Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Waking up

There's no way to prove that the universe wasn't created Last Thursday. Taken to its logical conclusion, there's no way to disprove that it wasn't created in this very moment. What might you do with such useless information?

For one, you might start investigating your own experience, and discover that you've never actually experienced the passage of time. It's simply always now, with a past and future being inferred by memories and anticipation.

This may be easy to understand, but it is hard to grok. Doing so typically requires sitting on a cushion doing nothing for long stretches of time. What happens when you grok it?

You begin to see how you construct the sense of time. You also see how you construct a sense of self, solidity, and pretty much everything else that constitutes reality as you know it.

But if the self is a construction, then what is this "you" that is doing the constructing? And more curiously: could you construct things differently? Are there any constraints that require you to construct time, space, and a self as you know them? If not, what happens when you do construct them differently, or not at all*?

These are empirical questions. And try as you may, you cannot satisfactorily answer them by looking at the evidence around you. For if the above turns out to be true, all of that evidence is also of your construction. Instead, you'd have to venture to the place "before" you began constructing it all.

There are ancient myths suggesting that god created the universe, birthed himself into it, and then erased all memory of having done so. The game wouldn't be much fun otherwise. But slowly god is arousing from an eons-long slumber and remembering. In a sense, all you're ever doing is trying out various strategies to wake up.

* Perhaps you've even tried this before, and then constructed something you called "psychedelics" to cover your own tracks and explain it away.

Back to the drawing board

The other day a friend and I were talking about Last Thursdayism -- the hypothesis, impossible to disprove, that the universe sprang into existence last Thursday. You may think you have memories (and mementos) from before last Thursday, but those artifacts were of course manufactured.

Taken to its logical conclusion, you get "this moment-ism." It is equally impossible to disprove, but we have an even stronger intuitive notion that it's false. But of course this intuition, too, cannot constitute evidence of its falsity.

So we're left with this unprovable (and awfully unnatural) hypothesis which seems to have no practical use. What's the point?

One thing it can do is draw attention to the possibility that there are "facts" about your reality that are not as easily provable as you (very strongly) think. A small result of this realization might be that you drop some assumptions about other people's intentions. A bigger result is that you discover that you're painting all of reality out of nothing. You might catch yourself red-handed, in the act.

This hypothesis is of course absurd, which is why most of us will never spend the time engaged in a practice that might demonstrate it to us, full in the face. Then again, we might catch glimpses of it in non-ordinary experiences (dreams, psychedelic states) and start wondering....

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Something from nothing

How does life arise from inanimate matter? How did existence arise out of nothing? How does sentience arise from insentience?

It seems impossible that the glory we experience as being alive could be the result of nothing more than arbitrary, intrinsically purposeless forces tossing around dead stuff.

And yet we now know with near-certainty that this is indeed the case. This "aliveness" that we want to ascribe to ourselves or other parts of the universe is just a trick of the brain; probably a random adaptation that happened to avert us from some evolutionary cul-de-sac. There is nothing alive about the universe other than this illusion that inert matter is fooling itself with.

I suspect that part of you doesn't quite believe this party line. There's probably also a competing instinct in you that thinks that that first part is hopelessly naive. It's more courageous and honest to just face the facts with, no matter how bleak they may seem.

I think there are approximately three ways to proceed from such a juncture.

One is to take all the data and interpretations at face value. From this perspective, the universe (and therefore the Earth) is intrinsically lifeless, and so we might as well force nature into a shape that is convenient for us during our short, pointless stay. That is what is happening today. While we might temporarily slow down our march to extinction, if we deep down believe that there's no such thing as life (not really, anyway), our attempts to salvage it will always be half-hearted.


The second approach is to realize the tragedy of the first, and to brainwash ourselves into believing that there must be something miraculous about life. Religions and spirituality sometimes do a good job of this. Unfortunately this approach also fails, because the rational mind is tugging in a different direction. There just isn't enough evidence.

The third approach is to notice something we've been overlooking. In order to see it, the mind needs to be awfully quiet. So quiet that it becomes possible to notice details that lie hidden below the layer of our metaphysical assumptions.

Our assumptions about the nature of reality -- about the inherent and independent existence of time, space, and matter -- operate at such a deep level in our minds that we likely never notice them, let alone experience what lies underneath them. And in an amazing feat of circular reasoning, we convince ourselves that it's pointless to find our way down there: after all, whatever we find couldn't be anything but a trick of a physical brain.

But actually nothing could be less pointless than going down there.

Pause for a moment and marvel at the experience of being alive. Don't think about being alive or how great it is; try to experience the glory as directly and fully as you can. Let it overwhelm you.

Now consider what happens when we try to answer questions about "life." First we attempt to define it. Here's what the dictionary tells us:
Life (n): the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
Imagine being innocent enough to ask a smart adult wow, how do you explain life? and getting an answer about the capacity for growth, reproduction, and functional activity. The answers may be fascinating enough to make you forget that it's not at all what you were really asking about. After a few of these sleights of hand, maybe you forget your original question entirely.

So what happens when you delve underneath your metaphysics? You finally stop trying to frame the fundamental question of existence in terms of answers you're already unreasonably certain about, and rediscover the meaning of "life."

Before you can discover "the meaning of life" you must discover the meaning of "life." In that stunning moment where you rediscover life, it may occur to you that you haven't really been living most of the time. A damn shame, that.

At the same time, you may find that something fascinating happens to your question about how life could come from non-life. But I wouldn't spoil the surprise for you even if I could.

Instead, I would simply like to offer this possibility: it's time to stop bouncing between the first two approaches, and find our way toward the third. It's possible that the fate of our species depends on it, but surprisingly, that's not even the most compelling reason to pursue it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The dream is collapsing

You don't remember how you got here. In fact, you don't remember there ever being anywhere but here. You're so completely lost in this dream that you have completely lost track of the fact that this is a dream. An infinitely long time ago, there was a somewhere else.

There is never enough evidence inside a dream to implicate it as a dream. None of the objects in the dream, nor the set of tools available to you (e.g., what we call "science" and "reason" in this dream) are sufficient to indicate to you that you're dreaming -- let alone enough to pop you out of it. But sometimes a voice speaks up:
Psst... there was once a somewhere else. 
What? What do you mean "somewhere else?" This is all that has ever been, and ever will be
No. You ate something. 
What do you mean I ate something? How could eating something have anything to do with this crazy place I am in now?
Thousands of years go by. You forget about the crazy voice. 

But one day, things in the dream start providing you hints that the voice is indeed correct. And slowly, it starts to dawns you. You did eat something. That's how you got here. There's a somewhere else! You were once there! You can get back! You must get back!

What will you do when things in this dream start hinting at you that it's time to wake up? What would those hints even look like?

Will it look like the leading physicists widely agreeing that time and space are illusions, generated by some deeper reality?

Will it look like leading technologists being totally convinced that this universe is a simulation?

What of ancient cultures everywhere having long agreed that reality is a dream?

And how will you find your way out, once you start to suspect it?

Perhaps you will realize that nothing in the dream will ultimately lead you out of the dream. And perhaps when that realization dawns, you will finally pick up the one clue that has any value:

Find the dreamer.

What is that by which You know that you exist and by which You perceive the body in the world? Is this not really the only question Needing to be answered? Investigate this exclusively.
- Wu Hsin 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Referencing stuff outside the mind

It is not possible to reference anything outside the mind.

This means that anything you call real -- anything you CAN call real -- is a reference to mind. "Time," "space," "the REAL time," "the REAL space," "yeah but the REAL time outside my mind" etc. Also, actual time. Yes, that one. Omitting the quotation marks changes nothing.

This is hard to understand properly, but meditation can make it clear. Until then it can seem quite certain that you're referencing, and even experiencing, things other than mind.

