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!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sometimes I want to be the stone

"We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth." ~~ Nietzsche

We live in what seems to me to be uniquely disturbing times. I remember being a youth in the age of the threat of nuclear annihilation and being mildly fearful, but only occasionally, and less fearful than merely pensive. I attribute that to my youthful optimism, which for some reason I have never been able to abandon, as a tot refuses to release his teddy before entering a place of grownups, and for similar reasons: it's who I am and no one has the right to deny me my identity.

But I wonder how I might have responded if I had been older then. Might I have grown cynical and conservative, quite justifiably in my mind, as a defense against fear? Would I have seen the world from that point on as a place of folly and joylessness, and called that "reality"?

And so it seems to me today: a world filled with humans incapable of reason or even the ability to preserve themselves (which certainly was the case then too), a world in which we can readily see the folly of our leaders and even of ourselves ("Supersize that meal! So what if it's making me fat and I'll die young! And all my neighbors drive SUV's so I must have a right to one too!") and yet we seem unable to change; a world in which we can see our world leaders careening into one disaster after another as if blind and stupid (or merely insane), or as if they had accepted disaster and disappointment as not merely necessary compromise, but our birthright, as who we are.

If all my neighbors are insane monkeys, it must be okay for me to be one too. Right?

If that's who we are, then I'm tired of being a human. I don't want to be a human anymore. I want to be something else, anything else. I want to be an angel, and fuck all if that seems an elitist attitude. I'm not an angel though, except sometimes, just a little, in my mind. Failing that, I just want to be a rock, a stone, turning slowly to sand over time, content to merely watch and listen and accept as inevitable the crumbling away of yet another species of insane monkeys, until quiet returns to this earth.

I'm no longer satisfied to be an insane monkey. Too often I feel like a starving tiger walking circles around a cage inside of which sits its meal. It can't enter, and if it did, it may well mean giving up its freedom, yet it hungers and it cannot leave.

But in moments of clarity, it seems like I'm sitting in the cage, watching the tiger circle me outside, a look of desperate hunger in its eyes. And in a flash and only for an instant, I see that if I open the cage door and let the tiger devour me, I will truly find the freedom I crave. I will merge with the tiger and neither of us will hunger after that.

I'm not talking about dying ... not in the physical sense. I'm talking about a release from the limitations of being, of identifying myself, with the insane monkey. I'm talking about entering the eye and the heart of the tiger: a place of fearlessness and of centered concentration. I'm talking about the death of fear and the rebirth to truth: a direct experience of reality, free of intermediaries.

But it's a scary prospect, giving up one's fears. No one ever said becoming sane would be easy or painless. There's joy along the path ... such joy! But with joy comes its opposite at times. So I've decided that along the way, when the going gets grim and I really need a respite, I'll just settle into the consciousness of a stone, and sit very very still for as long as it takes to regain my breath and to remember that I am not the monkey, nor am I the tiger, nor am I the stone.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's not just you, it's all of us

One of the teachers I've found to help us learn to step back from our insanity and move beyond it is Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. I recommend his book or his spoken word version of it. One of the reasons I can do that is that Tolle's message in no sense suggests that he is any kind of authority on the subject of your sanity. You are. You, the Eye inside you watching you, the Ear inside you listening to the mumblings of your mind, those are the authority. Tolle merely reminds us to step back from ourselves, to remember that you are not your mind, and that you are not bound by time.

"The time-bound mode of consciousness is deeply embedded in the human psyche. But what we are doing here is part of a profound transformation that is taking place in the collective consciousness of the planet and beyond: the awakening of consciousness from the dream of matter, form, and separation. The ending of time. We are breaking mind patterns that have dominated human life for eons. Mind patterns that have created unimaginable suffering on a vast scale. I'm not using the word evil. It is more helpful to call it unconsciousness or insanity."

We are experiencing, on personal levels, an evolutionary (and revolutionary) change in the consciousness of the entire species. We have entered a new period in the evolution of our species, one which requires us to wake up to our possibilities: "... there is no absolute guarantee that humans will make it. The process isn't inevitable or automatic. Your cooperation is an essential part of it. However you look at it, it is a quantum leap in the evolution of consciousness, as well as our only chance of survival as a race."

What can you do, now, to begin to heal from these illusions and to regain access to the incredible energy and joy available to you? First, there is no one way. There are many ways, many practices, many small and large changes available to you, right now, in your daily life, that will bring you closer to sanity. You are doubtless familiar with some of them. You may be practicing some of them.

