Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Courage to Be Sane

It's hardly news that we Westerners have suffered for generations from a syndrome known as “attention deficit disorder” in increasing numbers. Causes may include diet, television with it's emphasis on short “sound bite” chunks of information and repeated build-ups and punch lines, and other forms of information overload, including the Internet. Facebook and Twitter, the two most popular social networking environments, both require us to produce and consume information in small chunks. In order to keep up with these, we learn to skim rather than read carefully. It's possible then that our ability to hold a thought for more than a moment or two, and especially to “think through” a question or issue, never an easy task, has been further crippled. And whether it's cause or effect, we find ourselves discouraged from the task from the start. If we attempt to muster the effort, even the courage, to publicly think through something, we find little readership. Our friends, unless we have broken through to some level of professionalism at this task, are particularly discouraging. They are likely, we know, to consider us uppity, self indulgent, and elitist. Any attempt to develop the skills of a truly erudite intellectual separates us from the pack and isolates us from our more “down to earth” peers.

Thus the art of the essay has degraded. One sign: length. Compare great essays from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to those we find on the Internet today. The earlier generation wrote for publication, whether broadsheets or newspapers or books. An intelligently written essay might run dozens of pages. Length was determined by the nature of the argument. Often an essay dealt with questions of such import and complexity that it expanded into a whole book. Essays now, published on web logs and online magazines, hardly resemble essays of the past. They rarely extend past a single “page” in your web browser. They may come on strong, may seem important at the outset, but they limit themselves to at best a single topic and tend to be no more than summaries of a question or issue. They may tantalize, but they do not inform with any depth. They fail to feed the mind. If we are truly curious, we leave frustrated. It's as if we hope to watch a full movie and find only a preview clip, or we expect to read a book and find only the briefest review.

Granted, reading an essay, even a well written one, is not the simplest task we might set ourselves. It requires at least a modicum of training, a bit of self-discipline, some patience, and a genuine hunger for understanding about a topic. That's just on the reader's side. For a writer to create a well-thought out and well-drafted essay is exponentially more challenging. Not least, the writer must be able to sustain and pace her thinking on a specific topic. She must be able to resist the temptation to quit early, and to drift off-topic while writing. She must be inclined and able to think through the ideas, either before or during the process of writing, or both. She must be driven by an unwavering need to achieve clarity and a clear flow of ideas, one to the next, so the reader will understand at each sentence and paragraph how what he read earlier relates to what he is reading now.

In fairness, maybe it would be more accurate to suggest we have yet to learn how to think (most of us), rather than that we already know how and are forgetting. After all, one of the goals of a liberal arts education (of which I partially benefited in my youth) is to train the intellectual mind (as there seem to be many other kinds), how to think. How to grasp an idea and follow its implications and thus to better understand how that that idea and its logical threads apply to us (if they do). This understanding, one hopes, gives us greater range of options, greater control, more ability to make informed choices in our lives. Another effect of greater understanding, a non-trivial one, is that it buffers us from thoughtlessly adopting ideas and belief systems that are illogical and dogmatic. We find ourselves less locked into restrictive paradigms. We remain free to believe what we will, knowing we have examined and analyzed at least some of the implications of those beliefs, and most importantly, retaining knowledge that those beliefs are adopted after examination, rather than being thoughtlessly accepted as fact based on external authority.

But liberal arts education has fared even worse than music and arts education have in our schools. Most of us in America at least have little training in how to critically examine and evaluate ideas. Our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes are buffeted by the winds of popular opinion and omnipresent media. We are like fallen leaves; we have little to hold us in place long enough to sense how we are being shifted from place to place.

With very little center to hold us as our beliefs and preferences are blown about, it's no wonder we have short attention spans and little frame of reference with which to make useful judgments. By frame of reference, I mean at best those values we have learned and/or determined for ourselves through critical analysis and various sources of ethical training. The shorter our attention span, the more easily we are blown by the winds of opinion and subject to being walled in by unexamined dogmas. One result is that we live in an age of moral relativity – what we value depends on our current circumstances. Do we value freedom? Yes, unless it requires us to think too much about what that means. Do we value human life? Yes, unless we find ourselves fighting for our own life. In such an environment, we have no immovable center, no permanent point of reference. So, because we crave such a center, we scramble to find and adopt the first convenient dogmatic belief system. For that system to give us a stable frame of reference, we must accept the external authority behind it, whatever that may be. If we allow ourselves to question the validity of the system or its authority, we risk losing our moral reference point and being cast adrift yet again. So we not only accept it, we defend it, often with our lives.