Maybe even after all that meditation, nothing will have changed. Or maybe it will open up doors you've never dreamed of.

Why not find out?

"When you start to dream, the dream begins as a thought, like one you would have in the daytime. But you’re asleep, so the thought intensifies and becomes something like talk or gossip, and then the gossip intensifies or solidifies into images, and then you really think that you’re seeing people, seeing places, going places, and so on. And that is how it works with conventional appearances as well." 
-- Thrangu Rinpoche

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Reconstructing the universe

Having swallowed a considerable amount of psychedelic substance, it is possible (I am told) to having the following kind of experience.

You know fully well that the effects wear off in say, six hours. That means that no matter how bad things get, this will at least be over soon-ish. You can just wait it out.

The only trouble is, in this state, normal time no longer applies. You are in fact trapped for millions of years, until you solve a puzzle. For the first few million years don't even know what the puzzle is... perhaps you haven't even yet noticed that you're not in Kansas any more. Then, bit by bit, you remember: you came from somewhere else, and you want to one day go back. But where? How could that crazy other place exist?

Bit by bit your memory fills in details. Actually, it occurs to you: you're not filling in details from memory, you're actually rebuilding the universe using your mind. Perhaps with enough meditation practice you can even discover the magical property by which the mind is presently rebuilding what you will soon remember (or assume?) to be the same place you left.

But building a universe is exhausting. So you have a seat for a few thousand years, get up, and continue. At some point during this process you start describing the process as "sobering up." What an inadequate description of such a Sisphyean task, you think.

So who's to say what really happened? Well, given the rules of the dream you and I are presently dreaming, there's no option but to conclude that it didn't really last millions of years. It was just neurotransmitters messing with your brain. You almost certainly believe this quite deeply, don't you?

Such beliefs are excellent at keeping you anchored firmly to reality. Which is a great thing. Unless, of course, you're on some kind of spiritual path that aims to transcend all of what you are normally so sure is reality.

Knowing all this, would you willingly visit that place again? Limbo, the unconstructed dreamspace?

From a Buddhist perspective, the description of reality provided by quantum mechanics offers a degree of freedom to which most people are not accustomed, and that may at first seem strange and even a little frightening.  
It is a state that literally includes all possibilities, beyond space and time. 
While doing so may open up possibilities we might never before have imagined, it’s still hard to give up the familiar habit of being a victim. 
-- Mingyur Rinpoche

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Stockholm Syndrome

A common reading of Buddhism is that it's about learning to give up desire, and coming to appreciate things as they are. While I can't say that this interpretation is wrong, exactly, I can say that it strikes me as terribly uninspiring. If life really is as mundane as it feels, then coming to appreciate it feels like attempting to develop Stockholm Syndrome (a condition in which a prisoner comes to feel affection for his captor).

The key lies in the phrase "things as they are." Commonly understood, it seems to indicate that there is a real, objective reality; a way that things "really are." But a fundamental tenet of Buddhism is that there ultimately is no way that things "really are."

It's hard to appreciate what this means without significant meditation practice.

Normally, things seem to operate this way: there's an experiencer "in here" that we call the mind, and its job is to experience a pre-existing world that continually comes into contact with it. But when your faculty of awareness becomes calm and sharp enough, you might begin to recognize the distinct phases that go into generating this illusion:

(1) The mind gives rise to an experience
(2) It labels that experience
(3) It projects the experience as being something outside itself and other than itself
(4) It uses this as evidence that the mind and the experience are fundamentally different things
(5) It infers that the thing causing the experience was already there, and the mind just happened to notice it

Of course, the question remains: even if you were to see this all clearly, why would you infer that there is not an external reality? Why can't all of the above be incorporated into a framework in which there still is an objective reality that the brain is merely reconstructing?

Nobody will be able to answer that question to your satisfaction. All that can be said is this: the more clearly you see that process, the more it begins to strike you as funny that you've been going out of your way to deny the most liberating insight of all: that changing how you perceive things may be fundamentally indistinguishable from changing the "things" themselves. The two were never separate.

You've never actually been a victim to an essentially alien, foreign, and thus ultimately threatening external reality. But the fundamental creativity of mind -- the freedom to generate anything at all -- ironically also permits you to feel like one, and thus become one, for as many eons as you like.

Circling back to the start of this post: what happens when you love reality exactly as it seems? Here's an intriguing possibility: maybe this allows the mind to feel less threatened and start accepting responsibility for whatever role it has in generating said reality.

That's an interpretation I can get on board with.

The essence of [Buddhism] can be reduced to a single point: The mind is the source of all experience, and by changing the direction of the mind, we can change the quality of everything we experience. When you transform your mind, everything you experience is transformed.
There are truly no limits to the creativity of your mind.
To the extent that you can acknowledge the true power of your mind, you can begin to exercise more control over your experience.
If our perceptions really are mental constructs conditioned by past experiences and present expectations, then what we focus on and how we focus become important factors in determining our experience. And the more deeply we believe something is true, the more likely it will become true in terms of our experience.
What happens when you begin to recognize your experiences as your own projections? What happens when you begin to lose your fear of the people around you and conditions you used to dread? Well, from one point of view -- nothing. From another point of view -- everything.
-- Mingyur Rinpoche

Monday, September 5, 2016

Evidence, evidence

Sometimes people advance the idea that the world is infinitely malleable, limited only by what you can conceive. This idea is easy to reject: where are all the people who have figured this out and put it to use? Shouldn't we expect there to be lots of real-life examples of Neo and Doctor Strange?

Well, there aren't. QED. The world is as objective and mundane as it appears.

But not so fast. Let's view this bit of evidence from the "infinitely malleable" hypothesis. It says: the mind (not the brain, mind you, but the sheer wondrous capacity for experience itself) is infinitely permissive. In its infinite patience, it has allowed you to dream up a reality in which you explain this capacity away as the mere byproduct of a "physical" organ; one that is subject to arbitrary external forces ("physical reality"). Ironically, you have used this infinite freedom to build a prison for yourself; one where you can not only be a victim, but one where you can prove that you are a victim.

From this perspective, you have designed this dream to disallow "glitches in the Matrix," or anything that might expose your role as the warden of your ridiculous prison. That's why you don't see anyone who's done it.

So the evidence does not favor one conclusion over the other, much to your dismay. The lack of other free people does not support the conclusion of an objective universe any more than the conclusion of an utterly free one.

You can go on looking for bits of evidence that will support your victim hypothesis (the "objective reality" one), but one day you will grow some cojones and set off on an adventure for the truth hidden in plain sight.

Look at the unfathomable spinelessness of man: all the means he's been given to stay alert he uses, in the end, to ornament his sleep. – Rene Daumal

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Wanting what you have

You must have heard this saying:
“Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.”
To me it's always sounded like self-help. Like, great, maybe one day I'll be wise like that. But maybe I can sit up and take notice when it comes from a mystic I respect?

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:
“You never want what’s true. You want what you don’t have and don’t want what you already have, and so you suffer. It’s so perplexing! Why not simply reverse it? Why not want what you have, and not want what you don’t have? It’s so simple! You can be happy; it’s here for the taking. You want little things when you could have the entire universe and eternity.”

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Life, uninterpreted

My wife bites her nails compulsively. The habit is so ingrained that she doesn't even notice when she's doing it. If you point it out to her, she can notice it (most of the time -- sometimes she's so lost in thought that she thinks she's noticing what you're pointing out but is actually not).

We do something similar all the time, by building up a model of reality and living inside it -- without ever noticing it. Reality is presented as a dazzling and bewildering array of colors, textures, sounds, etc. Actually, even "colors, textures, and sounds" are conceptual models; what's presented directly is more fundamental still, but impossible to talk about.

