Amnesiacs Raging At Ghosts

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If soap opera script writers are to be believed, a case of total amnesia resulting from a blow to the head is quite a common occurrence. And if cartoon script writers are to be believed, all it takes to reverse this condition is another blow to the noggin of equal force. This is pure fiction, of course. People do not forget the details of their identities and personal lives while retaining the ability to walk, talk, read, write and drive a car. There is no “identity lobe” in the brain that could suffer damage while the areas responsible for language, reason, impersonal memory and the application of motor skills continue to function normally. Regardless, I’d like to play with this idea for a moment. What if this type of amnesia actually befell a person? I’m not talking about memory loss resulting from dementia, alzheimers, drugs or psychosis, but a complete inability to recall one’s name, spouse, occupation, religious faith, political associations, family or friends while retaining the ability to communicate and function normally in all other ways. My guess is that someone “suffering” from such a condition would be the sole man or woman on Earth who knows what it feels like to be fully, naturally human. This person would be just like a staggeringly precocious and intellectual infant, yet he or she would be utterly free of regret. Whether you’re a mindfulness advocate perpetually admonishing others to live in the present moment or just a fan of the “Look Who’s Talking” franchise, you’d almost certainly find an individual so afflicted most fascinating and you might even envy their situation.

In a broader sense, every single one of us might just have such a case of amnesia and if so, it’s far from enviable. Despite the continuing march of scientific discovery, no one has yet been able to prove that the phenomenal Universe is anything other than a product of mind. A projection of consciousness that adjusts its hallucinatory images and sensations according to the beliefs and expectations of its spectators who are also nothing more than projections of consciousness. I’m speaking once again of pantheism, the theory that what we call “God” is every one of us. It basically posits that Consciousness is all there is and at some point, this Consciousness decided to play a game of hide and seek with itself. In order to play this game, of course, it needed more than one participant so it splintered into countless life forms all of whom are immediately saddled with amnesia as to “their” true identity. The game thus initiated, each of us run to and fro trying to figure out why we’re here, what’s our purpose and what awaits us after the deaths of our physical bodies. But we can never really hope to get those answers because of this very same self-inflicted amnesia. Refusing to admit defeat, we instead just started making shit up and repeating it with such frequency that slightly varied arrangements of this shit formed all of our personal belief systems. A caveat, in case this wasn’t clear: while this idea makes perfect sense to me, it is still just one more metaphysical best guess and I can offer no proof of its veracity. Therefore, my belief in this theory isn’t any different than a child’s belief in the Easter Bunny — or an adult’s belief in the Holy Trinity, Allah or Xenu. In fact, what it has most in common with these other theisms is that it appeals to the particular tendencies of my ego and therefore, contemplation of its implications is a meaningless exercise. It is precisely this ego and its misapprehension of the self as an independent and eternal entity that must be debunked in the spiritual practices aimed at liberation. Despite its insubstantiality, it is the sole idea from which we must liberate ourselves if we wish to vanquish neurosis.

All of that was a pretense for me to answer some very compelling questions recently posed by Tom Being Tom as part of his Liebster Award acceptance. Like me, he recently read the excellent book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari — a book I highly recommend to everyone who reads — and his questions are infused with the subject matter of this incredibly fascinating and refreshingly philosophical history of mankind. Aside from the upcoming Q&A format, I think I can tackle his inquisitions without drastically changing the theme already established. Let’s proceed, shall we?

According to Harari, what separates man from beast is man’s ability to create stories that unite us into larger and more formidable numbers than any other creature on Earth. It may also be what separates our large groups from one another. Throughout history, man has created these stories and mythologies to not only explain nature, but to unite peoples. Of the hundreds of thousands of gods man has created, do you still believe in one? If so, why? Have you ever considered this question before?

I do not believe in any gods, per se, at least not of the popular anthropomorphic variety. By the same token, it would be inaccurate for me to identify as an atheist due to my predilection for pantheism described above. Not only have I considered this question before, but I’ve spent so much time in the futile contemplation of it that it has actually become its own obscuration — a way of engaging in discursive and irrelevant thought at the exclusion of the type of contemplation that dissects and defuses the ignorance inherent in such pointless eternalism. This is why Gautama Buddha allegedly answered a disciple’s theistic questions with the deceptively simple answer, “I don’t know.” He was trying to steer this student away from such a contemplative double-bind as that which we all still foolishly entertain. I am leveling this same criticism at everyone who may be reading this, of course, because not only is it the primary driver of our collective and individual suffering, it is the only one. The question of god is absolutely meaningless and it compounds our neuroses.