This situation, that of intolerable moral relativity followed inevitably by adoption of external authority and dogma, may accurately describe the dilemma most of us face, but it comes at a horrible price: we're forced to sacrifice ourselves as free thinking individuals. Many of us, it seems to me, find no alternative but to imprison ourselves intellectually and emotionally and to allow our critical selves, that part of us that was free, to degrade or expire entirely. We become slaves, quite literally, to ideas not our own. The tragedy in this situation, the human tragedy, comes from the fact that, though we feel we have little choice but to accept some kind of deliverance through dogma, we little appreciate the extent of our sacrifice. We insane monkeys are and always have been on a path to true deliverance from the conflicts and mendacity of our lives: we are each evolving mentally and emotionally and spiritually toward a more unified and integrated and truthful self. Toward a condition we might call Sanity.

Sanity, then, is what we sacrifice when we give up learning and critical thinking, along with practices that open our minds and hearts and quiet our spirits and racing thoughts. Sanity, the true holy grail of our existence, is the destiny of each of us individually, if (and only if) we are able to attain and practice the courage to be who we are: transcendent beings struggling to free ourselves from the clinging attachments of our immaturity.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

One way out of madness: remember that all things are sacred

It's comforting and reassuring to find intelligent thinkers who share my perspective, and better, who have positive visions for humanity. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson.

From The Years of Rice and Salt:

“Tell me more about what the Buddha said,” Ibrahim would say in the evenings on the verandah. “I have the impression it is all very primitive and self-concerned. You know: things are the way they are, one adapts to that, focuses on oneself. All is well. But obviously things in this world are not well. Can Buddhism speak to that? Is there an 'ought to' in it, as well as an 'is'?”

“ 'If you want to help others, practice compassion. If you want to help yourself, practice compassion.' This the Tibetans' Dalai Lama said [answered Kang, his wife]. And the Buddha himself said to Sigala, who worshiped the six directions, teachers, spouse and children, friends, servants and employees, and religious people. All these should be worshiped, he said. Worshiped, do you understand? As holy things. The people in your life! Thus daily life becomes a form of worship, do you see? It's not a matter of praying on Friday and then the rest of the week terrorizing the world.”

“This is not what Allah calls for, I assure you.”

“No. But you have your jihads, yes? And now it seems the whole of Dar al-Islam is at war, conquering each other or strangers. Buddhists never conquer anything. In the Buddha's ten directives to the Good King, nonviolence, compassion, and kindness are the matter of more than half of them. Asoka was laying waste to India when he was young, and then he became Buddhist, and never killed another man. He was the good king personified.”

“But not often imitated.”

“No. But we live in barbarous times. Buddhism spreads by people converting out of their own wish for peace and right action. But power condenses around those willing to use force. Islam will use force, the emperor will use force. They will rule the world. Or fight over it, until it is all destroyed.”

Another time she said, “What I find interesting is that of all these religious figures of ancient times, only the Buddha did not claim to be a god, or to be talking to God. The others all claim to be God, or God's son, or to be taking dictation from God. Whereas the Buddha simply said, there is no God. The universe itself is holy, human beings are sacred, all the sentient beings are sacred and can work to be enlightened, and one must only pay attention to daily life, the middle way, and give thanks and worship in daily action. It is the most unassuming of religions. Not even a religion, but more a way to live.”

“What about these statues of Buddha I see everywhere, and the worship in the Buddhist temples? You yourself spend a great deal of time at prayer.”

“Partly the Buddha is revered as the exemplary man. Simple minds might have it otherwise, no doubt. But these are mostly people who worship everything that moves, and a Buddha is just one god among many others. They miss the point. In India they made him an avatar of Vishnu, an avatar who is deliberately trying to mislead people away from the proper worship of Brahman, isn't that right? No, many people miss the point. But it is there for all to see, if they would.”

“And your prayers?”

“I pray to see things better.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Spontaneous Combustion

For 500 years, approximately from the 15th through the 19th centuries, music experienced a progressive exploration of the circle of fifths: the relationships between tonal centers and those tones most closely related to the pedal tones. By the end of that period, formal music had expanded in complexity until the concept of tonal center collapsed and all twelve notes in a scale gained equal value in compositions (Wagner, Mahler). Twentieth century composers who were still attached to the early concept of tonal center composing literally found themselves unable to compose music. New stop-gap and somewhat desperate alternatives were invented, principally among them twelve-tone scale compositions. These were short-lived, highly mechanical explorations of non-tonally centered compositions. Turn of the twentieth century composers like Debussy and Ravel chose to use fully chromatic music (no tonal center, or very minimal) to create "impressionistic" music inspired by the work of painters of their period; composers like Stravinsky and Bartok on the other hand, replayed the old tonal-centered model with a strong emphasis on rhythms and folk melodies. More recently, composers have begun devising retro reinventions of nineteenth century music combined with influences from other cultures; Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams are examples.