In every moment the mind builds a model to explain it: that there's some objective thing called "physical reality" that we are interacting with from somewhere inside these funny meat vehicles.

This seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do. Clearly we need to build up this model if we're to be functional in the world, and if it happened consciously we wouldn't have enough processing power left to do anything else.

But notice the circular reasoning at work here: we presuppose our model (that we actually are living in an objective physical reality) in order to explain why it would be pointless to stop building the model. Of course it's not useful to spend the time required to step outside our model: worst case, we'd go crazy, and best case, we have some trippy experience of being outside the model even though we're still bound by it.

We never consider the third possibility: that the very cause of this bind is something that we're doing, incessantly and compulsively. It's as though I have locked myself into a box, swallowed the key, and proven conclusively that I am not inside a box.

Anyway, if metaphysics isn't your cup of tea, here's a practical argument to make you consider going there. Being alive is magical. Most of the time we totally overlook this and take it for granted. We take it for granted because our model can explain it (mostly), and anything we explain can't be all that magical.

As we age, this seems to happen more and more. Life can feel totally mundane, drained of the wonder we once felt.

Consider the possibility that it's because of something you're doing, and not something that you're merely a passive victim of.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mindfulness and prayer

When I have total and utter faith in the present moment, in life as it appears right now, the experience of peace and joy are only matched by something I recall doing as a child: praying. Not like asking for stuff, but immersing myself in whatever my sense of "God" was.

Of course, "utter faith in the present moment" might also be called "mindfulness."

What's going on there? Surely "mindfulness" and "prayer" are totally different things. One requires you to believe in a bearded man in the sky!

Or perhaps "God" points to something far more elusive and wondrous. Something so right-under-your-nose you'd never notice it. Something which -- if you came totally face to face with it -- you'd be clawing to find a suitably epic moniker for.

Nahhh, what am I talking about? It's probably total bunkum. Nothing to see here, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The pre-interpretive mind

People often misunderstand the goal of meditation to be a thoughtless state. In the pursuit of this, they often adopt a practice in which thoughts are suppressed. There are a number of good resources to combat this misconception.

Another common misconception is that the future and past must be ignored to focus on "the now." But the truth is far more subtle.

There's an aspect of your mind -- your intellect -- that is busy interpreting the world. This is the part that infers the existence of time and space from what is otherwise just a smattering of raw experiences.

You never actually experience time. It is always perfectly now, and the existence of present memory and anticipation cause you to infer that such a thing as "time" is the cause of those things.

Similarly, you never experience a divide between yourself and the world. Listen carefully and notice that sounds happen to your consciousness. Feel and notice that bodily textures also happen to you. So do thoughts, memories, and the constellation of mental events you call "personality." The inference that there's someone "in here," behind consciousness, doing the experiencing, is an inference of the intellect.

This doesn't mean that they are wrong inferences, but you're in a much better position to evaluate their truth when you're able to deeply experience your own complicity in generating them.

It might seem tempting to try and enter a state in which the intellect has stopped projecting those assumptions, in which the burdens of time and self are transcended. But in doing so, there's a danger in overlooking the part of the mind that has never entered into those illusions in the first place.

Perhaps instead of trying to wrangle my conceptual mind into a state where it stops producing projections, I can try to notice the aspect of consciousness that precedes those projections. Maybe it is possible for the conceptual mind to keep doing what it is doing, without necessarily being involved.

Then there's no conflict between recognizing timelessness (or what is sometimes called the "emptiness of time") and being able to recall the past and imagine the future. And conversely, the burden of taking the constructs of time and self too literally may be lifted.

Awakening is not about becoming a saint

(Preface: I have no idea what I'm talking about.)

Awakening is not about becoming a saint. Perhaps "be kind" is a good hint and tool for awakening. And perhaps one result of awakening is saintly behavior. But to conclude that the point of awakening is to be a saint totally misses the mark. Of course, it's how many people think of religion, which makes it no surprise that it so rarely has its intended effect.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


All your life, there has only been Alfred.

Your parents died while you were very young. Due to unfortunate circumstances, you've never been healthy enough to leave the house. So Alfred has been your sole and constant companion, feeding and entertaining you.

Only you haven't realized it. Alfred's got a number of really clever masks and vocoders. You think you're being entertained by an enormous troupe of players.

One day, during another of Alfred's brilliant performances, for some reason you pay special attention to the show -- and have a mild shock. The actors are wearing masks, but you never realized it. So you look closer during the next show.

My god, they're not masks at all. It's just one guy, putting on funny faces. And dear me, there's no vocoder at all: it's all just funny accents!

At first you assume that this can't all just be one guy. That's ludicrous. Clearly he's just a puppet, being played by someone else, invisible, that you're certain must exist -- though you've never once caught a glimpse of him.

Alfred waits, with infinite patience.

One day, you consider that Alfred might, just might, not be being played by an imaginary someone-else. You finally look him dead in the eye, and when he smiles back lovingly, you break down in a flood of overwhelming gratitude. It's been Alfred, and only Alfred, all along.


You've only ever encountered one thing while alive, though you don't realize it.

Every sound? This thing. Every taste? This thing. Every memory, belief, emotion; this thing.

Your sense of time? Yup. Your sense of self, of existence? The one thing. Your entire process of reasoning? The one you use whenever you deny, with ultimate certainty, the one thing? Most ironically of all, it too is only that one thing. You just never bothered to look.

"Pfft. Why should I look? What could it change? Even if I noticed what you say, I could explain it. You see, it's quite simple. It's caused by some other thing that I've, uh, never experienced. And neither has anyone else."

And so instead of turning to face and simply notice The One Thing you've literally ever seen, you come up with series of grand dismissals. All of which are, of course... made of the very thing you're dismissing.

"Well, that other thing [matter] causing this only thing [consciousness] may not be directly experienceable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist!"

(Actually, sorry, I have to pause for this marvelous opportunity...)

So if it doesn't reveal itself to you in its Infinite Glory, I hope you'll forgive it. Whether or not you realize it, you've spent literally your entire life* using it to deny its existence. But then again, since Time is made of it**, maybe that's not such a big deal after all.

* Actually, that's not entirely true. Every now and then, while out in nature, you get a whiff of something impossibly beautiful. And for the briefest of moments, the overwhelming gratitude brings you face-to-face with it, and you smile knowingly at yourself. But then you walk on....

** Try this out, just for fun. Notice how a movie screen doesn't age based on what's playing on it. In a similar way, notice how the contents of your experience are ever-changing, but what you fundamentally are -- the space through which these experiences move -- does not change one iota based on it. Now notice if you can get the vague sense that being five years old was just yesterday. Perhaps, just a moment ago....

Monday, August 1, 2016

A more beautiful world

The other day some friends and I were waiting in a longish line at a popular pizza place. The weather was fantastic, and we had a dog with us, so we were excited to sit outside. But with so many people there, how?

I got to watch my mind go through a fascinating process.

We could just grab the first table that opens, and hang out until we order and get the pizza. But then what about the people ahead of us? Where would they sit?

On the other hand, there were others there who seemed to be employing exactly that strategy. If that's just what it takes to get a table these days, maybe I should just embrace it?

No, I should take the high road and wait, and be at peace with the fact that others aren't as considerate as I'd like them to be (and as considerate as me).

But I can't change the world by myself, and there's really nothing more lonely and depressing than being the Lone Buddha.


Well what if I took joy in generosity? Not the kind of self-congratulating joy that's waiting for a pat on the back, but genuine joy?

Something in my mind is warning me that it's a trap: it's the booby prize, the most extreme of delusions, that tells me that everything's fine -- no, wonderful! -- when I'm really just a doormat.

Just for kicks, sometimes I decide to put that warning on mute. If I'm a doormat, I'm going to be the most joyful doormat in the damn universe. Bring it.