While the pantheist aspect of Hinduism may satisfy a certain intellectual curiosity for me, it does nothing to alleviate my delusion or even bolster my feelings of universal equanimity due to the fact that it is, after all, just another concept. Therefore, of the major world religions, the one from which I draw most liberally is Buddhism. Before cultural norms and superstitions began to attach themselves to this amorphous wisdom tradition, questions of reincarnation and the Bardo had no place in its cosmology. In fact, it can be said with some accuracy that the pure core of Buddhist thought dispenses of a cosmological theory altogether. That’s exactly the point. The reason Buddhism remains the major religion with the least number of adherents worldwide is due to its uncomfortable insistence on dismantling our precious egos. Here in the West, it is almost a heresy. There are only two pillars that form the base of Buddhist thought: interdependence and impermanence. And it just so happens that those two realities are the most distasteful to our sense of self-importance and our addiction to attaching invented meaning to our lives. The discomfort that arises from questioning our deeply ingrained sense of self is exactly what motivated people to create pacifying myths that purport to infuse reality with sense and purpose. But once a myth is established, it develops a mind of its own and insidiously infects every single person trapped in its cultural orbit. This can be seen quite clearly in the West in the way our alleged atheists express themselves in the very same religious language of extremes: things can be viewed nihilistically or eternalistically at the exclusion of all views potentially contained in the vast chasm between those two poles.

An example. Do you remember XTC’s 1980s hit “Dear God”? This purportedly subversive piece of pop sacrilege is nothing more than a self-contained contradiction. I would have expected more from the normally cerebral Andy Partridge, but maybe he was just trying to fulfill some contractual obligation for his record label and thus didn’t put much thought into the lyrics. The song reiterated the most common yet ridiculous mental habit of modern man: the tendency to attempt to negate the existence of God through anger at the very same God allegedly disbelieved by the one who is angry with it. In the final verse, Andy accuses God of drowning babies, waging wars and a host of other atrocities caused by his meddling in our earthly affairs. Then, after this exposition of the charges brought against the Creator, Mr. Partrdige perplexingly concludes, “…if there’s one thing I don’t believe in — it’s you, dear God.” What?! How could one of the premier artisans in the realm of thinking-man’s rock entertain such nonsense? Do you disbelieve the myth or are you angry at its central character? You cannot allege that you don’t believe in god in one breath while in the next detailing your petty grievances against it. If you are truly an atheist, you can only shine your spotlight of judgment on something other than god since you’ve allegedly relegated the very notion of “god” to the realm of fairy tales. If you claim to harbor no theism whatsoever, expressing anger at god is the same as raging against the inhumanity of The Grinch. This is because the whole myth game is rigged to create a convenient scapegoat. If you really wish to give a good ass-chewing to the entity behind your suffering and confusion, all you can do is yell into a mirror. But that would be too much like taking personal responsibility for your own lot in life and we have made what should be the only worthwhile human endeavor into an iron-clad social, psychological and cultural taboo. To fill the void created by this refusal to engage in uncomfortable introspection, God entered stage left.

I am of the belief that morality and ethics are independent of our myths. Those of religious faith who also feel empathy, compassion and forgiveness do so despite their faiths. Those who have little or no compassion hold up their faith as flimsy proof of their pitiful reserve of morality. Therefore, I think that the value of our mythology has passed. Whereas it once had the power to unite formerly independent pockets of culturally-diffuse humanity, it long ago turned a corner and became the very thing that divides and devours us. The only way to break out of this imaginary yet powerful force of myth is to tame your own mind in such a way that it no longer harbors the anxious desperation that relies on such mythology. In other words, you need to let yourself feel deep down in your gut the truth that you do not have an existence independent of everyone and everything else and that in the not-too-distant future, you are going to die. For the purposes of vanquishing delusion and its attendant suffering, you must also dispense of such eternal concepts as heaven, hell and an eternal soul. If these things be true — and again, there is no way to prove that they are or aren’t — they still do nothing to solve our most basic human problem of ignorance and thus deserve no acclaim whatsoever. The only way to discover your “eternal self” is to paradoxically understand that there is no such thing. The longer we continue to model our society and our sense of self on these dualistic myths, the deeper into the quagmire of suffering and strife we sink. If you’re an atheist, be a fucking atheist. That means when your cat dies, you do not have the option of shaking your fist at the sky at the unfairness of it all. Right view does not recognize fairness. Justice is a notion born of a gross misunderstanding of what and who we are in relation to each other. So what do you do? You shed a few tears for Fluffy and you move on in the knowledge that cats, like everything else, are by their very nature impermanent. And if that sounds cold, it’s only because it subconsciously offends your ego that congratulates itself for such natural drives as kindness to animals. Yet once an organism dies, it no longer needs your kindness. These kinds of after-the-fact declarations of love and affection only benefit the one feeling them. Fluffy is utterly unaware of your tears and even if she witnessed your touching display of grief, she still probably wouldn’t give a shit.

