Nirvana

nir

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

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

This is why human life is so unnecessarily difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Not For The Faint of Heart

Impermanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Universal Organism

self-aware-universe-scientists

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

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

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

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

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

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