama does not flinch because he realizes that the wayward student was not ready for what he had to offer. For some, unvarnished reality is just too much to handle. A philosophy that refuses to cater to our egos and justify our stories is often viewed as cold, cruel and inhuman.

But I am as sure as I can be that we are the ones who have it backwards. Real love does not engage in attachment. Real love does not fear the loss of its object because everyone and everything is included in its scope. If Eastern notions of interdependence don’t speak to you, perhaps discoveries in the field of quantum physics are a better place to gain the same insights. Buddhism approaches this truth through liberal use of the word emptiness, something that sounds fundamentally negative to our ears. However, what is meant by the word in this context is that nothing and no one has an inherent, independent existence apart from the interconnected whole. It does not imply that the seemingly separate people we meet on our journey are devoid of worth. That’s the view of nihilism. On the contrary, the understanding of universal interdependence is meant to increase our compassion for others by reminding us that they are not other than ourselves. This means, also, that we cannot discriminate with our love; those we like to view as evil in an effort to feel morally superior are also just us, essential interlocking gears in the mechanism of consciously apprehended phenomena.

When I say that our energy is indestructible, many misinterpret this as an allusion to a soul that will retain the predilections of its earthly ego. We think we want to live forever because we have never pondered the implications of such a nightmare scenario. Death is implicit in the word life. Just as there can be no front without a back, an eternal experience is an oxymoron. Pining for this sort of personality immortality is the tragic result of superstition born of selfish grasping and fear of non-existence. The Heart Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most famous and esoteric texts, asserts that there is no existence and no non-existence. This means that the Universal dance of the unitive Consciousness goes on in perpetuity but our terms of individual experience do not. So, yes, the energy that currently animates me is eternal, but when I draw my final breath, the experience of being Paul is over. We are all rivulets making our way gradually back to the river to rejoin our original source and forget our temporary and illusory roles as individuals.

When you catch a glimpse of a rainbow arcing its illumined beauty across a cloudy sky, you would be a fool not to stop and marvel at its ephemeral glory. But you would be just as big a fool if you tried to chase it and make it your own. With every step you take towards your goal, it becomes more and more insubstantial. This is true of everything. Retain your sense of wonder and joy, your bittersweet vulnerability in the face of heartbreaking beauty. But don’t seek to solidify the Universe’s sleight of hand lest you vulgarize the magic. You cannot possess a single thing, no matter how much you may yearn to do so. But you can dance with everything for as long as you are afforded the opportunity. The trick to this very serious business is to learn how to take none of it seriously. Unselfconscious laughter is the expressive vibration of divinity.

 

Karma

dunchen

From Lhasa, the deep lowing of the dungchens roused Tenzin Gampo Norbu from his slumber in an antechamber of Shechen Monastery.  The old monk struggled to his feet, grabbed his saffron robe from a hook on the wall, and moved silently down the corridor towards the shrine for his morning meditation.  As he approached the ornate altar and settled somewhat painfully into the lotus position, he chuckled to himself that once again he was the first to arrive for sunrise devotions, the new batch of novice monks under his tutelage not accustomed to waking at this hour.  He would give them a few more days before donning a disciplinarian persona.

The lama placed his palms together and began intoning mantras.  “Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha…Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha…Om gate –“

                Suddenly, the monk’s meditative state was broken with a start as his mind processed what it had been seeing yet not seeing in his non-contemplative awareness.  The golden statue of Avilokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, at whose feet he had sat every morning for the past thirty-five years, was crying blood red tears.  The subtle smile upon the statue’s lips remained, but the viscous liquid escaping its eyes in periodic droplets stained the brilliance of his lovingly sculpted cheeks with russet trails.  He rose tentatively from his straw mat and approached the icon.  With the tip of his index finger, he wiped at one of the fresh narrow stains and was startled that it had the consistency of actual blood.  He had heard tales of such phenomena associated with Christian idols, recounted to him by the frustrated missionaries who had periodically visited Tibet decades before the Chinese invasion in a futile effort to convert the devout Buddhists of the country, but had always secretly guessed that these were simply myths accepted as truth by those desperate Western eternity-seekers.  Invariably, such “miracles” were interpreted by the faithful as harbingers of grave events to come.  But there were no parallel legends in the Mahayana tradition.  Still, he felt most unsettled, feeling a new empathy toward those few proselytizing westerners who had been rugged and determined enough to traverse the dangerous Himalayan terrain.  Settling back onto his mat, he pondered the nature of the great Bodhisattva.  The emanation of Chenrezig, as this perfect embodiment of lovingkindness was also known, was only apt to intervene in corporeal affairs when someone, somewhere was suffering unspeakably…and alone, long abandoned by anyone who would care to feel a single iota of compassion.  Rinpoche bowed his head and chanted anxiously.  Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum…