In summary, here’s a suggested practice: try to spend the next week blaming no one and nothing for negative events or moods that might arise. For those who are a bit more advanced than that, try fully experiencing whatever comes without applying the labels of negative or positive to it at all. If you can manage to do this even sporadically, you are on the doorstep of liberation. God need not apply.

By the same notion, we create more than just gods, we create imaginary borders and mythical unions called “nations.” We then exalt our own nation as the greatest one. Do you believe your nation is the greatest one? If so, why?

The latter part of this question is something I can answer quite succinctly: hell no. As imaginary notions go, the United States of America may just be the most dangerous of them all and this was true long before the advent of T***p. The US in its very short history has been the initiator of almost every major war fought since its inception and has incarcerated more of its own citizens than any other “free” nation on the planet. There are, of course, countries that treat their citizens with far more immediate cruelty, but none of them strut around like peacocks proclaiming to be the “greatest country in the world” or even more ironically, the “Land of the Free”. Fuck the United States of America. If that last statement rattled or offended you, then you are clinging desperately to a phantasm to bolster your individual self-esteem through association with an idea designed to foster a feeling of collective self-esteem. Do you see the relation to the god myth here? It’s the same psychological drive to invent meaning from meaninglessness. Ditto for the imaginary notions of money, culture and language. So really, for me to have started this paragraph with a scathing rebuke of one myth in comparison to others was nothing more than an illustration of this tendency to reify the legends we pull out of our asses. Clearly, I have just as long a way to go in achieving something approaching right view as anyone.

Take this quiz. Report back to me your coordinates on the grid. If you’ve taken it before, please do so again. Were you surprised by your results? If you took it before, have your results changed?

Your Political Compass
Economic Left/Right: -6.75
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -7.74

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Do you believe that man has ever stepped foot on the moon?

Inasmuch as this question assumes the existence of such a celestial body, yes, I do. Remember when conspiracy theories used to be fun? Questioning the moon landing along with implicating thousands of shadowy people in the assassination of JFK used to be very entertaining ways of wasting time on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Then, and very recently at that, the kooks who tend to really buy into such far-fetched theories and unfounded doubts became the loudest and most influential voices in society. The lunatics are having their day and if you think that’s anything less than an extreme existential threat to the species, you’re not paying attention. Just to clarify: the earth is round. It revolves around the sun. The moon is a satellite of the earth. It is close enough for modern conveyances to reach it. Oh, and there is photographic proof of man’s landing upon its surface for those who still believe the information gleaned by their senses. If that last thing seemed unnecessary to point out, then take a look at the next high profile civilian-shot or lapel-cam footage of a cop beating the living shit out of an unarmed “suspect” and compare what you saw with your own eyes to the almost always successful defense of the act as being somehow “proper police procedure”. It would be threatening to the system to admit that brutality itself is what cops consider “proper police procedure” so instead, shifty attorneys in the employ of police unions endeavor to make us question our own powers of perception. Incidentally, this is the one and only ploy utilized by the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in an attempt to cover their criminal tracks.

Is Bigfoot real?

Maybe. This central figure of modern cryptozoology seems to have some compelling evidence to back it up, but often this very evidence gets debunked years after it was released into the public eye. It seems to always be described as a primate and it is rarely endowed with any sort of supernatural abilities, so its existence as just one more specimen of the animal kingdom is very possible — perhaps even more so than the already verified existence of the unlikely platypus. However, the odds of Bigfoot’s reality become more and more slim with every forest habitat we destroy. The fewer untouched areas of wilderness that are left on the planet, the less likely it becomes that there is an as yet undiscovered primate inhabiting them.

If we are on the verge of technology that would allow a human life to continue indefinitely, as some believe, would you choose to do so?

A thousand times no. This question brings us right back to our central neurosis – the misguided desire for immortality. First of all, nobody ever seems to really think this through. Immortality would be a curse, not a blessing. An event that begins must, by definition, end. Without such an ingrained death wired into an organism as the natural pole to its inception, it would be impossible to appreciate the very fact of being alive. Remember Fluffy? The only reason she was able to lay around and puke on your furniture for 15 years or so is because she was destined to die from her very first breath of kittenhood. If you really want to celebrate her life, you must understand that the death aspect of it is essential to the whole process that she was (and still is as her constituent parts rot and disintegrate somewhere in your back yard). An immortal life form is an oxymoron. Learn to view it as such.

If we are on the verge of technological and societal achievements that would allow us to feed, clothe, and shelter all human beings on Earth at zero cost, as some believe, should we do so?

