Friday, January 20, 2017

Are you really willing to drop your storyline?

You may have heard before that meditation is about dropping your storyline. At a surface level, this seems reasonable enough. Let go of your past worries and hangups and just be, right?

But the deeper you go, the more you find there is to drop. For example, can you detect in yourself the deep certainty that the past concretely exists? That something really did happen? It seems preposterous to suggest otherwise, but note that it is not at all a given. Bertrand Russell:

There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.
If you really grok what he is saying, it should profoundly startle you. There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into existence in this very moment. This may genuinely be the first moment you've ever existed.

But you just can't take that dead seriously, can you? It's one thing to understand this intellectually, and another to glimpse this strange and wondrous possibility. And so this is part of the story that you're as yet unwilling to loosen your death grip on: that the past really happened; I really have been alive before this very moment.

It can be glimpsed directly, immediately. You don't actually have to go through years of penance and austerity to see it. All that's required is your willingness. On the other hand, if you're like most of us, you won't be convinced to look until you have indeed spent many hours "earning" it.

Which is fine, of course, because all that time on the cushion can be enjoyable anyway.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Undoing metaphysics

What metaphysical assumptions do you hold that you are unwilling to reconsider? How about the assumption of an independently existing, objective, physical reality?

You may not think of this as an assumption at all, but it is one. Whatever evidence you have for it is equally good evidence for idealism ("the group of philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial").

Or you might recognize it as an assumption, but decide that your assumptions have no bearing on anything: reality will be the way it is, independent of them. Of course, this itself is an assumption that presupposes objectivity.

If you really wanted to test whether your assumptions influence reality, you'd have to do an A/B test. That is, you'd have to actually change your assumptions and discover what happens. You cannot rely on the results of other people having done so, since after all the world may not exist in the way you normally assume -- the very thing you're setting out to determine in the first place.

So how might you do such a thing?

One method is meditation. Unfortunately, many meditators hone their attention, but then turn around and use that attention to reinforce their existing assumptions -- albeit unconsciously. It's very common to sit there with the subtle feeling "I am located in time and space, honing my skills moment by moment." This is no way to go about undermining your assumptions.

Another possibility is to consider seriously the words of various philosophers who have raised profoundly skeptical issues. For example, David Hume's "problem of induction," stated simply, says that things having happened before gives no reason to suppose that they will continue to happen. There is no reason to believe, for example, that the laws of physics should continue to hold one second from now. (This is because, to justify induction, you must use an inductive argument: since induction has held in the past, it will continue to hold. This is circular.)

This probably strikes you as absurd. And it should:
It’s a good test of whether someone has actually understood Hume’s argument that they acknowledge its conclusion is fantastic (many students new to philosophy misinterpret Hume: they think his conclusion is merely that we cannot be certain what will happen tomorrow.)
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If Hume is right, the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is as unjustified as the belief that a million mile wide bowl of tulips will appear over the horizon instead. We suppose the second belief is insane. But if Hume is correct, the first belief is actually no more rational. This conclusion strikes us as utterly absurd, of course.
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Hume’s argument continues to perplex both philosophers and scientists. There’s still no consensus about whether Hume is right. Some believe that we have no choice but to embrace Hume’s sceptical conclusion about the unobserved. Others believe that the conclusion is clearly absurd. But then the onus is on these defenders of “common sense” to show precisely what is wrong with Hume’s argument. No one has yet succeeded in doing this (or at least no one has succeeded in convincing a majority of philosophers that they have done so).
The point is not to decide whether he's right or wrong (you're unlikely to resolve it, unless you're smarter than the last 250 years of brilliant humans). It is to notice just how unwilling the mind is to consider that the next moment might genuinely be completely unhinged from all that preceded it. It's like "yeahh... but no...."

If that example is too abstract, consider a simpler one. Last Thursdayism is the tongue-in-cheek idea that God created the universe last Thursday, and just planted all the seeming evidence of a past. It's used as a counter to young earth creationism. There's no way to disprove either idea. Bertrand Russell noted:
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.
Similarly, there's no way to disprove the possibility that it all sprang into being in this very instant. Yes, this one. As you read this, your mind is probably thinking: wait, which instant is it? This one, or the one from a few seconds ago? Hmm, there seems to be a contradiction here. I guess I disproved it!