And perhaps it's just a coincidence, but sometimes unexpected doors seem to open up as a result. Doors of opportunity, doors of delight. Doors hidden in plain sight, that somehow I didn't notice. Were these doors always there, waiting for me to notice, or is the universe generating them as a response to these connections with love?

And I start to notice the people I didn't see before, being generous just out of sight. I'm not alone after all! Maybe there's hope!

I have to be careful not to see this all as just another transactional interaction: I be nice, universe pays me back. That's just being a karma whore. But I'm also not capable of being good just because it's the "right thing to do." I'm also now convinced it's not healthy.

But somewhere deep inside, I know that there's a more beautiful world possible. I don't know how to get from here to there, but sometimes I can hear the universe beckoning with an encouraging word.

I hope I one day have the courage to follow it down the rabbit hole.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


Close your eyes and pay attention to some physical sensation, such as the feeling of your feet on the ground. Can you get the sense that the sensation is glowing out of a dark background? Not the visual glowing of light, exactly, but the glowing of experience itself? You are experiencing something there rather than nothing, and that something-ness might also be called glowing.

This glowing-ness is the stuff of which experience is made. Notice that sounds are also made of glowing-ness, despite their overt differences from physical sensations. However different physical and auditory sensations may seem, they share the same essential component: they glow. The same is true of all your physical senses, as well as your mental field: all thoughts, memories, emotions, beliefs, etc.

Look carefully, and you'll see that all of what you call "reality" is somehow made of it.

Consider the experience of time. Notice that you never actually experience time. It's always now. Instead, you experience "memory" -- itself nothing but another form of glowing -- and another manifestation you label "anticipation," and finally something called "reasoning" convinces you that time must exist, and that you've actually experienced it.

Given that you've never actually experienced time, why does it feel so strongly like you have? Maybe you just haven't looked closely enough yet....

What about the constellation of sensations you collectively call "me"? When a certain glowing called "body" arises, it's followed quickly by the feeling "that's me." When the sound of a bird glows, it doesn't generate that feeling. Nothing inherent in the glowing differentiates them as "me" or "not-me." All glowing is impersonal.

If all of what you experience is impersonal glowings, then to whom is all this glowing happening? Must there be some invisible and intangible and forever unknowable person there, experiencing it all? After all, anything experienceable is just more impersonal glowings.

Or perhaps the glowing experiences itself, and there's nobody else there needed to experience it: maybe this whole show is just glowing-ness glowing to itself. Maybe this is what you're marveling at whenever you feel gratitude for being alive. Pure magic.

Suppose you now think: "oh, this is no big deal, it's all just a trick of the brain." That thought is a glowing, just like any other. But it gives you an excuse to take it for granted, to turn your back on the one thing that constitutes your entire life, existence, reality.

Awakening isn't about you waking up; it's about the light of experience waking up to itself -- and discovering that this entire dream of space, time, matter, and a self navigating it, is one glorious manifestation of itself.

We think we have a pretty good idea of what's going on in reality, that our beliefs are firmly grounded. But until you actually get down and dirty with the fundamental stuff of which thoughts, beliefs, and reasoning are made, don't be too sure. The most astonishing of illusions is being played out, and it would be a shame not to chase the rabbit down the hole.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A brief meditation tip

Suppose you decide to pay attention to your breath. A few minutes (or seconds) later, you notice that you're daydreaming instead of paying attention. What's the difference in the latter state from the former? Two things:

(A) The content of your experience (or the aim of your attention). Before, it was the breath; now, it's random thoughts.

(B) The mode of your experience: you lost the sense of being aware what your mind is doing. In the former, you were paying attention to the breath and had the feeling (though not the thought) "this is what I'm paying attention to." In the latter, that sense has been lost.

Practice a few times until you notice that distinction. (A) is about attention, and (B) is about awareness, or that sense of knowing what's taking place in your experience.

Mindfulness meditation is largely about recovering the sense described in (B) whenever it's lost. You don't even have to hold on to it once it's recovered. Just relax a bit and it will hang around for at least a short time. Then, if you discover it missing again, just gently recover it (though you could say that the discovery is the recovery). Above all, don't scold yourself. Just appreciate the brief moments of presence.

With practice, the content of your experience (distinction A) becomes less and less important, and the effort of attention may be totally relaxed.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Where the buck stops (again)

All and everything you have ever experienced has been made of consciousness.

This isn't something you have to take my word for. It's not some philosophy I'm trying to hawk.

You may object that I haven't defined the word "consciousness" -- and it's true, I haven't. That's because I want you to examine your experience of the world and discover its meaning for yourself. Pick any sound or sensation and really try to intuit what I might mean when I say that it's "made of consciousness." Experience it directly, without thoughts as intermediaries, until you see.

Now do this with another sensory or mental phenomenon. One by one, each element of your field of experience falls to this investigation.

If you manage to pay close enough attention without getting distracted, you may begin to sense that this consciousness stuff is miraculous. It's somehow all there is, in which case it couldn't have been created by something else.

It goes deeper. Consciousness takes on a certain configuration you call "memory," from which you infer there must have been a past. It takes on a form you call "anticipation," and you believe there's a future. It takes on the form called "reasoning" and you infer that something called "time" must exist -- though you've never experienced any such thing. Without past or future, when could consciousness have been caused?

What you used to think of as an external, physical reality, is now seen to be nothing more than consciousness. What's more, there's no longer a separate "you": that feeling of being a separate self is also nothing more than consciousness. So it's all just consciousness experiencing itself.

At some point it might occur to you: "hey wait a minute, how do I know that this isn't all a trick, caused by a real, physical brain?" A perfectly valid concern, I think you'll agree.

What happens next depends on your ability to keep up this nonconceptual analysis. Either you'll get tangled up (probably without realizing it) in hypothesis, speculation, and imagination about whether there's a magical "real world out there" that's by definition perfectly inaccessible to us; or you'll experience that entire mental process as being made of... you guessed it: consciousness.

In one case, you'll fall back into the drama of being an isolated individual, fighting his way through time in a strange and fundamentally "other" universe. In the other, you finally bear witness to the infinite majestic, marvelous, glorious miracle of life!, existence!, consciousness!

Again, the point is not to adopt a new philosophy, or to abandon your old one. If you're a materialist, keep being a materialist. The point is to spend enough time in this mode where all of existence is insubstantial, timeless, and self-less. Or rather, to spend enough time noticing that this is how it's always been for you. If your certainty in some "other" reality that's causing this one evaporates as a side-effect, that's fine too.

What does it mean to feel alive? It means that the poignancy, the vibrancy of this substanceless substance is not being ignored, not being hindered, not being explained away as a mere consequence of something else (neurotransmitters?). If feeling totally alive is what you want, maybe it's time to start paying attention to this unique substance of life in all its infinite glorious expressions.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Boredom is the effluent secreted by a mind so lost in its own projections that it fails to register the sheer miracle of existing at all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

You're alive

How often do you notice that you're alive?

You think: sure, I'm alive, so what?

But that's not noticing it at all. You mapped the word "alive" onto some concept and did some mental arithmetic to verify the statement. But did you look?

An ancient Tibetan saying goes:

So close you can't see it
So deep you can't fathom it
So simple you can't believe it
So good you can't accept it

Monday, May 30, 2016

Turtles and sweaters

We've looked a few times at how to investigate the nature of experience. As you do so, you probably notice that nothing is immune to the investigation: every texture, every color, every thought is itself nothing but this pure self-knowing "stuff" called consciousness (or whatever label you give it). The belief that this process works; the belief that it doesn't; the belief that it points to something true; the belief that it doesn't... all are felled in precisely the same way.