YES — absolutely. If our knowledge and resulting technologies can’t be used in service of the basic needs of all people, it is nothing more than vanity. At the present, our technology is forging a questionable evolutionary path that we refuse to acknowledge due to our addiction to convenience at all costs. More often than not, when friends “get together” these days, what that really means is they are sitting in close proximity to one another while at the same time completely ignoring each other in favor of their stupid fucking distraction devices. We have happily allowed technology to vastly increase our ego-driven antisocial tendencies, but we still fool ourselves into thinking that we’re communicating with others when we tap furiously on a schmutz-covered touchscreen, oblivious to the real people all around us to whom we could be communicating via that antiquated device called “speaking”. This is also just one more attempt at controlling our environment. The rise of “smart” home devices like Alexa (just an improvement upon “The Clapper” of the early 90s) illustrates our folly in bending over backwards to achieve maximum control over our artificial environments when the real power that so few of us seek anymore is to intuitively understand our inherent symbiotic relationship with nature. But the overwhelming feeling that would result from such a return to our roots would be an understanding of our inter-dependence — again, a truth that offends our anxiety-ridden desire for independence and immortality. Your iPhone holds no answers nor does it alleviate suffering but it does further solidify your delusions of self-importance. I wish this were nothing more than a fad with a correspondingly short shelf life, but clearly that’s not the case. At the very least, though, can’t we please press at least some of our limited funding and brilliant minds in the service of altruism? You can still have your precious phones, I promise you. But maybe while you’re busy retweeting another stupid meme, some poor kid on the other side of the globe can eat today.

I think I’ve pontificated more than enough for today, eh? Before I take my leave, though, I’d like to make one final statement. Usually when I compose a long-winded, finger-wagging diatribe of this nature, I tend to dial back some of the things I’ve said in the comments section when faced with a reader who thinks they have a uniquely personal reason for being exempt from such universal truths or the application of the antidotes to human ignorance. Comments like “Yeah, I understand what you’re saying, Paul, but in my case, I have no choice because…” will not be entertained in the wake of this post. You are not unique or precious and you have no legitimate “but”s to constitute a fly in my philosophical ointment. Nor do I, of course. There are only two approaches to this mysterious thing called life: ignorance or wisdom. The way of ignorance is always defended by declarations that begin with the words “yeah, but…”. So just for today, please deposit your buts in the ashtray located conveniently at the exit. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Fabric Softener

 

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I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. – The Beatles

Morgan Freeman really gets around these days.  While hosting the brilliantly mind-bending series Through The Wormhole for several seasons on the Science Channel, someone over at National Geographic clearly saw how perfect his temperament and delivery worked in the service of exploring foreign and often misunderstood ideas.  And what ideas are more rampantly misunderstood than the ones that inform people’s religious beliefs?   So earlier this year, NatGeo hired him to host a miniseries entitled The Story of God and now, as almost a companion piece to that religion-based series, he hosts a similar show called The Story of Us.  Pantheist that I am, I see little difference between the subject matter of these two recent programs and Mr. Freeman approaches both topics with his characteristic respect and genuine curiosity.  But I’ll get back to Easy Reader shortly.  First, we must take our own little trip through the wormhole.

The overarching aim of the paradoxically aimless discipline of Mahayana Buddhism is for the practitioner to attain a state of undisturbed equilibrium through the perfect conjoining of Prajna (wisdom, right view) and Karuna (compassion, lovingkindness).   I’ve talked an awful lot here about concepts that I feel illustrate the correct apprehension of reality – right view — in a necessarily awkward and imperfect attempt to show that the ideas explored by science and spirituality and philosophy and meditative awareness are all artificially separated, relatively specified aspects of an unbreakable Whole.  But if you view such expositions as being applicable only to the wisdom aspect of the Prajna-Karuna field, then it’s a safe bet you do not understand them correctly.  It is the job of that ornery yet insubstantial bogeyman we call the Ego to focus attention on one step of the grand dance at a time, as this reinforces the illusion that the observer himself is also a distinct and unique thing with definable boundaries.  This is what gives us our erroneous sense of self and it is at the heart of all interpersonal struggle.  A more holistic viewpoint would clearly help to lessen our anxieties, all of which have one single mental error as their basis: the mistaken belief in the self as an inherently existing entity with the skin marking its definitive boundary from and against everything else.

Meditation is the method by which one can begin to feel the reality of Universal interconnection rather than just understand it intellectually, but more detail about that is beyond the scope of this post.   For now, suffice it to say that Einstein’s use of the word fabric in describing the space-time continuum was more ubiquitously applicable than he even realized.  He was attempting to illustrate the idea of curved space in describing the movements of celestial bodies.  However, space itself is inseparable from the perceived objects within its field.  Space does not contain things, nor are things surrounded by space.  Every single phenomenal “thing” is, in fact, a space-thing where every outline or boundary is shared and hence non-existent.  But in order to really know this, one cannot rely on words or concepts – the very symbols for reality that we confuse as being reality.  That is the entire problem.  I leave it to you to decide how or even if you wish to embark upon such metaphysical explorations, but not before adding with a bit of urgency that at the current crossroads we face as a species, it is very important that you do.