But if you really grok what's being said, your world will shatter for a moment. It feels like having the whole universe yanked out from under you. In a sense, these are glimpses of what Buddhism calls "emptiness." Teacher Karl Brunnholzl says:
Emptiness not only means the end of the world as we know it, but that this world never really existed in the first place. If we really understand what that means, it is so scary we may freak out or have heart attacks like those arhats. Not necessarily, of course, because there are also reports of people who actually got it and had no heart attacks. Nevertheless, the main point is to dare to step into the infinite space of groundlessness, which is frightening because it questions everything that we are and everything that we think.
What is the point of realizing this "emptiness?" Perhaps an everyday example will help (and maybe be familiar). You're fighting with someone, totally sure that they've done something wrong, and that they are such-and-such a person. You can even prove it beyond any doubt (and you may even be right). But then suddenly, and against all reason, you discover a gap in which all of that certainty is totally erased. And in that same moment, as though by miracle, all their enmity collapses, and you can deeply forgive each other.

Of course, there are a thousand conventional explanations that don't require an explanation as high-caliber as emptiness. But the more you lean on them, the less willing and able you are to pull the rug out from under your feet in other difficult scenarios. And the more you find yourself in scenarios in which you seem to be bumping up against a solid world that stubbornly resists your attempts to mold it.

On the other hand, the more you're able to genuinely consider that you may actually be dead wrong about absolutely everything, the more a space opens up for the universe to be light and playful, and for it to surprise you in ways that you simply wouldn't allow it to before. Moreover, if your goal is to be happy (as it is for everyone), you discover fewer and fewer solid obstacles standing in the way.

So assuming you're already on a journey to discover more about the nature of reality, radically undermining your existing beliefs would be a fantastic place to start.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Unconditional happiness

Enlightenment has been described in many ways. In Hinduism it's about liberation (moksha). In Buddhism it's often called nirvana (extinguishment), though depending on the tradition you may more frequently see it described as "awakening" or "realization."

Just what is this that you're extinguishing, or awakening / being liberated from, or realizing?

Perhaps one clue comes from the Dalai Lama, who notes:
I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy.
Of course, you'll find dissenting opinions even within Tibetan Buddhism, and many people argue that a life of only happiness would be boring or impossible (because you can only be happy if you have some unhappiness to compare it with).

But suppose for a moment that unconditional happiness were desirable. For example, suppose the people are right who say that such happiness provides a foundation for both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and is thus not contradictory. What would be required to achieve such happiness?

Well, if it were truly unconditional, then it could not depend (i.e., be conditioned) on anything. This may not sound too radical. Everyone knows it's possible to be happy despite difficult circumstances, maybe even despite arbitrarily difficult ones. But to be truly unconditional, it cannot depend even on neurotransmitters; even on your own brain.

That probably sounds preposterous to you: obviously if I had perfect control of the Buddha's biology, I could take his happiness from him. Otherwise, physicalism and causality would go out the window and nothing would make any sense.

Of course, depending on your reading, Buddhism and Hinduism do say such preposterous things.

If you do not believe in such a thing as truly unconditional happiness (and all that it requires), then of course you will be unable to discover it. Even if you do believe in it, you may find your mind generating all sorts of reasons why it cannot be done right now. There's probably a lot of practice that needs to be done first, as evidenced by all those monks who spend thousands of hours meditating. More conventionally, there are bills that need to be paid, mouths that need feeding, etc.

In other words, you don't really believe that you're free of the past actions that made you who you are today (i.e., liberated from your karma). You believe that there really is such a thing as time that will change stuff until one day you are ready to realize the truth: that you are untethered right now, and always have been.

Perhaps you can see why the more radical teachers insist that there are no practices that will get you closer to the goal (even though conventionally they sure feel that way). The switch that gets flipped isn't caused by anything outside of yourself -- after all, how ironic would it be if something outside yourself caused you to realize that nothing outside yourself can cause you to be a certain way?

