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.

Identity Hoarding

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I’ve lost count of how many times I have come here in an attempt to linguistically negate our delusional sense of self. Dipping into the vast reservoirs of convoluted euphemisms that form the disciplines of science and philosophy, I’ve asked readers to reimagine this vague composite notion called “you”, redefine or even completely dismantle the “common sense” feeling that your skin-ensconced body/mind system constitutes either the beginning or the end of a person, and take a broader view of the elements essential for life in an effort to weaken the aforementioned sensation of inherent and self-contained existence. Now seems as good a time as any to thank all of you faithful readers for being such good sports in graciously entertaining my amateur attempts at grandiose philosophy and responding as if I had said anything sensible at all.

You see, in impetuously jumping to such lofty conclusions, I failed to notice that I skipped right over a vital step in dismantling this multi-tiered illusion of collective ego. To use an overplayed analogy, I was trying to run before I had mastered the art of walking.

The influence of Eastern thought on my writing — coupled with a novice understanding of its underlying message — frequently inspires me to get ahead of myself. A far more sensible starting point for an attempt at instruction in the lessening of mental delusion would be, perhaps, the parsing of the previous sentence, particularly the phrase “inspires me to get ahead of myself”. Right there, through the employment of the black magic of language, I created a duality. I verbally split myself in two. The phrase implied a primary actor — the one who gets ahead — and then posited a second entity through the use of the word “myself” upon which the primary actor is working. How many people was I trying to discuss in that sentence? The statement explicitly treated “me” as a multiplicity; funny for someone who is constantly caterwauling about the non-existence of even a definitive singularity called self as the basis of any life form.

Before starting this essay, I did a little random reading of recent posts on WordPress. To maximize objectivity, they weren’t those of bloggers I follow — many of whom are also readers of my page — but just an arbitrary selection of posts by authors with whom I am unfamiliar. Of course, I found myself reading dispatches from many people who seem to think they are actually multiple people inhabiting a single body. Phrases such as these were in abundance: “I am very proud of myself today”; “The me that likes to go out and party overtook the me that knows it should have stayed home and taken care of housework”; “I can’t shake the voice in my head that tells me I’m not worthy”; “This week, I am going to create a to-do list for myself and this time, I intend to stick with it”; “I am going to get (bland inspirational word or phrase) tattooed on my arm so that I never forget”; “Today, I am going to be kind to myself”.

Mind you, I’m not trying to mock these anonymous writers for their word choices because, of course, this is how we all speak. This is the language we’ve got, like it or lump it. And though we as a culture tend to over-utilize language to reinforce our anxious delusion of self, communication is nonetheless necessary. Can we really hope to overhaul not just one language but an entire system of related languages all of which were intentionally built upon the assumption that everybody literally means every body? That one’s fluid and unbounded system of energy, matter and consciousness is actually a static entity called “me”?

Contrary to popular belief, neuroscientists and biologists don’t have the slightest clue as to what consciousness is and from whence it arises. They have, quite impressively, figured out the function of various areas of the brain responsible for sensory apprehension, emotion, instinct and that infinitely questionable thing we call memory. But those are simply states experienced by consciousness — they are not, individually or collectively, consciousness itself. Admitting this agnosticism might be a great start in the pursuit of this elusive knowledge, but it would probably also be the end of the pursuit. Once it is known that something is unknowable, research in its direction becomes a wild goose chase.

So for now, let’s leave the metaphysics at the door for once and just examine the mass schizophrenia inherent in our species’ customary thought patterns. Before meditating on the insubstantial nature of “you”, why not begin by consolidating that “you” into a single idea? At the very least, this should minimize the number of “you’s” that need analytical negation.

The Romance languages we speak in the West were constructed to reinforce a power structure, a hierarchy. The perpetual subject-object split in our words becomes a perpetual subject-object split in our conception of reality itself. So the artificial relation of king to subject, master to slave, dominant husband to dutiful wife works its way through our psyches until we find ourselves thinking and speaking in a way that implies such a hierarchical structure within ourselves. This is why we believe that we have a good side and a bad side; a playful side and a serious side. Where might such sides be located in opposition to each other? To say that you have a devilish side and an angelic side is the same as saying that you have a devilish self and an angelic self. Replacing the word self with side does nothing to eradicate the illusion of multiple personalities inhabiting a single body, some of which are virtuous and some of which are sinful. Once these personalities are established in our minds as aspects of an ego, the mental erection of a power structure begins. The good and virtuous side should reign supreme and authoritative over the irresponsible and reckless side. An authority and a frequently unruly servant are imagined with every such conceptual split. But this split is itself the illusion. There is only one “you”, no matter how difficult I endeavor to make the definition of the word “you”. There’s still just one. But the fact that we feel otherwise is exactly what sustains the broader hierarchies of human society. While we are at war with ourselves, others utilize this distraction to climb another power rung for more widespread subjugation of those needed as underlings to sustain the superior feelings and positions of the overlings. And, of course, all of this is true for the simple reason that we continually reinforce it with words and concepts that hypnotize us into believing it to be true.