Much like the undefinable physical boundaries discussed above, wisdom and compassion exist interdependently.  I could say that it is important to understand Universal interconnection in the scientific sense because it helps one to understand the logic of developing compassion and empathy for those who are simply different aspects of the same shared field.  Or, conversely, I could tell you that it is vital to practice compassion for self and others because it will expand your view of humanity’s (and by extension, the Universe’s) interconnectedness.   It really makes no difference because both of those differently worded statements actually made the exact same observation.  Is your skin the boundary of you or is it the boundary of the space around you?  The answer to both questions, of course, is “yes”.

The ego’s job is to discriminate.  Although the word itself has a very bad reputation, this imaginary yet effective illusion of individualism is also essential for navigating life in the phenomenal world.  Just because there is no subatomic separation between your constituent elements and those of a brick wall you are approaching doesn’t mean you should just keep walking into the wall.  I assure you, that wouldn’t be a pleasant experiment to conduct.  So we must necessarily pick and choose when a situation calls for Ultimate wisdom or relative wisdom.  Relative wisdom discriminates; it is what tells you to stop walking because there’s a big fucking wall just inches from your nose.  Ultimate wisdom understands that just because you wisely avoided an unnecessary and almost certainly unpleasant broken nose doesn’t really mean that you did anything.  You and the wall did not do a dance, but collectively you are a dance.  The wall was just as essential to the waltz as you were, and yet there was only one dancer, that can be defined simply (if esoterically) as Self.  The capital S is meant to differentiate it from our usual egocentric definition of the word self, to align it with the Hindu concept of the Atman, the god-spark, the breath of Brahman that both animates and is all things.  That’s it.  Whether your mind embraces this to mean that there is only one Thing or that there is not actually a single Thing in existence is irrelevant.   The way to proceed from there – from right understanding – is the same either way.

Now we see Lila, the grand dance, and all of its constituent movements.  These movements are no longer composite elements but literally elegant steps in an infinite masquerade ball – a way of playing with the phenomenal world gracefully, artfully, in the unspoken knowledge that no one is doing anything nor is anything doing us.  Actor and action are inseparable, as are life and death, inside and outside.  1-2-3-4, step ball heel toe, grand jete, repeat.

Back to the relative action.  Most of us are rightly very worried at the current state of our human interactions due to the growing influence of gross ignorance upon them.  “What can we do?” has become a rhetorical question born of sad desperation.  In truth, none of us can do a damn thing about the cruel machinations of nationalism and totalitarianism sweeping across the globe, but if you need to feel like there’s something you can do, go enter a booth somewhere in your district next November and pull the levers that make you feel best about yourself.  Someone will even give you a little sticker to pin to your lapel on your way out broadcasting to the world that you just pulled the best levers a person can possibly pull.

But if you really want to help, you need to continually remind yourself of the inextricable bond between all life forms until it becomes clear that charity is not helping others, nor is it helping yourself, it is simply helping and this is where Karuna merges with Prajna to form The Great Perfection.  This is already what you are, as am I, as is everyone, but without the proper experiential understanding, it cannot be integrated into the elegance of the dance, which is another way of saying that if you suffer from the delusion of self you will never understand the sheer power of the lovingkindness of Self.  The reason this is an essential thing to grasp is because once it is understood, you will be naturally guided at all times to the most helpful actions towards seeming “others” because you will know in a very real sense that he and she and they are all literally you.

Now back to Morgan Freeman.  An episode of The Story of Us explored the power of Love in various human interactions.  The final segment of this installment of the series had Morgan in London visiting a hair stylist with a very inspiring hobby.  His shop is located in a section of the city that has a significant homeless population and for many years, this man felt impotent to help in any significant way these brothers and sisters who had fallen on such hard times.  Then one day he had an idea.  After closing his business each day, he now goes out on the streets, stool in hand, in search of suitable recipients of his daily acts of lovingkindness.  When he finds a homeless person that seems a good candidate, he has a brief chat with them before setting them on the stool where ever they may be – in an alleyway, below an underpass – and then he proceeds to give his new friend a shave and a haircut.  That’s it.  And the emotional effect of his selflessness on these long-forgotten human beings is as great as if he had gone around purchasing houses for them because you see, the real tragedy is the fact that we are scared of our unfortunate fellow travelers in this dance, ashamed of ourselves for feeling this way and consequently unwilling or unable to conjure the courage to help them.  Our warm-hearted hair stylist understands this.  He knows that what these people really lack isn’t just shelter but dignity and he does his best to give a little bit back to them.