 ********************************

                Ed sat bolt upright in his damp bed, slick with sweat,  bangs of gray hair plastered to his forehead.  Another nightmare, replete with phantasmagoric images so real and persistent that they had come to serve as his defacto alarm clock.  Until recently, the contents of his dreams had evaporated within the first few moments of awakening, his several hour long “nightcap” effectively dampening his brain’s ability to maintain a steady state of REM sleep.  But ever since Joan died, he had been unable to preemptively drink away the frightful reveries of his subconscious.  These were no mere nightmares, either.  Each scene that had played behind his darting eyeballs for almost a year now was a meticulous reproduction of an event that had actually occurred in his past.  Invariably, these dreams caused him to relive long forgotten moments wherein he had behaved most monstrously towards Joan, his children, his colleagues, even himself; but regret was not something to which Ed was inclined.  No, these relentless chimeras bothered him for an entirely different reason: they seemed, somehow, to be retributive warnings, as though some great avalanche of cosmic justice was poised to come crashing down on him.

Leaning on his walker for support, Ed threw the bathrobe with the faded VFW insignia over his shoulders and plodded into the kitchen.  He grabbed a tumbler out of the cabinet, filled it halfway with flat store-brand cola and topped it off with a generous shot of Scotch whiskey.  Having no further need for the soda, he placed it back into the refrigerator and left the half gallon of Scotch on the table for easy access.  Resting the glass between his distended beer belly and the top rung of the walker, he hobbled to his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room.

*Click*

“…and several members of the Congressional committee have questioned the President’s reluctance to take a firmer stand against Hamas in the wake of last week’s violent unrest…”

“Fuggin’ commie Muslim ape,” Ed slurred aloud in obedience to the Fox News staff whose job it was to ensure that men of his generation never reflected upon the validity of their views or the fear behind their hatred.  Letting the sound of the newscast fade to a background hum, he hoisted himself laboriously out of the chair and snatched the bottle of whiskey from the kitchen, returning and placing it on the end table next to him.

Last night, he relived a particularly animated shouting match with Joan that must have occurred some time in the late 1970’s.  Ed bellowing maniacally at Joan for any minor offense, real or perceived, had been par for the course throughout their 40 year marriage.  But on this particular occasion, in the hallway just outside the kitchen where the kids were slurping up the chocolately-brown milk from their Cocoa Puffs, Joan had had the audacity to yell back.  This uncharacteristic display of courage arose from the fact that Ed had now stolen from his children, though he didn’t remember doing so; the Dutch Masters cigar box they had been filling with babysitting and lawn mowing funds to finance a family vacation to Disney World now empty in Karen’s sock drawer.  Karen and her brother Joseph tried to ignore the increasing volume of the argument until – WHAM! A sickening sound of bone into flesh as Ed delivered a shattering blow to his wife’s nose and left her whimpering on the floor as he stormed off to the bathroom.

Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, one; clink-glug-splosh-gulp, two; clink-glug-slosh…

Ed wondered fuzzily if these moralistic nighttime reminders were sent by God as a warning or by Satan as a mockery.  The two principal polar entities of the Judeo-Christian mythos offered the most simplistic, and therefore acceptable, explanations for everything that could possibly occur and as such, Ed never questioned their validity, though he did seem to have trouble understanding the rules of the game.   Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink-glug-splosh-gulp…darkness crept into the periphery of his vision as his head settled back onto the recliner, a sporadic buzzsaw snore lifting his Adam’s apple nearly clean out of his throat.