So perhaps the mythical “enlightened” human being is nothing more mysterious than someone who has figured out the duplicitous nature of society and the language used to describe it and in response, has gradually divested him or herself of the speech patterns that inform the thought patterns that inform the behavior patterns of a pawn within an inescapable power structure. As such, this might just be the most dangerous kind of person imaginable to those who perpetuate this illusion for selfish and neurotic ends. As soon as the artificial structure is questioned, it begins to disintegrate and if it disintegrates, there will be no more subjugation for the very fact that no one will be in a position to be subjugated. It therefore follows that there would no longer be a system in place that needs authorities and followers to sustain it. We would re-inherit our personal power by destroying the very need for interpersonal power. We would all be our own masters, our own teachers and our own therapists. Except it would be far less duplicitous than that. I just don’t currently have the words to describe it adequately.

So let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?  For those who wish to play with their own conception of reality, here are a few simple suggestions to employ in the upcoming week. Stop talking to yourself. Easier said than done, of course, but at least get started on this mental shift in the navigation of your daily life. Since it is obviously impossible for a single self to talk to itself, just ruminate on that logic until you begin to feel silly every time you have a thought like, “Come on, Paul, pull it together.” Who is speaking to Paul and why would Paul even listen to an unidentified voice admonishing it to pull some undefined something together? You will continue to think such thoughts because they have a lifetime of habitual reinforcement behind them. But little by little, when they arise, you will begin to feel the absurdity of such imagined conversations between non-entities and this will almost certainly cause the habit itself to dissipate. Stop being your own cheerleader and/or critic. Someone who performs an action cannot be the objective judge of that very same actor. No matter what, your ingrained ethics will cause you to have a visceral reaction to your own recent behaviors and that is the only guide you need. It’s called intuition and it doesn’t speak to itself. If you have the annoying habit of referring to yourself in the third person, stop. Just stop. And finally, try to minimize moment-to-moment conceptualizing of your experience. If you’re taking a walk, don’t try to analyze the details of why you decided to do so, what you could be doing that’s more “productive” or even whether you’re happy or sad or introspective or melancholy or anxious or depressed while performing the act of walking. Just walk. The rest will take care of itself if you simply let go and allow it to follow its natural path. You might just find that this little uncharacteristic stroll was the greatest gift you ever bestowed upon yourself for the very reason that you were incapable of giving something to yourself and for once in your fucking life, you understood that.

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.

 

The Passion of Walter White

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Guess I got what I deserve. Kept you waiting there too long, my love. All that time without a word. Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret the special love I have for you, my Baby Blue. – Badfinger

Though I’m often adept at summarizing complex subjects in a succinct, blog-worthy manner, it would be impossible for me to compose a condensed analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the brilliant serial drama Breaking Bad. Such a study could fill a book and believe it or not, several such books have been written.

Vince Gilligan had to know what a risk he was taking when initially pitching a show about a middle aged chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer turning to the manufacture of methamphetamine to leave a sufficient posthumous financial legacy to his family. Fortunately, AMC took a chance on this exceedingly dark premise and thus we the viewing public were treated to the most meticulously crafted, gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted morality tale ever aired.

If you did not watch the show, feel free to stop reading now. Your time will be much better spent Netflixing all five seasons and watching it in a non-stop, coffee-fueled marathon. Now. Why are you still here? Go. Watch the show.

If you’re still here, I’m going to assume that you are quite familiar with Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Hank Schrader, Skyler White, Saul Goodman, Hector Salamanca, Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmentraut. This post will confine itself to the final episode of the series, Felina. The title itself had a double — perhaps triple — meaning. To indicate the end of the series, the word is an anagram of finale. Also, as we witnessed Walt slip back into Albuquerque sight unseen to utilize his intellect and some tricks of the trade he had learned during his two year odyssey as a drug kingpin to exact revenge and tie up loose ends, he did so with the subtle grace of a cat — felina. The third meaning is my favorite.

As the episode begins, Walt is still hiding out in a cabin in rural New Hampshire. He made his way down to the local watering hole where the TV was tuned into an episode of Charlie Rose, who was interviewing Walt’s former business partners, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Since Walt was now a nationally renowned criminal on the lam, Charlie asked the Schwartzes to comment on him. Their condescending response spurred Walt into action. He used the bar’s pay phone to call the Albuquerque office of the DEA and asked to speak to the head officer on the Walter White case. When asked who was calling, he deadpanned, “Walter White'” and dropped the receiver, letting it dangle from its metal coil. He threw the authorities off his trail by bringing them right to his doorstep.

