Sunday, January 31, 2016

How to "do nothing":

First, enter a state of meditation in which you are simply aware, and not trying to bias your experience in any particular way. Things just enter and leave awareness exactly as they are, with no push or pull from you.

Then, notice that in this state, you are still trying to bias your experience: toward being aware and not zoned out; present and not distracted. Find the source of this intention -- the "thing" that is preferring experience to be this way and not that. Now let go of that intention completely. And as you notice other subtle intentions arising, other inclinations to adjust experience in any way, completely abandon those as well. Of course, you cannot maintain the intention to abandon intention (as this is just another intention).

The feeling of being someone doing something (meditation) should be abandoned. The feeling itself may not go away immediately, and that's okay. The process that's continually recreating that sense should be repeatedly interrupted.

Ultimate gratitude

Normally when we practice gratitude, it's gratitude for something in particular. But we often overlook the most amazing reason for gratitude: the very capacity to experience anything at all, gratitude included.

It's hard to communicate just how profoundly wondrous this is. I'm not going to bother trying. But I will suggest that when trying to recognize or rekindle that astonishment, we often end up settling for a mere intellectual imitation of it. Something along the lines of "oh yeah, brains are amazing." We end up missing the miracle itself.

I don't know if it's possible to communicate how to abandon that conceptual simulacrum in favor of the "real thing," but I think the "do nothing" practice may help.

Especially if one alternates it with the advice given by Wu Hsin:

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.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Declaring happiness by fiat

Notice whether these three things are true in your experience.

1. Happiness is ultimately all you really want. Everything you've ever wanted, you've wanted so that it makes you happy; reduces your discontentment; however you want to say it. Pick words that work for you, but realize what's being said. (No doubt you also want to be a kind person among many other things, but if being kind were distasteful to you -- as it is for psychopaths, for example -- then you wouldn't pursue it. The buck stops at happiness.)

2. You're willing to give up happiness now to ensure it later. When you get annoyed at your spouse, you're hoping that your annoyance will lead to change: you're trading in happiness now for possible happiness later. When you do work you don't like so that you can have it easy later, you're making the same tradeoff. You are endlessly willing to trade your now-happiness for potential later-happiness.

3. It is always now. It is never later.

To summarize:
  • You want only one thing.
  • That thing can only happen now.
  • You are never willing to let it happen now.

If the word "never" is too strong, consider what happens when you're reasonably happy. You're sitting on the beach enjoying a sunset. Chances are, there's a process working in your mind trying to figure out how to "gild the lily". For example, if you had enough money to retire, then you could enjoy this kind of thing every day, and then you'd really be happy. Yeah, let's start working on that problem!

So what's the solution? There's only one as far as I can see. Be happy now.

When? Now.

When? Now.

When? Now.

I bet you're trying to figure out "okay, but how?" The short answer is: there is no "how." You simply do it.

Because that probably sounds remarkably unhelpful, here are some training wheels you might use to discover what those useless-sounding words could possibly mean.

Pick something that you can be appreciative of. Your health, your job, your family. If all those things suck immeasurably, then the mere fact that you're alive.

The reason these are just "training wheels" is that each one has the potential to disappear, so it would be unskillful to tie your appreciation to any particular thing (or set of things). You're trying to develop the generic skill of appreciation, and those things are just props.

Ultimately, the only one that cannot disappear before you die is "being alive."

But when we say "I'm happy to be alive," what we really mean is "I'm happy to be conscious." If you're alive and unconscious, it's meaningless to "be happy"; if you were technically dead (say, as a ghost or zombie) and still conscious, well f--- yeah! Being "alive" in some technical sense has nothing to do with it.

And so, when you remove the training wheels of the particulars, you still have this one ridiculously amazing thing to be endlessly happy about now: you're conscious.

Another way of looking at things: trying to solve your problems (or anybody else's) is an awful life strategy. Why? Because the moment you "have a problem," you've locked yourself into the conundrum posed above. Something is only "a problem" if its existence makes you less than perfectly happy. (Is a beautiful sunset "a problem?" If, and only if, it hurts you in some way.) At that point you'll have no option but to "do something now to be happy later." So trying to solve your problems is a losing strategy in life. Go figure.