Five year old Joseph ran across the modest patch of urban lawn that passed for a front yard, arms outstretched, barely able to contain his excitement as his dad exited the car in his rumpled business suit and started toward the house.  “Dad!  Dad!  I got a A on my science project! “  As he latched onto his father’s pant leg in delirious elation, a curious foreign scent filled his nostrils.  “What’s that funny smell, Daddy?  It smells like a lady.”  Rather than place the blame on himself for overlooking the lingering perfume on his clothes, Ed mentally raged at the whore who should’ve known better than to wear such a pungent fragrance when meeting a married client and grabbed his son forcefully by the throat.  “If you say a goddamn word to yer mother about that funny smell, I will kill you.  I will take you down to the basement, tie you to a chair, and slit your stupid little throat with a razor, d’you understand me?!”  “yes..s-sir,” he managed weakly through his constricted windpipe.  “I SAID DO YOU HEAR ME, DAMMIT!  TALK LIKE A MAN!”  Ed relaxed his grip slightly, revealing bilateral bruises on either side of the boy’s neck.  “Yes, Sir,” he said again.

“What the—“ Ed was jarred back into wakefulness by the sound of a semi’s horn just outside the front window.  “Shit,” he whispered, wiping a line of drool from the corner of his mouth.

Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink…Ed dangled the bottle impotently above the rim of the glass for several dumbfounded moments.   “Son of a —great, just great.”  He rose from his seat and pulled back the threadbare curtain from the front window, double-checking that his car had made it back home with him yesterday.  Without bothering to grab his coat, he started toward the door.  Just as he reached for the doorknob, his foot caught a snag in the carpet and he felt himself falling headlong, as if in slow motion, until he hit the floor with a dull thud.  “Shit!!  This crummy house will be the death of me,” he grumbled as he attempted to struggle to his feet, but to no avail.  The brittle bones in both of his ankles had snapped in his twisted descent, though he was too inebriated to feel the pain.  He glanced helplessly back at his chair and saw that the telephone was in its charger on the wall behind it, far out of reach.  Like an upside-down tortoise, Ed wobbled back and forth, realizing in increasingly overwhelming waves of desperation that he would not be able to stand up of his own accord, no matter how hard he tried.  Nobody would come to his rescue, since nobody ever came to see him, including his children who had long since moved out of state with their respective families.  For the first time in his seventy-five years, Ed began to feel remorse, albeit of a selfish variety.  No one to save him.  No one to forgive him.  No one to fetch him liquor as he convalesced.  No one to bury him when he died.  No one.

Already the withdrawals were starting.  He clawed at the shag of the carpet, the pain in his ankles becoming steadily more acute, awaiting the onslaught of delerium tremens.  From above, a commercial on the TV taunted him: “Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, made with the finest grains, aged and filtered through sugar maple charcoal.  Don’t settle for anything less.”  Ed whimpered as a solitary tear meandered down his stubbly face and came to rest in his ear.  Outside, across the street, children were laughing in the late morning sunlight.  Pressing his palms over his ears like a petulant child refusing to listen to his mother’s orders, Ed began to pray through his chapped lips.  “Our fadder, who art’n heaven, hallobeethy name…”, simultaneously counting each pass of the dusty blades of the ceiling fan.

*************************************

                Tenzin Gampo Norbu opened the leatherbound volume of the Bardo Todol in his lap.  This antique edition of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead had once belonged to the 14th Karmapa and had been given to him by the Dalai Lama himself after his ordination at the Potala Palace.  His eyes fell upon the page to which he had opened:

The Lower Circles of Samsara

II. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

those men whose passions overruled their innate wisdom will spend a thousand times a thousand kalpas in this realm, until the karma caused by selfish grasping has been exhausted.  ever-starved and parched, their pinhole throats will not accommodate so much as a single swallow of sustenance, though temptations arise unabated and just out of reach…

                The monk had been unconsciously licking his lips, an alien desire growing to overwhelming proportions in his mind.  Breaking out in a series of cold sweats, he slowly realized that he was detoxifying, though the precepts he had taken as a boy ensured that he had never tasted a drop of liquor throughout his long life.  He thought back to yesterday morning, the scarlet tears on the countenance of Avilokitesvara, the furious Tonglen session he had performed for an unknown person whose suffering was so great that it elicited the grief of the Bodhisattva.  Tonglen, the practice of taking on another’s suffering through the in-breath, extending warmth and compassion through the out-breath, finally revealed itself to be so much more than the symbolic gesture he had always assumed.  Closing the book, he stood and made his way to the front gate of the monastery, in search of a peasant vendor selling strong barley-brewed chang at one of the scandalous roadside stands dotting the road from Kham to Lhasa.