Instead, that switch is more like a decision. You simply decide that your joy is not under the control of anything else. Like any other decision, there's no way to really prepare for it. The phase of gathering evidence and weighing the outcomes can take as long as you like, but the decision is a discrete event. One moment you haven't decided, and the next moment you have.

But unlike other decisions, the decision is the outcome. Deciding to buy a certain car does not magically buy the car. But deciding to be happy? Keep it up for long enough and see what unfolds.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A journey of awakening

When you’re born, you’re just newly budded from God. A whole universe springs out of nowhere, though at first it’s just a crazy meaningless mishmash of colors and sounds (without those words). As you slowly make more sense of it, more concept solidify and form. Eventually, it's all concepts. In that sense, a baby is more enlightened than an adult.

Now look at the story from another perspective. There’s no such thing as time. You were never born. You are god, who decided to start dreaming up a universe into the Eternal Now. At first, the realm was utterly open, and you were smattering all manner of paints on your canvas. Bit by bit, you started to converge on something. You gave this process of congealing a name: time. Over time, the world gets more and more solid, heavy, fixed.

But then at some point, you become conscious of the fact that you’re doing this. And thus begins the path to awakening. As you consciously notice your act of creation, you begin to undo all the heaviness, all the separation, and return it to love. And as you move into perfect love, all trace of separation is undone, until finally you return to your original wholeness. It’s like the outbound journey, but with a crucial difference: you’re aware of it.

If you choose, the journey back can begin after many, many dreams of birth and death. Or it can happen in a moment. Either way, some part of you at this point knows the choice is always there.

Truly no limits

I love this quote from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche:

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.
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There are truly no limits to the creativity of your mind.
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To the extent that you can acknowledge the true power of your mind, you can begin to exercise more control over your experience.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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It is a state that literally includes all possibilities, beyond space and time.
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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.

What could he be talking about here? Is he just saying: your thoughts color your perceptions, and so you have a little wiggle room in how you experience reality? And what does he mean by "being a victim?"

One possibility is to consider that "your experience" or "your reality" do not differ from just "reality." Let's rewrite his words and see how that goes.

The essence of [Buddhism] can be reduced to a single point: The mind is the source of all reality, and by changing the direction of the mind, we can change the quality of everything in reality. When you transform your mind, everything in reality 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 reality.
...
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 reality. And the more deeply we believe something is true, the more likely it will become true in terms of reality.
...
What happens when you begin to recognize reality 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.

Does that sound a little too radical? Well, didn't he say it would be something we find "strange", "frightening," and might have "never before imagined"?

Let's consider some other options.

One is that your experience changes, even though things stay exactly the same. You see a red cup, even though it's still blue. No, I don't think he wants us to do that.

Or maybe he's just saying: you'll have a little more flexibility in how you see things. It will still be a blue cup, but now it will be a pretty blue cup. Everything will remain as-is, but you'll be free to feel differently about it. But is that strange, frightening, and something you've never imagined? Does that describe "truly no limits" to the creativity of mind? I don't think so.

The final possibility is that your experience changes in the following way. You experience a red cup. You experience other people calling it a red cup. You experience instruments measuring it as red.

In this case, in what sense is the cup not "actually" red? What is the difference between "your experience" and "reality"?

Perhaps it helps to know that in (Mahayana) Buddhism, the central doctrine is śunyatā, or emptiness. It means, roughly, that there is no way things "actually" are.

You might be wondering: if this is so, why haven't you seen other people taking advantage of this? Well, if this metaphysics is correct, the question becomes: why haven't you allowed a reality in which other people are taking advantage of it? To scientifically determine whether or not it's true, you would have to do an A-B test and replace your metaphysical beliefs and see what happens. Of course, it takes something like meditation to genuinely access that deep level of your mind.

So I think there's only one honest reading. But I can't accept it, because I refuse to give up the familiar habit of being a victim. That and I refuse to believe that those crazy "law of attraction" ideas might have a sliver of truth.