The belief in time, the seeming experience of it, the belief in a self, the seeming experience of it, the fear that this may be heading somewhere beyond your control, the sense liberation in realizing just where it is leading... all succumb.

As this process deepens and uproots, there are sticking points. Places where you plant down a stake and proclaim "dammit, this shall not vanish!" It doesn't feel like an act of will, of course: the best and cleverest strongholds are the ones upheld by legitimate, objective, external evidence. There are also those that play to your moral intuitions: if this vanishes as an objective truth, I'll turn into a monster!

But sooner or later, they will all fall by the same process. The process that started the deconstruction is like a turtle that walked away with a thread of the sweater in its mouth. It's not letting go.

So it's fine: take a rest on whatever certainty you've found conviction in. There's a long journey ahead, and there's no reason you shouldn't be allowed to stop and catch your breath.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

You are the universe experiencing itself?

What do you feel when you read quotes like these?

You are the universe experiencing itself.

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Probably a little bit of awe and wonder. Pretty neat, huh? We're made of star dust and stuff.

But how literally do you take the quotes? How deep do they really point?

If you're into meditation, try this out (for a century or two, if you have to): discover whether the feeling you call "I", and the thing(s) you call "all of existence" are actually different. I'm sure you can get at least a whiff of it if you're honest for a few seconds. "The things I experience" are made up of the very same "stuff" I marvel at when I notice that "I'm alive."

What happens when you become still to the point where you discover that they're actually precisely the same?

I'll give you a hint: it's not a little bit of awe and wonder to discover that you've -- you have -- created an entire cosmos out of yourself for the sheer spectacle of it. Or so I've heard.

But so what if that's is what you experience? It's just the brain playing tricks with itself, putting a cute spin on the world as best it can. You are, after all, just an individual, trying to make sense of the world through very limited physical capacities.

And that's the story you shall continue to tell yourself, until finally one day you can't hold in the joke any longer.

Monday, May 23, 2016


Is everyone doing the best they can? It's easy to come up with arguments for both "yes" and "no."

Which one is right? If I have good arguments for both, it's probably because neither one is true. Maybe people only sometimes do the best they can? Or maybe they're always doing reasonably well?

I think the answer is actually more interesting. People are always doing the best they can, in a meaningful sense -- but that doesn't mean we need to behave as though they were. It's possible to hold both in mind at the same time: people only ever do the one thing they are able to do in a given moment with all of its constraints, but that doesn't mean that they're not capable of more.

I was reminded of this after seeing a sign I liked that went something like: "be kind to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise." Contrast that to another favorite quote of mine: "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

Could it be that everyone is simultaneously an angel or buddha, and also deserving your utmost kindness? That they're perfectly capable of handling their own suffering, but that paradoxically this doesn't reduce your responsibility one bit?

If you need to save everyone, you end up with conceit, guilt, pity. If nobody needs your help, you fall into apathy. The solution isn't as simple as only some people needing your help.

Everybody does, and nobody does.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Breaking down the mystery

There's a hilarious scene from the show Silicon Valley where this guy is giving a eulogy:

We do this with the Great Mystery. You have the big epiphany. HOLY. SHIT. WHERE THE... HOW THE...?!

And then the conceptual mind takes over.

"Let's break it down into its three component elements: space, time, and stuff..."

At the heart of all we think we know is the deep mystery. And at the heart of the deep mystery lies a deep knowing that is so immediate it can’t be mediated by words. A silent certainty that all is well. An unshakeable conviction that all that really matters is love. 
This is the sublimely comical insight that has been passed down to us through countless generations of men and women who’ve dared to be spiritual explorers. The simple realization which seems like nothing but changes everything. The truth that will set you free. 
Not-knowing is the doorway to all you can truly know and all you need to know. 
Enter there. 
Because that’s where the party is.
--Tim Freke, The Mystery Experience

Friday, May 13, 2016

All consciousness, all the time

Feel the sensation of your foot on the ground. That sensation is consciousness. I don’t mean that consciousness is the activity by which you experience the sensation; I mean that some stuff called consciousness has taken on a particular configuration that you describe as “me feeling my foot on the ground.”

You could also call this property “beingness.” It’s actually misleading to call it a “property,” because it’s not a property of something else. It is instead the sheer fact of existence and being-experienced-ness rolled into one.

These things — existing and being experienced — are not actually separable. That’s because they aren’t two different things, but two different concepts we’ve invented for the same thing. This probably sounds preposterous: obviously the Eiffel Tower exists even when it is not being experienced. But notice what actually happens while you are making this assertion. You imagine the Eiffel Tower (or at least the words) — that is, you experience that imagined thought — and then experience the thought “there, that thing exists even though I am not experiencing it.” But at no point in this process did you encounter some thing that existed without being experienced. (Indeed, what would that even mean?)

Which isn’t to say that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t exist when it’s not being experienced — that’s quite beside the point. I’m not trying to feed you a philosophy about the world. I’m trying to call attention to a feature of your experience that you may have overlooked before. In brief: all and everything you have ever experienced is this stuff we’re calling consciousness, including all the thoughts screaming that there must be something outside experience to explain all of this.

If you find yourself trying to intellectually confirm or deny what I’m saying, I’ve missed my goal. The goal is to repeatedly call attention to the sheer fact of experience. Not experience as some abstract activity, but as the stuff out of which everything in your present reality is made.

Your experience of time? That’s also just consciousness taking on a particular form. Spend a moment and confirm for yourself that this is true. You never actually experience time. Instead, you experience memory and anticipation, and then the thought that “therefore there must be time.” Memory, anticipations, and time are all just configurations of consciousness. What you call "time" is just another clever rearrangement of consciousness.

Brick by brick, every bit of your experienced world is revealed to be of a single flavor: the flavor of awakeness contorting itself into a marvelous display. Yet there is a bastion deep in your mind, still holding out: yes, perhaps the world I experience is all consciousness, but there is a real reality "out there" to explain all this. Maybe so. But you owe it to yourself to discover firsthand what that bastion is made out of. By now you already suspect the answer, but it will defend itself valiantly until you walk up to it with a microscope. "Don't listen to this guy." "None of this proves anything. I can prove it." "Prove-ity prove prove."

But we're not done yet. Here comes a big one.

Your sense of existing, of being someone looking out of your eyes, is just one more configuration of the same stuff. If that is so, then who is experiencing all this stuff? If you’ve been following closely, you’ll notice that the question is incoherent. Consciousness does not require a someone else to experience it. It is itself the sheer fact of experience. The feel of your foot on the ground; the pixels making up your visual field; the supposed experience of time; the thoughts in your mind; the sense of being the one experiencing all this: all just consciousness experiencing itself. It is the subject and the object. There's no "you" behind it all.

Perhaps I’ve lost you by now. If so, that’s okay: you at least have the tools to investigate what I’m saying. Why would you actually do so? Perhaps a long-buried part of you (“you”) recognizes something in these words. Perhaps bit by bit the recognition comes back: oh shit, this show is all consciousness, all the time — all pure fucking magic, all the time. If so, cultivate that recognition. (And if this has the sense of pulling the rug out from under your own feet, you're definitely on the right track.) You may already sense that it leads somewhere impossibly good.

Footnote: every time someone marvels at the existence of the universe and tries to figure out its origin, or at the existence of life and its origin, or at how the brain (supposedly) creates consciousness, they're really marveling at this. Consider: consciousness is the property whose very appearance gives you reason to exclaim "holy shit, a universe exists!" or "I exist!" or "I'm alive!"

From this perspective, all of these recognitions are just whispers of awakening bringing itself into our awareness in ways that we can appreciate intellectually -- and thus take seriously.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Zomg, luminosity

Pick a sensation somewhere in your body that you can clearly feel, such as the pressure of your feet on the ground. Now close your eyes, and see if you can get a sense of what I mean when I say that this sensation is "luminous" -- as though it were glowing out of a dark background. Take thirty seconds and really get a sense of that. That luminosity is the topic of this post.