 

The Magic Interval

avi

Well, if it’s so deep you don’t think that you can speak about it, don’t ever think that you can’t change the past and the future. You might not think so now, but just you wait and see — someone will come to help you. – Kate Bush

There is a gap between action and reaction. An infinitesimal interval, a flash between off and on, too fleeting for the conscious mind to perceive. As far as we’re concerned, this pause does not exist. But it is, in the truest sense, the most crucial moment of everything we’ve ever experienced, said or done. In fact, it’s the moment of creation. What is created in this unregistered blip on our internal radar screens is the essence of all that will follow.

Someone cuts me off in traffic. Later on, I relate the story with bravado, “As soon as that asshole pulled in front of me, I laid on the horn and flipped him off.” Wrong. As soon as ‘that asshole’ pulled in front of me, my subconscious scanned my entire history of memories, conflicts, opinions, prejudices, humiliations, fears, perceived victories and perceived failures. It searched ego’s stock of masks, roles and images. Regardless of its final choice, still it imperceptibly looked at the level of importance I attached right at that moment to the virtuous notions of empathy, understanding and forgiveness. Finally, it decided that understanding the possible motives of a total stranger at rush hour was not worth the effort, then – and only then – did it instruct my conscious mind to pummel my horn and extend the obscene gesture. That’s an awful lot of activity occurring in less than a nanosecond, but still I made the regrettable choice in this hypothetical traffic confrontation.

Some might ask why it was the regrettable choice. That driver cut you off, right? That’s dangerous! Fuck him! And of course, it was a pretty mild road rage event that I just described and thus probably wouldn’t really have had all that significant of an effect on the recipient of my ire. Within minutes, all involved would most likely have forgotten all about it. Except that we never forget. Everything we do, everything we feel, everything we say creates the perpetually new paradigm called “You at this moment”. That’s the only “you” there is (and even that you’s existence is debatable, but one convoluted topic at a time, right?).

We can learn to gradually access that gap through meditation. The type of meditation to which I’m referring is not a matter of meditating about anything. It’s the practice of non-conceptual awareness. And it’s a bitch. I’m not trying to say that the act of sitting still is a bitch. Sometimes I can sit still for hours on end and I assure you, it’s easy as pie (again, contemplating ‘just how easy is pie?’ would require a blog post unto itself). What is exceedingly difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, is achieving the willingness to let go of yourself completely. Many people who are keen to embrace a new-agey lifestyle filled with yoga and mantras and meditation tend to define letting go of themselves as something whose progress they can mark by how many minutes or hours they dedicate to self-conscious breathing techniques and how good of a write-up their “guru” received in the Shambhala Tricycle. This kind of “spirituality” is futile. Ego runs rampant through such endeavors and all one can reasonably learn from years of this kind of spiritual materialism (thank you, Trungpa Rinpoche) is what flavor of incense they prefer to have smoldering in the yoga studio.

To lose oneself completely means to forget who you are – to stop the flow of thoughts that seem to come at you from the past and the future. This only sounds frightening to those who haven’t tried it. But in fact, every single one of us enters a realm of no-self every single night in dreamless sleep. You, quite literally, die every time you drift into unconsciousness. When you wake up, everything looks as it did when last you were conscious and this makes you assume that you have been alive in an uninterrupted time stream whose duration is always increasing. Yes, your vital functions continued as you slept. Your body did not die, obviously. But is your body “you”? If you define yourself by your physical form, then you are a completely different person every seven years as every cell died and was replaced according to your DNA blueprint.

Your mind isn’t “you”, either, but it is capable of crystalline awareness unfettered by notions of self. This type of awareness isn’t thought. It does not express itself in language or symbols. When a bird swoops from a tree in a graceful arc in front of eyes seeing without self, without concepts, it is seen – and more clearly than usual, because the experience isn’t polluted with the concepts of “bird” or “tree”.