Whoever we are, where ever we are, we can adopt similar hobbies.  How better to quiet one’s neurotic stream of consciousness than to direct that stream outward?  Do you really want to save the world?  Do you wish to vanquish racism and xenophobia and hatred?  Ensure a better, safer world for your children?  Fine.  All you need to do is go help someone.  That’s it.  It doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter how.  Just help.  If you do this often enough, you will eventually come to realize that helping yourself and saving the world are two phrases describing the same exact thing.  If it helps to sweeten the deal at the onset, just remind yourself that in the mind of one Donald T***p, an act of charity is a hostile act.  So let’s be as hostile as our hearts will allow and transform our habitat – our shared fabric —  with the magic of love and compassion.

Dharmageddon

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There’s the Huns at the gate.  They don’t look like they’re messing.  Why don’t you turn your face to the wall if you find it distressing?  You can shiver in fear, feel the heat of the moment, then go ratchet it up in the sun as a kind of atonement…it’s a classic mistake, bringing water to Venice: out on the Lido, down on the lake there’s an aura of menace.  Secret words of the world are ‘engulf’ and ‘devour’.  Why is all this tyrannical shit in the soul of a flower? – Shriekback 

It’s been a little while since I gave myself a public reminder that I’m not who I think I am.  That I am not a solid, definable entity but a fluid process; and even that process is a mere phantasm of Mind.  As usual when I forget myself in this way, I’ve been mistaking Lila’s infinite and dramatic film reel for an actual series of upsetting events any one of which carries a lethal potentiality.  Regardless, it IS still reality, albeit of the relative variety as opposed to the Ultimate.  The nature of relative reality is that its appearance is relative to the observer; things apprehended through the senses are rapidly filtered through one’s memories, neuroses, beliefs and biases yielding very different results for multiple people who may be observing the same “thing”.  That said, just to get this out of the way, here is how this particular fragment of Consciousness interprets recent current events:

The buffoonish behavior of the Baby Monster currently squatting in the spot usually reserved for the arrogantly dubbed “Leader of the Free World” is providing a convenient smoke screen for lower profile but incalculably craftier and more influential puppet masters to consolidate the world stage into a battleground between seeming ideological opposites of the citizenry.  The people thus distracted and divided, these shadowy individuals hoard even more wealth and resources away from an already famished populace that never seems to notice any of it through the haze of manufactured hatred clouding their eyes.  We are perpetually on the brink of war, both at home and abroad.  Our hatred grows in direct proportion to the growth of our ignorance.  All of this has been existent in various embryonic stages for longer than I’ve been alive, but it has finally reached the inevitable point of critical mass.  Yet the greatest dramas with the most potentially dire consequences still play out right in our own living rooms with a little help from our myopic and self-grasping egos.

Did I sum that up nicely?  I sure hope so because I’m not going to say anything more about it for the simple reason that there was never anything to say about it in the first place.  We – the temporary fragments of splintered Mind – created this mess so the last thing any of us needs is an extended highlights reel.  You may protest that philosophy and metaphysics cannot change the very real dangers bearing down upon us as we continue to toxify our own habitat and imperil our increasingly tenuous coexistence and you would be right.  But I would counter that idealism is impotent.  As far as real “solutions” are concerned, the situation is quite hopeless.  And it is hopeless precisely because our minds are splintered and no one viewpoint is any more valid than the next.  I, too, am very guilty of expressing the subjective in objective terms.  Let’s start with the most common example of this confusion: as soon as I decide that some belief systems, words and behaviors are good while others are bad, I have abandoned the realm of objectivity or, if you prefer, the realm of unvarnished reality.  Whenever I use a collective pronoun like “we” to take ownership of what are actually personal viewpoints and morals, I willfully confuse the map with the territory and encourage seemingly kindred spirits to do the same.  The territory does not possess characteristics that are open to debate: it is what it is.  So while I would love to believe that at the heart of all sentient beings lies a core of wisdom and compassion, I’m afraid this has the characteristics of a pipe dream.  Buddha Nature might just be the snake oil of the East.  When I take a humanitarian position with an authoritative air, I am basically implying that love, compassion, empathy, charity, cooperation, kindness and spirituality are intrinsically good while selfishness, greed, hatred, cruelty and hedonism are intrinsically bad.   But since only fragments of fractured Mind can make such value judgments, there can never be anything like a consensus.  I feel the way I do as a result of countless influences: family, friends, culture, religion, philosophy, science, ad infinitum.  If I want to bolster a particular point, I will frequently quote others more illustrious than I in order to seemingly validate my position.  If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve already seen me co-opt the words of Alan Watts, Chogyam Trungpa, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  All of these individuals espouse a worldview that has wisdom and compassion at its core.  And they are all far more adept than I at making these subjective viewpoints seem as though they were unquestionable and objectively factual.  But alas…