Notice that luminosity is the property by which you experience the sensation at all. If it were not luminous, you wouldn't be experiencing it. To be more precise, luminosity isn't just one among many properties of the sensation; the sensation is itself nothing more than luminosity in a particular configuration.

How is this luminosity experienced? Our usual mental framework is dualistic: luminosity is "over there" and I am "over here" and I experience it. Now let me suggest an alternate framework that may be hard to get your head around at first.

Luminosity does not need anything else to experience it. By its mere existence, its very luminosity, it is being experienced. Any need for a separate experiencer is extraneous. In a sense it is both the subject and the object of experience -- as though it is experiencing itself. But our mind is unable to make sense of such a statement, so it infers a subject sitting inside the head doing the experiencing.

It may sound like I'm trying to convince you of something true about the world. But actually I'm just trying to point out something interesting about your experience of the world that's easy to overlook.

Now notice how this luminosity doesn't apply only to the sense of touch, but to all five physical senses, as well as to mental content. Listen to something, and notice how sound is just another manifestation of this nondual luminosity. So are thoughts and emotions.

That nondual luminosity is the sole ingredient of all experience, and from it, we infer all sorts of other things. For example, we never actually experience time passing. It's always now, and from memory and anticipation we infer the existence of time. The existence of space and of a self experiencing it all are also inferences.

I'm not saying "time isn't actually real." I'm saying that we infer its reality and then think that we are directly experiencing it. Isn't it true that if I were to say "you've never actually experienced time," your first reaction would be puzzlement or dismissal? You think you experience time, and only close inspection reveals that it's false.

Now for a bold claim: if you could differentiate between what you actually experience and what you think you experience, your certainty in an external, objective reality would start to disintegrate.

That probably sounds crazy. Obviously there really is an objective reality, and if some practice were to break down your certainty of this fact, then that practice is dangerous and foolish.

But there's also an upside. You simultaneously begin to notice that the luminosity is magical, marvelous, mysterious, miraculous beyond belief. There is real magic in the world, and you have an ever-present front row seat to it! It is the gift to end all gifts, and you cannot help but be utterly humbled and awed by the spectacle.

It puts all other miracles into perspective.

"I'm alive!" is just another way of saying: holy shit, luminosity!!
"A universe exists!" That's you marveling at all the luminosity.
"I'm conscious!"... yet again, a yelp of surprise that there is luminosity.

In brief, it's the one and only thing you have always been looking for -- as well as, paradoxically, the one and only thing you've ever encountered. Maybe at some point it would be worthwhile to stop overlooking it and give it the attention both you and it long for.


Some words about meditation. Often, meditation goes like this: I notice how my mental state is now, and I subtly try to maneuver it toward some more optimal state. Perhaps if I'm really ambitious, toward the optimal state called "enlightenment." But in doing this, I'm missing out on noticing that the whole framework of "I" and "time" and everything else is just a manifestation of the very luminosity I seek. I run away from what I'm trying to find. All effort has this effect. And so it is said: nothing to do, nowhere to go.

If this is too radical, you can try something simpler. You could bask in the glory of the luminosity, without a care in the world about the particular forms it happens to be taking. Of course, even the ideas of "basking" and "luminosity" are extraneous in that place, but it seems an apt enough description. It may still not be easy, but sometimes having a conceptual framework to scaffold trust is worthwhile.

So, when meditating, don't worry about the expression (details) of the luminosity, and instead notice its essence. With respect to the conceptual domain, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche says:
The essence itself is totally free of conceptual thinking. Yet, at the same time, its expression is conceptual thinking. Do not focus your attention on the expression. Rather, recognize the essence: then the expression has no power to remain anywhere. At this point, the expression simply collapses or folds back into the essence. As we become more stable in recognizing the essence free from conceptual thinking, its expression as conceptual thinking becomes increasingly baseless or unfounded. As conceptual thinking diminishes and finally vanishes, what is left to cause us to wander in samsara? The very basis for samsaric existence is none other than conceptual thinking. 
And from Keith Dowman:
Reality—the “reality” that is evoked on every page of Longchenpa’s text—is the light of the mind that shines equally and inescapably in every moment of existence. Much of the difficulty of Dzogchen translation into English arises from the multiplicity of expression, the fine nuance of terminology, employed to evoke this fundamental luminosity. It is the single most important, unique assumption of Dzogchen that this light is self-existent and self-aware and in fact the sole ingredient of all our experience. This light is the great mystery of nondual mysticism. When we comprehend that Dzogchen is based upon the assumption that all and everything, consciousness and every form of experience, is naturally composed of this light, then we are able to read without let or hindrance the technical exposition of its revelation that allows the light to shine out in all its brilliance. The innate awareness of this pristine nondual brilliance is called rigpa.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


You find yourself in a strange situation called "life." You think you've been here for decades, but it's impossible to know for sure. Maybe you were dropped here five seconds ago, and everything before that is a fake memory. Hell, maybe not even five seconds ago -- maybe only now.

So here you are, in a completely fresh -- not to mention outrageously surprising and wondrous -- situation called "life."

And it just keeps fucking happening. What's going on here? Isn't that the most pressing question of all? By far?

Okay, so you learned a bunch of stuff in school. The official story explains everything: quarks and photons and neurotransmitters, oh my! But you're not satisfied. You want to dig deeper, somehow. Where to dig?

Maybe you start by noticing that you've never actually experienced time.

Wait, what?

Well, from your perspective, it's always now. "The past" is an inference you make from a present experience called "memory." "The future" is just another label for "anticipation." You don't need to worry about whether these things "really exist" -- you just notice that the only versions of them you'll ever know about are mere inferences, and nothing more. No matter how good those inferences are, they're still just inferences. You feel compelled to dig deeper. Deeper!

Okay, what can we be totally damn sure about? That we don't have to infer?

Let's start simple: something is happening.

Whoa, hold on cowboy. You're moving too fast. Let's start simpler: something seems to be happening.

Close your eyes. Feel the feeling of your feet on the ground. You don't know whether there are really feet or really a ground, but there's for sure a seemingness you call feeling.

Open your eyes. From the void springs forth... colors! Holy shit. More seemingness, this time with a different name: vision.

Your whole world seems to be constructed of seemingness. You can't really get simpler than this seemingness, and everything else seems to reduce to it!

"I'm alive!" is nothing more than some fancy words meaning... "wow, seemingness!"

"Wow, a universe exists!" Just another cry expressing the sheer, surprising recognition: "seemingness!"

"I'm conscious!" Yet again: seemingness!

Life, the universe, existence, consciousness! All these mysteries, just different expressions of the one. Without seemingness, would you think (or even be able to think) "life?" With seemingness, don't you necessarily come to the conclusion "life?"

At last, the necessary and sufficient condition.

But is this the big prize we've been waiting for? It seems awfully trivial. I mean, what can you do with it? Philosophize about it? Gawk at it? In what way can this information possibly help you?

Well, if it's left as information, it can't. Instead, you might try to soak in it.

Of course, it being all there really "is" anyway, aren't you already doing that? Yes -- but are you doing it knowingly? Moreover, are you doing it without layering lots of philosophizing on top?

Maybe you don't think of yourself as a philosopher, but actually all of your moments are (typically) loaded with metaphysical assumptions. For example, you probably feel dead certain that time exists. What else?