Why is it so important for us to learn how to access this Mind, this Self that is by its very nature unconcerned with self? Because it only exists in the gap, the moment of creation. Without this Mind that lives in the gap, the Universe would not have materialized and there would be no life. This Mind belongs to no one because the apparent existence of separate personalities with individual destinies is an illusion. A man-made fiction. The gap that I previously described as infinitesimal is also eternal. And we have always been abiding there as one. Before we were “we”, We created the Universe, and We continue to create it moment to moment, but non-linearly, always now.

The imaginary man in the car who cut me off was me. He was you. My split-second decision to express my anger actually resulted in a middle finger extended directly at my own face. This is pure folly. Be kind to yourself. Love yourself. The only way to do this is to love everyone with perfect equanimity. Every single person you meet is a mirror. I look at you looking at me looking at you and down the rabbit hole we go! Our bodies and minds become insubstantial, leaving only the Love that plays a never ending game of hide and seek in and with our temporary selves. If you can’t enjoy this game, it’s not worth playing. So play on and enjoy every moment, my beautiful friends.

Spooky Action At A Distance

1-einstein-blunder

In scientific circles, the debates between Albert Einstein and quantum physics revolutionary Nils Bohr in the 1920s were just as significant as were the Lincoln-Douglas debates to historians. A famous exchange occurred after Bohr finished summarizing the notion of “quantum entanglement”, or the perpetual interaction of two sub-atomic particles regardless of their proximity in space. Flummoxed at this bizarre new theory (and perhaps feeling that his famous relativity theory was in jeopardy due to its dependence on Newtonian physics), Einstein bellowed, “God does not throw dice!” Without missing a beat, Bohr deadpanned in response, “Don’t tell God what to do.”

Admittedly, I am at best a scientific hack. You know the kind: one of those people who has read a few books on a certain topic and henceforth presents himself to the world as one of its foremost authorities. The ego is a funny thing, even though every book on Eastern philosophy I’ve read insists that it isn’t a thing at all. Sometimes I know better than the authors of the books I read. Scientist Supreme. Guru to the Lamas. That’s me. If you’ve heard it from me, it must be true.

False modesty through hyperbolic arrogance aside, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about most of the time. Then again, I suspect no one does. Most people specialize in one field of study and spend their lives exploring every conceivable aspect of it. We have physicists, biologists, astronomers, philosophers, theologians, anthropologists and sundry experts all trying to answer the BIG questions via their respective disciplines. I think this is why, after centuries of exploration and contemplation, we haven’t arrived at anything like a consensus.

From the aforementioned BIG questions, I am going to examine two of them here: 1) Is there a soul?; and 2) Is there a God? Yes, I realize those are arguably two of the most convoluted questions I could possibly choose, but worry not – I will be brief. No mysteries are going to be solved in this post, other than perhaps the mystery of why there are so many disparate and contradictory answers to these two questions.

Let’s just get my best guess answers to those 2 queries out of the way: 1) not as such; 2) not as such. Sorry, but that’s the best I can do, Folks. And quite frankly, it’s about the best that anyone can do because, you see, these are unanswerable questions. Every religion claims otherwise, of course, and this is why I have a hard-wired disrespect for religion in general. All of the major Western religions believe in a soul that is essentially an eternal spirit underlying and animating the physical body. At death, it is posited that this soul, which is identical to one’s personality (it remembers and even “watches over” surviving family members, for instance) takes up residence in either Heaven, Hell or Purgatory depending upon its behavior during its embodied time on Earth.

Thankfully, our friends to the East have a different interpretation that has far fewer parallels to a Brothers Grimm morality fairy tale. The Hindus believe in a soul or Atman that isn’t a microcosm of one’s personality or ego, but quite the opposite: an inner, immortal spark of awareness that doesn’t just have “godlike” qualities, it is God (or Brahman), witnessing its own creation through innumerable sets of eyes. Upon death, this spark simply rejoins the Godhead. Finally, the Buddhists – in one of the few tenets of that tradition that smacks of stubborn contrariness – insist that there is no immortal soul. They coined the term Anatman, just to drive the point home a little further. Since the core of that philosophy deals with the interdependence of all things and the emptiness of phenomena, it seemed important to apply this view to the soul (Atman), too. However, before all of you atheists and agnostics out there start thinking that perhaps Buddhism might be an ideal spiritual pursuit for one of your skeptical nature, be aware that the Buddhist argument against the soul is linguistic at best. After that big, wonderful middle finger to the notion of immortality, they then go on to describe how all sentient beings are caught in the web of Samsara for “infinite lifetimes”. There is a complicated afterlife cosmology, referred to as the Bardo, that describes in excruciating detail the nature of the various realms your (don’t you dare call it a soul!) will be thrust into again and again until the highly unlikely event of one attaining “enlightenment”. When pressed, they will call this element that survives death a “karmic continuum” or a “mind stream”. To-may-to, to-mah-to. It’s the same damn concept.