Some say that when you decide to be happy -- when you impose it on the universe by fiat -- the universe is given no choice but to "fill in the details." That is, to rearrange its contents to be congruent with your state. Or put another way still, to give you "reasons" to be happy; to "solve your problems." Of course this is pure nonsense. So no point in seeing whether it's true or not. May as well settle for the losing strategy above.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

On your sense of identity

This post may sound like philosophy. Maybe in some sense it is, but it's not meant to convince you of an idea, or to posit some ultimate truth. It's meant to point something out about your experience. At first, seeing what it's pointing to may elicit little more than a "yeah, so what?" But if you really manage to fully penetrate it, it can do a lot more than that.

Okay, let's begin.

Examine your field of experience -- the set of all things you're conscious of right now. You'll discover that it's made of (approximately) six distinct non-overlapping fields: your five basic sensory field plus your mental field. Let's unpack that a bit.

You see the world. The eyes may bring in the photons, but the seeing ultimately takes place in the mind. The "place" you see the world is precisely the same "place" you see a dream world at night. That's your visual "screen" or field.

You hear the world on an auditory "screen" or field, and under normal circumstances, it doesn't overlap with the visual field at all.

The same goes for the other four primary senses.

Now the "mental screen" is a little harder to describe. It's the "place" where thoughts, emotions, feelings, memories, etc. are happening. It may be a little strange to call it a "screen," so you can call it a "space" (or anything else) if you like. The point is that all the aforementioned phenomena occur in a "place" distinct from the five senses, and that together, these six fields comprise the entirety of your experience of the world (the real world, a dream world, or anything else).

Take a moment and see whether this is true in your experience. See if there's anything you experience outside these six fields. Some kinds of experiences (such as mental images) may be hard to categorize as specifically one or another field. You can feel free to pick a field to categorize them in, or even create a seventh category if you like. It won't change the argument.

Okay, now notice that everything you think of as "you," the person, is contained within these six sense fields. For example, right now you can see your body in your visual field, and feel it in the touch field. You also have a mental idea of what your body is like. You have memories of your younger self (which are a big component of what you think of as "you").

If that's a little abstract, consider what it feels like to be in a dream where you're a dog. The visual field has nothing in common with what you normally call "you". Neither do any of the other four sense fields. And it's completely possible that (at any given moment in the dream), nothing on the mental screen is in common with your normal one. In brief, there's nothing on those six experiential fields that could meaningfully be called [insert your name here]. And as we saw earlier, that's the entirety of your experience.

You could imagine something similar while you're awake. Someone scrambles your brain so that your body is visually replaced with someone else's, then the sound of your voice, then your personality, your memory, etc., until there's nothing of "you" left. Yet, what did this experience feel like? It probably felt something like this:

"Wow, my body is different. Now my voice is! And now I have someone else's personality and memories!" And maybe these thoughts are happening in someone else's voice. But the interesting thing here is that the sense of "I" continued throughout the whole process. Similarly, the "I" you had while being a dream dog is the same "I" you have now, even if all the details of experience differ.

Re-read the previous thee paragraphs until you grok this point: the sense of being "I" continues even while all the details of being [insert your name] disappear. To put this more bluntly: "I" is not [your name]. Say that out loud. To use better English, this would be "I am not [name]." Go ahead, say that out loud, and understand that it is experientially accurate.

Now you may be thinking that this is some trick of neurology. Some neurons that define "you" continued firing throughout the dream and the brain scramble above, and that explains the whole thing.

But return to your direct experience. All you need to see is that we could scramble all the details of your experience, and all the while, the sense that this is happening to "I" is unbroken. That this "I" is independent of any details. Can you see that?

This "I" is (experientially) your fundamental sense of identity, beingness, existence, and it is completely independent of your personality. Experientially speaking, fundamentally you are the sheer capacity for experience. All the other "stuff" (your personality) comes later, as an extrinsic layer.

To summarize a lot of Eastern philosophy: all problems stem from this weird thing we do where we confuse some of the details of our experience (e.g., the personality) to be our identity. In other words, from this conviction that "I am [name]" *.

You're not.

Traditionally, it's said that directly realizing this can be challenging. It's not a conceptual thing. But if you can follow the logic above, you'll see that there's really no other possibility, and that conceptual certainty can convince you to look very clearly until you see it for yourself.

* In truth it's a lot more subtle -- some people get beyond the "I am my personality" phase and still confuse some more subtle aspect of their experience (such as willing or witnessing) with their personality. But we don't have space to get into that here.