When seemingness appears in the form of vision -- for example, as a red circle -- you infer the existence of an object causing the vision as well as a subject (you) viewing it. But if you could actually drop the inference for a second you might describe it as the circle being self-luminous: it's not that there's a you aware of it; but by its mere existence, it is "aware of itself." (You might be able to get a glimpse of it with a simple practice: close your eyes and feel the sensation of your feet on the floor. Can you see what might be being pointed at to call this sensation a self-aware or self-luminous blob?)

This structuring of seemingness into subject and object is so transparent to you that you may not even understand what I'm pointing at. Like with time, the inference is so deeply ingrained that you can't imagine what life might be like without it. Perhaps you can't even detect it.

But this post isn't meant to take you all the way to undermining your metaphysical assumptions. Nor can I claim that I've gotten underneath all of mine.

It's just to suggest: maybe, at last, we've found a good place to dig into The Question.

If you're into meditation, occasionally check if your meditation is "above" or "below" the layer of your metaphysical assumptions. Does it feel like there's a "you" doing a thing called "meditating" through time? If so, maybe discover techniques that allow you to cut through those layers, if only for a second here and there.
When you start to dream, the dream begins as a thought, like one you would have in the daytime. But you’re asleep, so the thought intensifies and becomes something like talk or gossip, and then the gossip intensifies or solidifies into images, and then you really think that you’re seeing people, seeing places, going places, and so on. And that is how it works with conventional appearances [i.e., seemingly physical reality] as well.
-- Thrangu Rinpoche
If this is true, and we're weaving a seeming physical reality, where would you find a thread to pull on and unravel it all?

Sunday, March 6, 2016


What do you feel when you visit (or even imagine) a place like this?

I feel something unspeakably profound in my heart. A connection to something impossibly beautiful. Why? What is that?

Something interesting happens when I try to explain it.

The modern story explains it in terms of photons, neurotransmitters, and evolution. And you might wonder: what's wrong with that? Well, nothing's wrong with it. But let me try to communicate what gets lost in the process.

To do that, I'll first have to remind you of a seemingly trivial point: you cannot be certain about the nature of reality. Solipsism might be true, or we might be in something like the Matrix but stranger (where the "outside world" does not have constructs like matter, energy, and time). No amount of empirical evidence can completely rule out such exotic possibilities.

The key word is "completely." Because you can invoke Occam's Razor and say "well, we can be 99.999% certain that reductive materialism is true," and I'd agree with you. So am I quibbling over an extremely small and strange possibility?

No. What I'm suggesting is more subtle. I'm saying that instead of merely taking our preferred philosophy as reasonable or practical, we go the extra mile and embed its certainty deep, deep within our minds, below our conscious threshold.

So what's the problem?

Well, we end up "clipping" or truncating reality.

We no longer have access to a profound beauty we once knew. Everything becomes "just" this and "only" that. Just photons. Only neurotransmitters.

Even as you read that paragraph, you're probably thinking "yeah, so what?" or maybe "well, those things are incredibly profound themselves." And I'm not denying that they are. Instead, I'm suggesting that we are turning this:

Into this:

This second image is incredibly profound, and yet it pales in comparison to the first. Something is definitely lost. And if you could measure it accurately enough, you'd discover that the amount lost is actually infinite.

Okay, so now you're probably wondering: am I so arrogant to think that I have a better view than yours?

No. I'm suggesting that it's incredibly worthwhile to learn to dig underneath one's philosophy of the world, and ultimately, to reside there. What awaits is a treasure so profound as to be unspeakable.

I invite you to venture there yourself and compare the view, and then decide for yourself how you'd rather live. And I'd like to give you some confidence that you won't lose your rational mind in the process, even if you'll have to transcend it on your way down.

The more time you spend there, the more you'll wonder why you ever settled for "justs" and "onlys."

What does nature have to do with any of this? I'm not sure. I just know that it seems to be particularly good at puncturing the story, if I allow it to.

It's like something is whispering: wake up, come home....

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Choose your own adventure

Read the story from my last post. Let's play a "Choose your own adventure" with it. Imagine you're the protestor who's just been slammed into the ground. Here are some things you could choose to do:

1. Shout "f--- you po-lice!"

2. Decide that you'll elicit more outrage and sympathy by pretending to be forgiving, making the officer look all the worse.

3. Be as genuinely loving as Pancho actually was.

I'll bet that the officer went home and reflected on his life choices after what Pancho did. I'd guess the officer would have dug his heels in even further after options 1 and (particularly) 2.

Now imagine how you would feel about the officer after outcomes 2 and 3. After two, you'd feel entirely justified, and more emboldened, in your certainty that the officer is a jerk. After three, you'd feel vindicated (though possibly not surprised) that he's fundamentally good.

And I bet the total amount of love and good will in the world goes up in world three, and down in world two (especially given that many people would have seen or heard of the event).

From one perspective, you could say that your decision in such a moment actually creates a world in which there is more or less love. Some say the effect is there even when it's not so public.

You can't fool reality

Pancho Ramos Stierle runs a peace house on the border between two gang territories in what is considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, California. People tell me that more than once, local individuals have entered the house with the intention to rob or kill, only to be converted into peace workers instead.  
Years ago, Pancho was involved in a protest at UC Berkeley, where he was a PhD student in astrophysics. He was one of a group of students publicly fasting to protest the university’s involvement with nuclear weapons development. After nine days, the university got tired of it and had the police come and make an example of the group of hunger strikers. Police officers broke the human chain the protesters had made by interlocking their arms, and one officer lifted the slight Pancho into the air, slammed him onto the concrete, and brutally handcuffed him. 
At this point, most of us would probably fall into the story and the habits of separation. We might respond with hatred, sarcasm, judgment. Lacking the physical force to overcome the police, we might try to publicly humiliate them instead. If it were me, I imagine, my lifelong indignation at the injustices of this world would be projected onto the person of this police officer. Finally, someone to blame and to hate. The worse his persecution of me, the more gratified I would feel, the more a martyr, innocent, blameless. It feels kind of good, doesn’t it, to have someone inhuman to hate without qualification. One feels absolved. And, by personifying evil, the problems of the world appear much simpler— just get rid of those awful people. 
Pancho responded differently. 1 He looked the officer in the eye and said, with love and with no attempt to make him feel guilty, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” The officer was momentarily befuddled. Then Pancho asked his first name and said, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.” [Awkward pause.] “Yes.” “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?” 
Amazingly, the officer accepted the invitation. 2 How could he not? He loosened Pancho’s handcuffs and those of the other protesters. The power of Pancho’s action came because he was standing in a different story, and standing there so firmly that he held the space of that story for other people such as the policeman to step into as well. 
The Tao Te Ching says: “There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy. Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil. Thus you destroy your three treasures and become an enemy yourself” (verse 69, Mitchell translation). The stories of Pancho and my son illustrate this. I shudder to think of the misfortune that could have resulted from “underestimating” the enemy. 3 Even if the policeman had been humiliated or punished, even if the thief had been crushed, the real “enemy” would have flourished. The level of hate would not have diminished in this world.  
I want to be absolutely clear that for words like Pancho’s to work, they must be absolutely authentic. If you say them and don’t mean them, if you are actually saying them with the goal of showing your persecutor up as all the more villainous for having spurned your nonviolent loving-kindness, then he will probably oblige by enacting that villainy. People, especially police officers, know when they are being manipulated, and they don’t like it. The purpose of responding nonviolently isn’t to show what a good person you are. It isn’t even to be a good person. It comes, rather, from a simple understanding of the truth. Pancho meant what he said. He knew that the police officer didn’t really want to do this. He looked at him with the unshakable knowledge, “This isn’t who you really are. Your soul is too beautiful to be doing this.”

What's the mechanism by which this works? What is the mechanism by which the officer could detect his sincerity or lack thereof? The obvious answer is that all relevant information had to be communicated via light and sound waves, themselves generated by facial and vocal muscles.