Of all these theology-based theories of the soul, the Hindu Atman makes the most sense to me. It goes along with my pantheistic view that every single one of us is not just indispensable to but IS this thing we call God. More than that, since this outlook doesn’t describe this spark of divinity as having anything to do with our individual temporary egos and it dispenses of the childlike anthropomorphic view of god pervasive in Judeo-Christian circles, I’d hazard a guess that it’s the view held by most non-atheistic physicists, too.

Quantum mechanics has helped to proliferate that previously rare animal, the “non-atheistic physicist”. For the issue of the soul, it is precisely the previously mentioned quantum entanglement (or “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein called it) that gives some renewed credibility to the concept. At the sub-atomic level, when two particles (knots of energy) become entangled, they remain so indefinitely. Particles that have been found to affect one another’s behavior have been separated and moved to laboratories thousands of miles away from each other, and the action of one still has the same instantaneous effect on the other as before. Extrapolating this phenomenon out to the extreme macro level, the fact that each of our bodies contains multitudes of particles that may be entangled with other particles all over the Universe seems to imply that there is constant communication between the Universe and ourselves. The laws of conservation of matter and energy take care of the immortality bit in relation to such particles (or waves…or wavicles).

My use of that awkward term at the end of the last paragraph was methodical. The other exceedingly bizarre concept to come out of quantum theory is that of the need of an observer in order for any event to take place. A quantum particle’s position can be measured, as can its trajectory, but never both. That is because a human observer, even with the aid of the most advanced observational equipment, can only concentrate on one thing at a time. You can either view a particle’s position in space OR you can view its path. For the former, an observer sees it as a particle; the latter, a wave. So which is it? Much like Schrodinger’s poor dead-alive cat, it is both until such time as someone looks at it, causing it to suddenly “choose” a definitive nature. But really, the observer did the choosing. Again, extrapolating this notion to the extreme, a creator/infinite observer is implied in order to explain our own existence. It looks at us causing us to be and we, in turn, look at little particles under microscopes, causing them to be. I can dig all this, and it does seem to give veracity to many Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu philosophical points. But there is no morality to any of this. No “justice”, as religious folks in the West seem to insist MUST be a part of the grand plan. But what if it isn’t? What if we invented the concept of “justice” as a biological imperative (and a psychological salve) but the Universe, the All, the Whatever-the-Fuck-You-Wish-To-Call-It has no such sense of right and wrong? To me, it’s far more of a stretch to believe that it DOES give a crap about whether we are good or evil than that it doesn’t. For a start, both “good” and “evil” are completely subjective notions, so who’s to say that god, were he/she/it so inclined, would even get it right according to our judgments?

Finally, although I can accept the idea that I am god and you are god and she is god and he is god and it is god and they are god…I cannot accept the idea that our identities survive our physical death. And what this means, ultimately, is that my vision of the “afterlife” is exactly the same as that of atheists and nihilists. In short, nada. I just take far longer to arrive at that conclusion than they do. Incidentally, I am available to give classroom lectures at local elementary schools if you get the feeling that your children are growing up to be far less fucked up than you are and hence need a good dose of confusion injected into their precocious little minds.

The Universal Organism

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Where does your body end? Most people would answer, “at the skin”, and probably consider the question rhetorical because, of course, everyone knows the answer to that, right? Wrong. An average sized individual’s skin contains approximately 3 trillion pores. These pores act as a two-way ventilation system for gases, liquids and particles released and absorbed by the body’s internal dynamic processes. Without them, life with its reliance on environmental interdependence or symbiosis would not be possible. All elements – water, oxygen, sunlight – are simultaneously internal and external. Ruminating on this causes the boundaries we perceive between ourselves and other phenomena to grow fuzzier and fuzzier until they finally become utterly insubstantial.