Where does music go from here? Techno could be considered the extreme anarchic reaction to all this: music that deliberately and loudly destroys all sentiment for old models and places music firmly in the realm of physicality and sexuality; "IDM", intelligent dance music, then promptly emerged as a necessary antidote, whispering to us with modulated beats and subtle suggestions that validate our intellects as well as our bodies. That's where I believe the heart of music is at the moment. Where will it go next?

All of this is leading me to the conclusion that music, as a human form of expression, is deathless but constantly evolving; that its evolution is shaped by and reflects the evolutionary nature of human consciousness, especially as it's shaped by the encroachment upon our sensibilities by "civilization". I once thought music was doomed; I've never thought humanity is doomed, except that our relentless overpopulation of the planet must lead to vast reductions in our numbers, and that the soul of music is spiritual and celebratory (the chapel and the pub are its father and mother, respectively) and that "folk music" will always rebirth itself in every culture, large or small, springing forth like sudden flames from the earth around us, our own and best spontaneous combustion.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Change is the only constant

I've been thinking a lot about why I've found it hard to continue this series of reflections, or meditations, or chatty moments of self-indulgence, or whatever they may be. I finally had to admit to myself that one reason is that I've had no indication of having any readers, and I've allowed that to discourage me. It feels like walking into a seminar to deliver a message and there are no students.

And of course there are no students. For one thing, this isn't a seminar, no one has subscribed to it, and I have no reason to expect even a single reader. For another, I am no teacher. Quite the opposite. I've believed for many years now that we have one and only one teacher: the voice of knowledge and wisdom that emerges from within. We may hear it reflected in the voices of others, but we only hear it when we find ourselves ready to hear it, and the process of readying ourselves for important realizations is not something that can be done to us or for us by others. It takes work, internal work, thinking, reflecting, reasoning, absorbing what we can of understanding from as many sources as possible. You and only you can do that for yourself, and you must be motivated to do that work, because it's not always easy.

It begins to dawn on me that these blogs are my tool for processing my lessons. They are truly "reflections" in the sense that writing them gives me an opportunity to observe what I have begun to learn in a more structured way, in a way that my mind, especially my rational mind, can begin to make sense of. In an important sense, these reflections are created for one and possibly only one reader: me.

There are, of course, many others who can similarly read and absorb and understand and even benefit from these reflections. And truly I hope that happens. But when I am able to sufficiently quiet my ego to see it, I see that I write these words for myself.

I hope I also write for you, and I hope you also find value in these attempts to think ourselves out of the monkey trap. But I will no longer let that be my motive.

About the title of this blog:

Yes, it's a truism. All too familiar and obvious on the surface. I, for one, tend to think things like that very briefly and then dismiss them, unwilling to make the effort to think deeper, to appreciate the value being offered by little gems like that.

So this blog isn't about Change, or not just about change, though at this moment many changes are going on in my life and in the world. What I'm curious about at the moment is this: how it is that when we are presented with observations which have the potential to help us to integrate and to grow, we so often ignore them or, like a flat stone over a lake, our thoughts merely skip lightly over the surface of ideas and miss their potential entirely.

For one thing, it's quite tiring to think seriously about things, isn't it. (Another reason this series isn't for most readers, right? It's just terribly terribly serious, isn't it - quite an exhausting prospect to think about being insane and how or whether to want to change that. I don't blame you a bit). So we don't, normally. Or only when we're in distress and we need something - anything - that might help us find solutions to problems. Then we might make the effort to learn something new, entertain thoughts that might open doors for us, make our lives easier.

It's the monkey response. (Here he goes again with the monkey thing - when's he going to get over that?). Have you watched monkeys on TV or in the zoo? They're lazy. Incredibly, irresistibly indolent creatures. And I don't blame them for that. What's being industrious and hard working gotten us? Industry. Commerce. Merchandise. And the need to market that merchandise. It's made us consumers first, and humans second, or worse.