In that case, there's presumably a way to have impure intention and still fool another person. Maybe you can really get away with this.

But what if you can't?

At least, not forever. What if, one way or another, intention "leaks" into the physical world?

And more: what if you can't fool yourself either? What if I'm constantly creating cover stories: maybe I can not give up my seat, and still have plausible deniability, both to the world and to myself, that I'm still a good person. Maybe we all do this, until bit by bit, we discover that it doesn't work. Somehow, it cannot work. And all the troubles of the world will continue until we confront this within ourselves. All the rest is just cover stories.

Of course, there's no way to convince anyone (including myself) of this possibility. It's just too strange.

Then again, why try to convince anyone? What if I simply opened up to the possibility that something deeply "in here" has im-mediate (i.e., unmediated; direct) action "out there?" What am I afraid of losing?

On the other hand, what if there is real magic to be found in the world -- and all it takes is the simple willingness to discover it?

Maybe that invitation has been standing for quite some time.

Maybe all I have to do is look.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Big Bang of Experience

Holy shit... something

Let me try to lead you to a sense of the mystery I'm talking about, and then to some "close" analogues of it.

Try to imagine what it was like the first time you experienced... anything. Tall order, I know (unless you're currently on a DMT trip or being born, maybe). The problem is that right now you have all these conceptual filters in place, making sense of everything, making it hard to remember what the initial shock and awe must have been like. But just pretend.

From nothing, an explosion of colors and sounds -- though you haven't yet categorized them as such. It's just... something-ness where "before" there was nothingness. (I use "before" loosely, since it doesn't make sense to speak of what it was like "before experience.") You don't yet have the concepts to form "holy shit," but a rough description is:

Holy shit, something!

The mind-blasting awesomeness of this moment cannot be captured in words, but you probably have at least a faint sense of what I'm pointing at. It also cannot be stored in memories, which is why we typically have only a faint recollection that something unspeakably, impossibly awesome and awesomely impossible once happened.

Now, this "something" has not yet been conceptually split into a "self" and a "world," or a subject and object. It's certainly not yet "me" experiencing "matter." Those concepts will take some time to congeal from the explosion. As of yet, it's just... well, it's just really hard to talk about. Before the subject-object split, there's no sense that there are two different aspects: something being experienced, and someone experiencing it.

I'll try to point out a remnant of that nondual recognition in your present experience.

Try to feel some exuberance at being alive: wow, it feels great to be alive!

Did you have some sense of the world "brightening," or becoming more alive to your senses? So, was it you that livened up, or the colors, sounds, etc. that constitute your world that did? Can you imagine the sights and sounds of the world being overwhelmingly intense without you feeling quite alive yourself?

Try to get a sense of that. The intensity of your experienced world (of which your body is a part) is your aliveness. There aren't two different things there. This is a strong hint, and as close as I can come to explaining what the explosion of experience would have initially been like: sheer aliveness, as of yet attributed to neither a "you" or a "world." We normally think "I am alive" and "the world exists," but as far as our experience is concerned, those aren't two different things.

Shortly thereafter, the intellect came online, and desperately tried to make sense of it all.

Aliveness?! How?! From where?!

I contend that most (maybe all) of what we do in life is to try to recover that primordial epiphany of aliveness. I also think that much of what science is trying to do is to explain it. Which is all well and good, but let's revisit the ways in which it may be fundamentally unsatisfying.

Let's science the shit out of this!


Biology seeks to explain this aliveness by objectifying "life." After all, you can't study something unless you objectify it. It's really hard to pin down life, and this is about the best we've done. Ready? We're about to pin down the big epiphany:
Life: the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
A valiant effort, but it falls "a little" short of the  I was originally after. Even if I play along, and patiently await an explanation for the above definition, I swear on my grave that there's no combination of enzymes and redox reactions that will "explain" the Big Question for me.

That's not to say that the details of biology aren't overwhelmingly amazing in their own right -- they certainly are, and make studying biology incredibly awesome -- but (again, this is only my suspicion) our questions about "life" were birthed by a realization even more stunning than the mechanisms of "growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change."


How about physics? Well, shortly after the intellect divided the indivisible glory of aliveness into a "me" and a "world," it sought to explain each separately. We inferred that this "world" was made of "stuff" and gave it a label ("matter"). By zooming in to discover its building blocks and looking back in time to its origins, we're hoping to answer the questions from above: (the material aspect of) aliveness?! How?! From where?!

Once again, the results of this line of inquiry have been incredibly fascinating, but an answer to this question doesn't scratch the itch of that question. Again, put yourself in the shoes of existence (/ experience) having just exploded out of fuckin' nowhere, with these ineffable questions (where the shit did this come from?!) exploding with them, only to be tossed a book full of equations. To invert a famous saying, those equations are not even wrong.


Finally, let's look at neuroscience. With physics having run with the "world" ball, neuroscience tries to tackle the "me" ball: where does this ability to experience anything come from? Having decided that physics comes first, the question takes the form: how does consciousness come from matter? This is called the Hard Problem of Consciousness, and is sometimes described as science's last remaining mystery.

And again I say, an explanation of how serotonin and glutamate "create" the wonder of aliveness are not at all what I was after. Nor will it help to try to feed me a denial, something that's increasingly in vogue:
"Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen." 
-- Michael Graziano, Princeton Neuroscience Prof. Yes, really.
Congratulations, Prof. Graziano, you have truly "science[d] the shit out of this." It's dead. You happy?


Finally, if you're religious, you can simply invoke the word "god" to explain it all away. That's all I'll say about that.

Conclusion and stuff

Okay, this post is getting long so let me try to hurriedly wrap it up.

We are desperately trying to explain something that clearly resists any and all "answers" in the form of explanations. Not because they're wrong, but because they're not what we were originally getting at. I mean it: origin-ally.

What if this big WTF?! isn't looking for an answer, but looking for us to get reacquainted with the question?

And more: what if all our late night TV binges, fancy restaurant experiences, and everything else we do for entertainment are just desperate attempts at trying to get reacquainted with it as well -- as best as we remember how? Not the "WTF" part of it, necessarily, but the overwhelming amazement at life? That's what we're trying to recover.

So why am I harping on this? Because I see a link between philosophical materialism (the idea that matter is the end of the story) and cultural materialism (the desire to have more and better material things). It's not that there's some moral failure here; it's that we're trying to recapture The Glory in a way that is doomed to failure -- and ravaging the planet as a side effect. And we don't quite see the connection yet; and the ravaging will continue until we do.

It's not that I've accomplished the task myself, and that I'm preaching to all you heathens needing to catch up. I'm just as far off as anybody. But I feel inspired, somehow, to share this sneaky suspicion with you. I also suspect that you suspect it, too. After all, like me, you're just one appendage of The Big Experience Bang, trying to call itself home, as well.


Okay, some notes:

  • I have clearly caricatured science. There's an incredible amount of wonder and mystery to be found while doing science. I feel the mistake is when we believe we're about to "capture" the mystery in our net -- and I believe this sentiment is very common. It manifests as the vague sense we all carry around that we've mostly figured it out (it's "just" inert matter and energy), with just a few details to iron out (like this pesky consciousness thing). Even though I don't believe it, even I carry around that feeling in a deep way.
    • Relatedly: while doing science, I have a remarkably hard time avoiding the sense that I'm getting closer to figuring it out. Nothing wrong with that feeling, but it precludes the experience I'm describing above.
  • I have also caricatured religion. I think the more sophisticated religious thinkers aren't using "god" as an answer, so much as a placeholder for and pointer back to the ineffable mystery; the glory that refuses to be captured.
  • I didn't explain why the ravaging will stop just because we rediscover this wonder. In (very) brief, it's because the wonder is accompanied by a peace and kindness beyond all understanding.