Newtonian physics and Western religion have been equally guilty in fomenting the erroneous notion of independent things and lifeforms set against a backdrop of space and propelled by energy. Oddly enough, the Chinese tradition of Taoist thought and the Indian tradition of Buddhist thought argued correctly, as it turns out, that all “things” as well as space (emptiness) are a single fluid process – and they managed to do so about 5,000 and 2,500 years, respectively, before the advent of quantum physics. Since the Western mind has been so thoroughly conditioned both by scripture and incomplete science to view the Universe as essentially a grand-scale game of billiards with the moral imperative of winning for every life form on the table, the roughly century-old discipline of quantum and theoretical physics hasn’t significantly affected our way of thinking yet, even though it has produced many technological innovations that we feel we cannot live without but whose workings the vast majority of us do not even begin to understand. Fans of Neil Degrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking might have a better, albeit rudimentary understanding of the bizarre quantum world and its counter-intuitive activity but most of us who fall into this category only analyze these issues with better accuracy while intently watching an episode of Cosmos or re-reading A Brief History of Time (or composing annoyingly loquacious blog posts).

I don’t intend for this to be a physics essay, per se. There is a vital spiritual message to be gleaned from the strange happenings going on in the quantum world, one that has the potential to transform humanity’s consciousness in radical but enormously positive ways. What if you were to suddenly internalize the truth that what we call the Universe is actually a single unitive conscious energy field? When I say internalize, that means to go further than just intellectual acceptance. It means to feel it, to know through meditative experience that all phenomena one apprehends through the senses are extensions of ourselves and vice versa. Would the understanding that separate things and identities are nothing more than convenient contrivances engender more empathy for others? Would it not make sense to treat others with boundless compassion and kindness since they are really just extensions of yourself having a temporary and illusory individual experience just like you?

How’s this for something that really doesn’t matter: there is no such thing as matter. Down at the subatomic level, “particles” start doing very strange things. In fact, they start BEING very strange things. A subatomic particle’s position can be observed, as can its trajectory, but never at the same time. This is because these particles behave according to our observation and even expectation. Consciousness itself dictates their observed behavior. If one wishes to view a particle’s position, it will appear at a certain point in space as a definite physical particle. If one wishes to view its trajectory through space, it will appear as a wave pattern. Some physicists have dubbed these dual-natured particles “wavicles”, a clumsy term that pretty much gets to the heart of the matter while adding an aesthetically awful word to the scientific parlance. The significance to this post of the particle/wave pattern in the quantum realm is that it makes implicit the idea that everything is energy. What we call matter is nothing more than concentrated energy along a limited channel – a “knot” of energy, so to speak. When we speak of energy, we don’t usually talk about “this energy over here” and “that energy over there”, because we tend to view it as a single interconnected force. Well, even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day and accordingly, we of the Western mindset actually managed to get that one right. What we’ve failed to realize is that energy is all that there is. What would happen if this understanding were to become an integral part of the 21st century Western zeitgeist? It’s impossible to say, really, but I can hazard a guess. As more and more people are born into a world that holds the correct view of mutual interdependence, the false ideas of separateness – of us and them – would gradually lose their influence on society. How can one truly hate another based on the old ideas of distinction – race, ethnicity, religion, gender, politics – when it is truly understood that all of these seemingly disparate organisms are all just in and of and encompassing the same exact field of energy-consciousness? To put that in monotheistic terms (which I hope will be completely unnecessary for those born into future generations), all is God. All and everyone. Our personal opinions of others do not change this. Whether I love you, hate you or just view you with indifference, you are as necessary to my existence as oxygen, as am I to yours.

If such an understanding of reality were ubiquitous, when and how would the desire for war arise? Persecution? Hatred? Inequality? Injustice? It seems to me that not only would the need or proclivity for such negative concepts abate, they would become utterly meaningless, receding into the history of humanity’s bad ideas to join the Flat Earth and Earth-centric views that dominated our earliest thought.