There is an old car outside the bar covered in ice and snow. Walt delicately lets himself into the driver’s side, being careful not to knock any of the obscuring frost and snow from the windows. When the police descend on the tavern, Walt slouches low in his seat and waits for them to leave. He then hot-wires the vehicle and notices a cassette tape case on the passenger’s seat: Marty Robbins’ Greatest Hits. When the engine turns over, the stereo kicks on: Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina, music would play and Felina would whirl. This old country classic was the perfect choice for this scene. The narrator in the song ultimately dies of a bullet wound in the arms of his love, Felina. A death, but a death done his way, on his terms. This was precisely what Walt was planning to accomplish with his return to New Mexico.

The series began on Walt’s 50th birthday: the same day he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It ends on his 52nd birthday. In that brief time span, we watched him transform gradually from a henpecked, underachieving and mild-mannered family man into a dangerous, cutthroat, power mad drug kingpin. (“Say my name.” “Heisenberg?” “You’re goddamn right.”) Many of Walt’s colleagues and family understood long before he did that he was not motivated solely by the welfare of his family for very long. During his final visit to Skyler, she won’t suffer his tired altruistic explanation any longer and tells him to level with her. Understanding that at this point he owes her the truth, he admits for the very first time: “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”

Walter White, like all of the amazingly nuanced characters in the show, cannot be pigeonholed as either good or evil. Just like all human beings, he is far more complex than a black or white description can do justice. Our sympathy is with him right out of the gate, even after he makes his fateful decision to partner up with his former student Jesse Pinkman and cook an incredibly pure form of crystal methamphetamine for distribution throughout the city. He quickly learns that murder comes with the territory, but at first, he’s extremely disturbed at having to take a life even in self-defense. As time goes on, killing becomes second nature. Finally, it becomes his method of cementing absolute control over the entire Southwest meth market. Gus Fring’s former enforcer, Mike, sums up how much Walt had let the whole thing go to his head shortly after Walt’s brilliant nursing home coup that took out Gus: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no! You just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man.” Mike was right. Walt did have to be the man, because never before in his life had he ever been so feared and respected; he had never before been “the man”. This is why I found myself rooting for Walt to successfully pull off his final coup even though just two episodes prior, he had spoken the most intentionally devastating and evil words imaginable to Jesse before his former partner was taken as a meth cooking slave by the group of Neo-Nazis with whom they’d recently done business. As Jesse struggles to free himself from Jack’s grasp, Walt looks him in the eye and referring to Jesse’s late girlfriend, says with matter-of-fact malice: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”

How could I possibly still have been pulling for a character that would say something so abhorrent to a young man he had grown to view in an almost paternal way? It’s hard to explain. And this was the genius of Breaking Bad.

Freeing Jesse from his nightmarish servitude to Jack, Todd and the rest of the scumbags in that crew was, of course, on Walt’s agenda when he drove across the country to make things right in Albuquerque. He also wanted to ensure that every penny of his ill-gotten wealth would be left to his family. Looking emaciated and ill, an unshaven Walt arrives home on his birthday and sets his multi-faceted plan in action.

With a self-crafted MacGyver-style gun turret contraption hidden in the trunk of his car, Walt arrives at the Neo-Nazis’ hideout and coaxes Jack to bring Jesse into the room. When Jesse appears, Walt tackles him to the floor, covering him with his body, as he presses a button on his keychain that activates the revolving gun. The entire gang is killed by machine gun fire except for Jesse’s main tormentor, Todd, who Walt allows Jesse to choke to death with the chains Todd had bound him in weeks before. Walt kicks a lone pistol on the floor over to his now liberated former partner (and student) and tells him, “Do it.” Jesse notices that Walt has a serious bullet wound in his gut, kicks the gun back to Walt and tells him to do it himself. He then hops into a car, crashes through the gate of the compound and drives to freedom.

We hear multiple police sirens approaching as Walt slowly and wistfully walks through the former meth lab, stopping here and there to caress the pristine cook tops with a bittersweet smile on his face. As his hand touches a metal vat, it slips down leaving a bloody trail as Walt falls to the floor, smiling, and dies.

This was when I began to cry.  Real tears. The kind of tears I usually reserve for the most devastating of personal losses. I was crying for a fictional character. A morally ambiguous drug manufacturer, liar, manipulator and murderer. A fictional character whose journey took all of us along for the frightening yet exhilarating ride. Because none of us are purely good or evil. Because all of us have made regrettable decisions and have hurt the ones we love most. Because nothing and no one is black and white.

The ghost of this fictional character still haunts the desert metropolis of Albuquerque and the outlying areas, and probably always will. Those who believe in the supernatural claim that ghosts tend to stick around the very area on which they had the biggest impact and where they left the biggest emotional traces. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that no single person, real or fictional, has had a bigger impact on the Duke City than Walter White.

And he leaves us with a profound question to ponder: if any of us were to find ourselves in the situation that Walt did on his fiftieth birthday, what would we do? Until you can answer that question with unflinching honesty, please don’t judge me for grieving the passing of a fictional meth cook.