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.