Still, monkeys equals lazy. And thinking beyond the simple and the obvious takes work. Growing mentally and spiritually takes work (and the opposite of work - the lessons of zen - but that's another blog). So is there any good reason for you to worry about learning and growing and evolving and emerging as more fully human? I know, phrasing it like that, the question contains its own answer, but it is a valid question. Why deal with the pain and effort and time and frustrations involved in being more than you are, more than you have been?

One answer: joy. Even something much greater than joy, something hard to name because we have little experience with it. Something much deeper and more lasting and more satisfying than happiness even. Feelings of deep knowledge, deep understanding, and deep connectedness. My ability to express it fails; it's what Tollard is trying to express when he says being fully in this moment, in the NOW, produces a lasting sense of ecstatic awareness.

Just the possibility of such existence I find motivating, at least some of the time. Those times when I have enough energy, enough elan, to even think about it.

The rest of the time? Well, I'm a monkey too, aren't I.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Listen with your heart

A good friend of mine, a woman who is rapidly emerging into sanity, subscribes to the "Daily OM". This one feels especially useful to me:

Inner Hierarchy
Listening With Your Heart

Most of us were born and raised in cultures that value the head over the heart and, as a result, we place our own hearts below our heads in a sort of inner hierarchy of which we may not be conscious. What this means is that we tend to listen and respond from the neck up, often leaving the rest of our bodies with little or no say in most matters. This is a physical habit, which sometimes feels as ingrained as the way we breathe or walk. However, with effort and awareness, we can shift the energy into our hearts, listening and responding from this much deeper, more resonant place.

The brain has a masterful way of imposing structure and order on the world, creating divisions and categories, devising plans and strategies. In many ways, we have our brains to thank for our survival on this planet. However, as is so clear at this time, we also need the wisdom of our hearts if we wish to continue surviving in a viable way. When we listen from our heart, the logical grid of the brain tends to soften and melt, which enables us to perceive the interconnectedness beneath the divisions and categories we use to organize the world. We begin to understand that just as the heart underlies the brain, this interconnectedness underlies everything.

Many agree that this is the most important work we can do at this time in history, and there are many practices at our disposal. For a simple start, try sitting with a friend and asking him to tell you about his life at this moment. For 10 minutes or more, try to listen without responding verbally, offering suggestions, or brainstorming solutions. Instead, breathe into your heart and your belly, listening and feeling instead of thinking. When you do this, you may find that it’s much more difficult to offer advice and much easier to identify with the feelings your friend is sharing. You may also find that your friend opens up more, goes deeper, and feels he has really been heard. If you also feel great warmth and compassion, almost as if you are seeing your friend for the first time, then you will know that you have begun to tap the power of listening with your heart.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

You Too Can Be Your Own Action Hero!

Maybe I've been too hard on us monkeys. After all, maybe our insanity, if that's what it is, is there for a good reason. Maybe our insanity is a survival mechanism, there to protect us from our enemies!

A new translation of Milton's Paradiso has just been published. One reviewer of the book has pointed out the fundamental problem of trying to tell the story of paradise. The story has no villains and therefore no tension. We need villains in our stories, it turns out.

That's a hard lesson considering we can consider the reality we live in to be a story, one we tell ourselves, both individually and collectively as we encounter it. No wonder we can relate to stories told on a large screen, stories which have internal structure and enough clues so we can guess what's coming, what to believe in, what to accept as accidental and what as purposeful, and who shades toward the darker side and who toward the lighter.

So we create our villains. If they aren't there, we are more than ready to invent them, insane monkeys that we are.

And life is so much more interesting when we have villains, isn't it. It gives us a reason to get our backs up, to feel superior, to feel victimized, to get angry. It allows us to rationalize and continue indulgence in our negativity. It absolves us of all guilt for our thoughts and actions. After all, our villains have forced us to be reactive, to complain, to gossip, to backbite, in fact to indulge ourselves in all of our bad habits, because, after all, they're our bad habits, and almost define us, and we must be who we are, because they, our villains, are who they are. And whatever we choose to do, if we see it as opposing our villains, is justified. The end justifies the means, and the meaner we think our villains are, the meaner we feel justified in becoming.

And so, little by little, we are able to ratchet ourselves into behavior that, if looked at rationally, there might be little or no reason to indulge in.

Just who are our villains? We may imagine them to be people who, incomprehensively, have adopted ideas and behavior we can't (and aren't willing) to understand: people who eat only vegetables when we eat meat, or vice-versa; people who attend that “other” church; people who cook in their front yards when you would only cook in your backyard. The next door neighbor who, despite generosities in other ways, refuse to cut down a tree you feel threatens your patio or garage. You may start out feeling your villains are on the other side of the globe, until you spot someone at the grocery story who looks like they have come from the other side of the world. Your villains become increasingly more local when you let yourself think in terms of “them” and “us”.

