Sunday, November 8, 2015

The cart before the horse

Note: the following post is not spoken from firsthand experience. It's an attempt to summarize an idea I find intriguing. In some sense, it's the most amazing idea in the world. That's also why it's so hard to take seriously.

Imagine being truly happy. Or perhaps a better word is "fulfilled." Try to remember a moment when you were perfectly carefree, not a worry on your mind. Perhaps a moment when you had just completed some important project and felt on top of the world, like all burdens had been dropped and nothing could get you down.

Is that how you feel in your daily life now? If not, I want you to try the following exercise. Complete the following sentence in as many ways as possible:

How could I be completely fulfilled, when...

Some examples might be:
  • when I haven't found my partner in life?
  • when I'm in so much debt?
  • when I still have this crippling back pain?
  • when there's so much suffering in the world?
    • ... so many starving kids in Africa?
    • ... so many calves in veal crates?
    • ...
  • when I'm not enlightened?

If life is going generally fine and you don't have any overt examples like the above, there must still be moments during the day when you're implicitly completing the sentence:
  • when my partner promised to do X but still failed to.
  • when I promised myself I wouldn't waste the weekend, and I watched the whole last season of GoT.
If there's any moment in any day where you're anything but completely fulfilled, you have something to write down.

Finished? Really, do the exercise.

Now I want you to imagine being a person who's completely fulfilled despite all the things you wrote down. What would that person be like?

Paradoxically, it might be easier to imagine being happy despite not having the "big things" than to imagine being happy despite the small annoyances.

For example, someone who's happy despite not having a life partner seems wise, whereas someone who's happy despite his partner's unreliability just sounds like a bozo. Or at least, that's what I tell myself every time I get "lovingly annoyed" when I perceive my partner as unreliable. What kind of chump would take that lying down?

But I digress.

It should be obvious from a moment's thought that happiness is a choice. We choose to be unhappy about our partner because we believe that to do otherwise would be foolish.

So far this is probably all obvious. So let me ramp it up a bit. (This is where things get weeeiiirrdd...)

If we choose to be happy, our outer circumstances have no choice but to adapt accordingly.

If I'm happy despite my partner's unreliability, one of ~three things will happen:
  • I will realize that this relationship is not a good fit and move on.
  • I will realize that the matter is too trivial to be upset about and we will genuinely laugh it off. 
  • My partner will be inspired by my love and overcome her unreliability.
I don't even have to know in advance which of those choices will end up being the "right" one. In fact, if I do pretend to know in advance, I just slow down the whole process, because I subtly make my happiness contingent on that outcome. Remember, to say that happiness is a choice is to say that it is not contingent on anything -- i.e., it is unconditional.

Nothing weird yet. The first two bullets involve me changing my own attitude -- hardly supernatural. The third bullet just requires someone who loves me to change her behavior. In fact, just the sheer possibility of this third option -- the one where I don't have to adapt -- makes the happiness choice easier.

If it's "scientifically impossible" that my happiness could have an objective effect on physical reality (either because the target is too far away in spacetime, or the effect is too large, or whatever), then I'm left with only the first two kinds of choices. And sometimes it's just not enough for me to learn to be okay with things. It's just not inspiring enough, and so I don't make the happiness choice.

I'll stop short of suggesting outright that there are no actual physical limits (because then you'd stop reading -- though I might break it down in a future post), but I can suggest that you obliterate all such "limiting beliefs" as you notice them.

This may be a bit hard to do, since they form the very base of your perception of the world -- whether you know it or not. You probably also feel that if you release this most reasonable of assumptions, your brain will turn to mush and you'll become another crystal-toting starry-eyed New Ager. If that's the case, go take some science classes and stay sharp with your maths and reasoning (though my advice would be to distinguish the practical aspects from the fundamentally mechanistic worldview it tends to elicit in the incautious).

But if you've ever had the sneaky suspicion that this world is more wondrous and mysterious than your everyday perception tells you, then this is the place to start digging. Choose happiness, and continue to uncover marvels as deep as you dare to dig. From what I'm told, the plot just keeps thickening.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

One ground, two paths

From an interview with Dzogchen master Anam Thubten:
There is a verse in one of the spiritual songs: “There is only one ground (the dharmadhatu or source or underlying truth of all things), only two paths and only two fruitions.” This is one of my favorite verses, because it says there are not three paths, only two paths, the path of awareness and the path of unawareness. Every moment we either choose to be on the path of awareness or on the path of non-awareness. So in each moment we are enlightened or not. When we really contemplate this verse, it shocks our minds. It is easy for many practitioners to think that even though they are not actually residing in awareness that somehow so long as they are doing the various practices they are making some kind of progress according to some invisible scale or record—because they are doing all the right practices they are going in the right direction. When you contemplate this teaching, it shocks your mind because you realize you are making the enlightenment choice in every moment.
There's another interesting way to look at this "one ground, two paths" idea. For this post to make any sense, you'll first have to agree with this axiom:
  • All you've ever wanted, in any moment -- ever -- is to be happy.
If you don't like the word "happy," choose another one. But you first have to see that what you ultimately want is for things to be fine; for life to be well; to feel okay; etc. It could even be that you thrive on turmoil, and if so, turmoil is your path... to happiness.

What's much harder to see is that in every moment, we have a choice: to be happy, or to be unhappy. And this choice is free, in the sense of being unconstrained by physical reality. You may think this is obvious (everyone's heard of poor people who are still happy), but when taken literally it has two profound corollaries:
  1. It is unconstrained by past moments. There's no "lag effect" whereby our choice in the "last moment" bleeds over into this one, so that our unhappiness yesterday, or even a moment ago, prevents happiness now. 
  2. It is unconstrained by neurology. Your neurotransmitters cannot be to blame (though believing so can certainly relieve a certain kind of pressure we sometimes unduly place on ourselves).
Of course, there's no reason to take the above seriously, since it seems to contradict what we've learned from science. I don't believe it actually does, but this post is meant to be practical instead of metaphysical, so let's look instead at how this choice actually plays out in real life.

You're sitting there and there's an alarm going off. Some thoughtless person has failed to notice it for some time, and it's becoming ever-more annoying. In any instant, before the annoyance has a chance to form, we discover two options:
  1. Choose unhappiness. This seems reasonable: I'm annoyed by the alarm, and my annoyance is what will enable me to fix the problem, thereby resulting in the happiness I seek.
  2. Choose happiness. This sounds stupid: I'll just end up being a dopey doormat or bum who doesn't make stuff happen. That sounds like a pretty unhappy outcome.
In short: I believe that by choosing happiness, I'll be unhappy, and that by choosing unhappiness, I'll (eventually, possibly even real soon!) be happy. Duh, I choose the second one.

But of course, the next moment comes around, I'm faced with essentially the same choice (though the details will have changed a tad bit), and because the same delusion is still in operation, I do it again.

And this is most of us do in every moment of every day, from cradle to grave. Instead of facing this intrinsic delusion head-on, we take a rain check and push away the only thing we've ever wanted.

Maybe you feel that the example is a strawman. Of course I can choose to be happy in the face of something so trivial, but what about real problems?

I maintain that the situation is always exactly the same. As long as you deep down believe that unhappiness can be the cause of happiness, you'll push away the only thing you've ever wanted.

I cannot prove any of this to you, but I can suggest that you consider it very seriously indeed.