Imagine you find yourself engaged in a heated debate with someone whose worldview is the diametric opposite of compassionate wisdom.  You explain to them that what they espouse and how they live is of no help to anyone else and might actually engender suffering in those whose only crime is trying to live their lives in peace.  This individual might very well (and justifiably) react by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “So what?”  He will see your St. Francis and raise you an Ayn Rand.  You see, there are just as many anti-social scholars and literary masters working in the service of egotism as there are those who dedicate their words to the promotion of love and empathy and peace.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Such questions can only be answered subjectively; objectively, there is no right and wrong.  If, for instance, a person feels compelled to advance the cause of “white supremacy” because this notion seems to be given airtight validity by some of Nietzsche’s dissertations, how can I objectively counter this position by citing the works of opposite-minded thinkers whose views are just as subjective?  I know, I know: by imagining Rand and Nietzsche* as the philosophical muses of the survival-of-the-fittest set, I am giving most of them FAR too much intellectual credit.  Sean Hannity serves the same purpose for those who bristle at big words.  But no matter where they find their inspiration, they would probably view my position that compassion and empathy are essential virtues to be foolish.  Naïve.  Self-defeating.  Are they wrong?  Not necessarily; but then, neither am I.

Contrary to what you usually read here, I spend a lot of time shouting into my own echo chamber about matters of politics and sociology.  It’s cathartic until it becomes its own solidified ego game, as it invariably does.  Yesterday, the actor Bryan Cranston – for whom I have great admiration – made the following statement: “Donald Trump…is not the person who I wanted in the White House.  That being said, he is the president.  If he fails, the country is in jeopardy.  It would be egotistical for anyone to say, ‘I hope he fails’.  To that person, I would say ‘fuck you’.  Why would you want that?  So you can be right?”  Admittedly, I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when I read those words coming from someone I respect.  But what was incorrect about what he said?  How many of us can humbly and courageously internalize this point that seems to run so counter to our new hobby of protesting across stubbornly delineated battle lines?  We so easily forget that we are ostensibly striving to decrease suffering; we are NOT striving to vanquish enemies or toss sharper barbs at those with whom we disagree.  Right?

The only thing to do is to root out any and all noises in our brains that did not originate from within and then work with what’s left.  So many of our cherished opinions, values, fears, tastes and proclivities have come to us from the outside: from our parents, our friends, society, religion and culture.  The Western mind is uniquely geared towards self-gratification due to the out-sized influence of the Judeo-Christian ethos that tells us we are all unique individuals made in God’s image and possessing an eternal soul or, in Buddhist parlance, an “inherently existing self”.  Therefore, even those of us who care about the plight of those less fortunate than us do so because it is essential to our chosen image (or “eternal salvation”).  In other words, we think of ourselves while we act on behalf of others.  The Eastern mind is better attuned to a more holistic view of the phenomenal world.  We help others to help ourselves to help others, and the demarcation between self and other isn’t nearly so apparent as what we’re used to.  On the face of it, this almost seems to imply an objective superiority, but that’s only because I am the one writing these words and I happen to have adopted a second-hand pseudo-Eastern mindset that informs these online diatribes.  Neither mindset is intrinsically right or wrong.  The only thing that we can do “wrong” is act in the service of ideas that aren’t our own.  Discerning which is which, of course, is easier said than done.  How many of us know our own minds, the only things that we actually can know if we truly made the effort?  Would you be able to differentiate between an opinion that germinated from within and one that was implanted from the outside during your formative years?  For those who wish to take on the daunting task of sorting through your own bullshit to unearth what’s genuine, meditation is really the only method I know of by which this can be done.

But if meditation is not a part of your truth, you’d be foolish to pursue it.  The word Dharma does not necessarily indicate the body of wisdom contained in either the Buddhist or Hindu canons.  Taken on its own, it simply means “truth”.  Buddhadharma would be the form of the word specific to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.  But Dharma – Truth – can be defined in as many ways as there are human beings (and possibly animals).  In order to get at your personal Dharma, you must do what I prescribed in the previous paragraph and separate the wheat from the chaff until you are left with your own pure, personal truth, whatever that may be.  Once you have accomplished that, you will no longer be capable of acting against your own interests.  Unfortunately, you may still be capable of intentionally causing suffering to others, but I do believe that more of us are at least moderately empathetic compared to those who are incapable of basic compassion.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant: you can only be genuine if you follow your truth, no matter what I or anyone else may think about it.

Let’s reclaim our genuine Truths so that we can go forward with confidence.  Stop second-guessing your own intuition.  Dance with the phenomenal world for as long as you are able.  This is not the path of least resistance, it is the path of No Resistance.  Float with the stream of the Tao and observe everything with interest – but don’t take any of it seriously.  Delusion imbues illusion with false veracity while clarity dispenses of such labels altogether.

There is truly nothing to fear other than our own self-made insecurities.  The outer battle may just end in total destruction.  So be it.  But the battle within is fought with gentleness and sacred silence and thus it is noble and worthwhile.  Real freedom arrives at the very moment you let yourself go.  Whoever you are, may you be happy and free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  Remember: Karma is extinguished along with illusion.

