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.