But would this perhaps have the side-effect of making mankind too homogeneous? I doubt it. There would still be ample room for individual creativity and innovation, probably more so in the absence of interpersonal strife. Not to mention, other than its general biology and capacity of intellect, I am certain that my dog isn’t anything like your dog. That’s why we talk about our dogs: they all have individual personalities, quirks, preferences, habits and capabilities. If they didn’t, all one would have to say about his or her pet is “dog” and everyone would know exactly what that animal is like. But if that doesn’t work in the case of canines, think how much less it’s applicable in the realm of humans. I predict that we would transform into a life form more fascinatingly cooperative and creative than anything we can currently imagine. So…why don’t we get down to business in squaring our psyches with actual reality before we as a species blow ourselves right off the fucking map, no? This strikes me as a much more vital endeavor than creating yet another version of the iPhone that absolutely no one needs.

Cyanide Soup For The Soul

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Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment. – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Over the past few years, I have spent countless hours engaged in heated debate with my friend Bernie about a pair of concepts that taken together seem to create Buddhism’s most glaring contradiction. Earlier this week, a blogger I follow also raised the question of how to justify the belief in reincarnation with the Buddhist notion of Anatman (literally “no soul”). Some clues to the resolution of this paradox can be found in words attributed to Gautama Buddha, the gist of which were admonishments to a disciple upon being questioned about the existence of a soul that if these are one’s concerns when he hasn’t even figured out how to control his own mind, then he is asking the wrong questions and grasping at the extreme of eternalism. This morning, it finally dawned on me that these allegories might just be sufficient to put the matter to rest.

In questioning the logic of the coexistence of reincarnation and Anatman in the Buddhadharma, I was approaching the problem from a distinctly Western mindset; in other words, an ego-driven desire to have everything make sense in a rational context. First of all, let’s look at this Freudian hypothesis of ego. Ego is an abstract idea; it isn’t something that can be located within the physical body or the brain, nor is it a spirit underlying our thoughts and actions. It is a psychological construct that is sustained by man’s fear of non-existence. The word itself was coined as a sort of umbrella term encompassing every self-conscious trick of the mind that serves to imbue the individual with earthly pride and faith in his or her own infinite duration. This can almost make it seem like quite a handy device to minimize our fears and anxieties, but ultimately, it ends up trapping each of us in an ever-growing web of imagined phobias and enemies.

The monotheism of the West feeds the egotism of its adherents by insisting on the existence of an eternal soul within each of us whose job it is to indulge the capricious whims of its incomprehensible and often cruel foreman named God. This concept creates in the minds of its devotees a world of perpetual struggle between “us” (the pious) and “them” (the heathens). It enables the clerics and scribes of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths to proclaim that the ephemeral phenomena of earthly life are vitally important to human salvation and for the faithful to take it as their divine responsibility to evangelize and short of that, to subjugate non-believers through violence. Just think about the ludicrous terms “Holy War”, “Crusade” and “Jihad” and the countless lives that have been cruelly dispatched in the service of this horribly evil theology. People who believe in the same god, read the same scriptures and perform almost identical rituals are nonetheless convinced that slight deviations from orthodoxy are sufficient reason to persecute or even kill people they have willfully forgotten are their own spiritual brethren.

Perhaps now it is becoming clear just how dangerous our ego-driven misinterpretations of esoteric teachings really are. More significantly, our fearful and lazy grasping at the ubiquitous belief systems of our own culture is the catalyst of most of our misery. Look below the surface of any of our current crises and sure as shit, you’ll find monotheism at its core. Political strife, partisan hatred, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, violence, revenge, mass incarceration, warfare – each has its roots in the erroneous belief in mankind’s earthly superiority and eternal soul. The outspoken militancy of our self-declared atheists seems to betray an uncertainty in their own one-sided position that probably arises from a lifetime spent immersed in a culture that so fearfully clings to its own importance.

Therefore, I think the real question isn’t how to resolve the paradoxical nature of two seemingly contradictory Buddhist concepts. The wisdom behind the linguistic confusion is that without an eternal fate to ponder, one is free to find divinity in the moment; in the mundane, the beautiful, the dull and the obscene. When the mind abandons the contemplation of imagined significance in the theoretically suspect directions of linear time, all that remains is the look and feel of the moment. It is here and only here that one’s soul becomes eternal, if only for one glorious instant.