* To be clear, there is much of worth to be found in the works of Nietzsche for those who can interpret them correctly.  Ayn Rand was just an asshole.

 

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.

 

Spooky Action At A Distance

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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.

Lila

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Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun. – Alan Watts

We’re playing the game all wrong.  All of us.  The most embarrassing part about it is the fact that we invented the game but got so caught up in playing it that we forgot we are engaged in a game whose rules and playing pieces we created in the first place.

If this game had a name, other than “life”, it might well be called Amnesiac Gods.  Arthur Hancock and Kathleen Brugger’s book “The Game of God” is a playful and simplified take on Alan Watt’s pantheistic philosophy, tackling with wit and whimsy this frustratingly taboo view of theism that is also shared by the Hindus.  Pantheism, as the name implies, is the belief that “God” is not a separate, judgmental creator spirit existing on a different plane such as “Heaven”, but is a convenient word to describe the Consciousness that resides in an indivisible and indestructible state within each and every one of us, imbuing us with the power of creation that we so foolishly attribute to independent outside forces (atheists do this, too, in bending over backwards to explain all aspects of life and the Universe from a purely scientific perspective while ignoring the proven role that consciousness plays in the very existence of the phenomenal world).  In short, all Western philosophy and theology makes the fatal mistake of believing in duality.

Early on in “The Game of God”, the authors provide a simple analogy to make this clear, which I will now paraphrase.  Imagine a billionaire who likes to “slum it” at the local blue collar dive bar a few times a week to experience how the other half lives.  He dons scruffy working class clothing and hob-nobs with the locals over two dollar well drinks.  This person is not even remotely experiencing how the lower class lives.  No matter how carried away he may get over the course of the evening, in the back of his mind he is well aware that at closing time, his limousine will be waiting outside to take him back to his Park Avenue penthouse.  He may have experienced a small taste of the sights, sounds and conversations of the folks with whom he was drinking, but he did not experience their struggles, anxieties, disappointments and tragedies.  Now let’s think about God in the typical Judeo-Christian way.  “He” is invariably described as perfect, flawless, without limitation.  Okay.  What is the only thing that a limitless entity cannot possibly experience?  If you said “limitation”, give yourself a pat on the back.  Perhaps God wanted to experience what it feels like to have limitations and in order to find out, he/she/it splintered him/her/itself into billions and billions of little God-microcosms who are instantly given amnesia so that they cannot, like the dive bar billionaire, console themselves with the fact that since they are God, they are impervious to harm resulting from their own game of hide and seek.  This makes the point of the game — or “how to win”, if you will — to remember what you really are after your head has been filled for years and years with countless ideas and “facts” that claim otherwise.

As I said, it’s a simplification and as such, takes a few of its own anthropomorphic liberties with the “god” concept.  But it’s a good place to start for anyone interested in delving into the idea of pantheism.  (For those who prefer to rip off their Band-Aids in one painful tear rather than ease them off, “The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” by Alan Watts is a much more advanced treatment of the theory).

Our biggest folly and the sole catalyst of all of our suffering is our insistence upon simultaneously inventing, fearing and worshiping an ether-dwelling Capo di tutt’i Capi in front of whom we humble ourselves, and running roughshod over every other creature and resource at our disposal because we also invented the idea that man “holds dominion over the Earth”.  Here’s what’s really going on: animals, minerals, plants, God, and every man, woman and child are all different names we’ve created for aspects of the same ubiquitous thing: Consciousness.

Consciousness created the phenomenal world and Consciousness sustains it.  One of the most clichéd logic riddles around asks if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, would it make a sound?  This is a ridiculously easy question to answer: NO.  First of all, sound is the effect of vibrations upon the ear drum, so in the absence of an ear drum, there’s just a vibration having nothing with which to interact.  But even that is an unnecessarily complicated line of reasoning to arrive at the answer because, of course, we made the tree and the forest and the vibration and if we weren’t here to sustain the illusions that comprise our planetary game board, no tree would have existed in the first place.  The ear in that riddle is actually Consciousness, without which nothing could be experienced and so, for all intents and purposes, couldn’t exist.

So continue to play out your personal dramas and victories and defeats for as long as they are fun.  If you find that you are genuinely depressed, confused, enraged, hopeless and self-destructive, you need to review the rules of the game.  To recap: 1) You do not exist as a separate entity, so stop taking yourself seriously; 2) no one else exists as a separate entity, so stop letting them get to you; 3) you created the Universe (the game), so stop feeling like a confused outcast in a cruel alien world; 4) shut the fuck up once in a while and pay attention to this weird, beautiful, chaotic phenomenal display of your own creation.

In other words, you are God.  So get over yourself, for God’s sake.