Your life is a story, and you are the principal, maybe the sole, author of that story. If that story's about conflict and anger and even violence, it's because you wrote that into the script. Your villains, big or small, local or distant, are also there because you want them, because you invented them. Good, bad, or indifferent, you must be prepared to live with the story you've created. If in your story, you're the victim, then you are in fact the victim. If in your story, you're the strongman or woman, the one who shames and defeats your enemies, then you will be the vanquishing hero, and all of your enemies will suffer and perhaps even die. If like many, you aren't willing to devise a role for yourself, then you are and will be the passive recipient of the many forces generated by the many stories going on around you.

So I must ask you, if you are willing to author your story, who do you really want to be?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Turn Off the Bad News Noise

“I demand that you refuse to be entertained and entranced by bad news--by stories whose plots are driven by violence, abuse, terrorism, bigotry, lawsuits, greed, crashes, alcoholism, disease, and torture.”
~~Rob Breszny

It's hard to keep thinking, much less writing, about this subject of our search for sanity. Why is it hard? Once you've glimpsed what it's like to be truly sane, it seems all bad habits and lethargy should just fall away. Once awakened ....

But that's just it. It's a long long road to true awakening. It's as if it's a long night and we're living in our dreams – unreal ones generated by our monkey mind, and only once in a rare while do we approach the surface and think, “I should wake up ... there's so much to do, so much life to live ...” But then we drift back into our primitive dream-reality and sleep soundly on.

It's something like a group dream, it seems to me. We share our “daily reality”, or what we take to be reality, with those around us. I believe that upon true awakening we will still share reality with our fellow humans, but a much higher and finer kind of reality than the one we cling to in our dreary existence as insane monkeys.

One thing I believe holds us back from glimpsing and embracing the possibility of true sanity is our ingrained habits, our passivity, our assumptions that this is all there is or ever can be for us. But for you, you who are reading this, there is a part of you that is far from passive. It's that part of you that has at least one eye half-open as you slumber, the eye that keeps glimpsing something so much more real than the sluggish dream we take to be our daily lives.

So I'm trying right now to talk to that eye, that Eye, that “I” that is You (and Me) and here's what I want to tell You: Wake Up!!

One thing that I've found that helps keep me aware of the possibility of sanity is this: the contrast between silence and the noises of our popular media. I'm not advocating you ignore popular media, by the way. Personally I am hooked on novels and cinema, but where possible, I choose those works that in some way question who we are, who we might be, what we might become. Media (books, magazines, movies, and television) is just a means of communication and is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force, in shaping our perceptions of what's real. Once you open yourself to that idea, that like it or not, we're forcefully yanked about by others' expressions of what they think is real, you have opened a huge door for yourself. If you have the least interest in becoming a sane human rather than an insane monkey, you must work daily to keep that door open, to stand back mentally from the media bombardment and remember that you can and must shape your own reality, rather than having your reality shaped for you constantly by others.

An important step is to turn off the media flow for yourself, at least long enough to experience what your own reality might be like. Find silence. Enjoy the contrast. Then, when you feel you can maintain that stance, when you're confident that you can remember that TV and magazines and books and movies and the Internet and even gossip are merely reality-expressions by other insane monkeys, and that you don't have to believe it or accept it or allow it to shape your opinions and views and actions – only then should you allow yourself back into the immersion of popular media all around you.

Another tool to release yourself from the powerful grip of media immersion is to remember – remember! - that your reality can be and deserves to be positive, even joyful. So anytime you find yourself exposed to ugly and negative expressions about reality, remember – remember! - that they are expressions of other insane monkeys' realities. You can accept them on their own terms, for what they are, without internalizing them and letting them affect your outlook, your reality. You can notice them, then let them go. Just as you can, when quietly meditating in your private sacred space, notice the wild thoughts of your mind, accept them, not allow yourself to be yanked about by them, and finally let them slide out of sight.

You can remind yourself that you have the power to observe, from your own view of reality, the meanness and anger and frustrations and violence being expressed by others. Importantly, you also have the power now to ignore them. Acknowledge, accept and ignore the blind and insane attempts by other monkeys to impose their limitations on you and your reality. You have that power. You have that choice. Practicing that choice, maintaining that mental and emotional distance can take hard work, especially at first, but believe me, it gets easier. And oh boy is it worth it!

Insane monkeys, awake!