Quietude. Find one place in your life where you can reliably go to find silence and solitude. It can be a very small place, but it should be comfortable for you, it should be quiet if not silent, and it should be free from interruptions. Begin to make this place a sacred space for yourself. Arrange it so it's open and uncluttered. Eliminate all distractions from this space. This space is the outward representation of a still, quiet place in the center of your mind. Spend at least ten or fifteen minutes each day in this space - up to an hour or so if you can. Sit comfortably there. Eyes closed or open, no matter. Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, nice deep breaths, at least ten of them. You have one and only one role in this space, to listen to your breath and to the babbling of your mind. Let your mind ramble but don't encourage its thoughts. Watch them from a distance, as if you were listening to the thoughts of someone else. Don't judge the thoughts. Don't dwell on any of them. Let them come, let them go. Be the Observer of your mind. Over time you'll find there are longer and longer spaces between those thoughts. Pay attention to the sound of your breathing, or the sound of your heart, or the single-pointed vision of a candle flame during these moments.

In your daily life, whenever possible, turn off distractions like radio and television. Especially television. Become mindful that most media (again, especially television) is an invasive tool designed to encourage consumption. Remind yourself whenever you see or hear a television that there is a real difference between want and need, and that marketing executives have dedicated themselves to masking that difference and creating false appetites in their viewers. Here's something fun and liberating: give yourself and everyone you love this gift for birthdays and holidays: the TV B Gone. It's a useful and slightly subversive tool to liberate the human mind and spirit. Try it out on a television in a public space that no one is paying attention to. Relish the quiet and peace that results. Others around you will appreciate it too, possibly without quite knowing why they feel more relaxed and at peace.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Insane? Of course we're not insane! Are we?

"The Insanity of Psychological Time
You will not have any doubt that psychological time is a mental disease if you look at its collective manifestations. They occur, for example, in the form of ideologies such as communism, national socialism or any nationalism, or rigid religious belief systems, which operate under the implicit assumption that the highest good lies in the future and that therefore the end justifies the means. The end is an idea, a point in the mind-projected future, when salvation in whatever form - happiness, fulfillment, equality, liberation, and so on - will be attained. Not infrequently, the means of getting there are the enslavement, torture, and murder of people in the present."
-Eckhart Tolle, from The Power of Now

What is "psychological time" then? From Tolle's perspective, it is an illusion that persistently pulls us away from the truth of our reality - that "time" consists of one and only one moment: NOW. "The present moment is all you ever have," Tolle says. "There is never a time when your life is not 'this moment'. Is this not a fact?"

To spend all of our time (as we do) in an imaginary "future" or dwelling on an illusionary "past" when the truth of our lives exists in this present moment, and only in this moment, with the result the we are chronically incapable of grasping the truth and the beauty and the grace of the present moment and all that is in it, how can that be called "sane"?

This is part of what I'm talking about when I say we are insane monkeys. We don't mean to be. With very few exceptions, we don't realize we are and most of us vehemently resist the idea, and reject it as a ridiculous conceit.

I'll bet you do too, unless you're one of the few. If you've read this much, then you may be curious, or interested, you may wonder what I could mean. But I'll hazard a guess that you think I'm using the phrase "insane monkey" in a metaphorical sense, or an allegorical sense, or in some round about way, trying to create an image that's merely dramatic and over the top so I can get you to think about something else.

It's not going to fly. I am being terribly, painfully literal here: we, you and I, are monkeys, and we are insane in a classic, medical sense. What's a definition of insanity? There are probably a lot of definitions, but here's one: a persistent disorder of the mind resulting in mistaking an internal perception of reality for the real thing, often resulting in asocial or antisocial behavior, including episodes of unreasoning violence.

Let me ask you to do a very brief exercise: sit down and listen to the evening news. Any station, take your pick. Radio, TV, doesn't matter. What is being reported? If you step back just a hair and imagine you are an alien encountering these reports of humans mistreating and killing other humans on a massive scale, day after day, what impression do you get?

I'll tell you. Insane monkeys. Monkeys who happen to be good at technology, and who apply it against ourselves in the most dreadful and painful and useless ways, day after day.

Of course it's those other monkeys who must be insane, you say. The ones over there or the ones in the White House or the Kremlin, or the ones who don't pay you enough, or the ones living on the street, or maybe even the ones living next door to you. But not you! Not your family, right?

Yes, there are degrees of insanity. But you're not off the hook. You may not be as insane as some others, but you haven't escaped the disease. Nor have your wife or husband or boy or girl friend or your children. And you probably think you managed to be so much saner than your parents, who are or were clearly insane in some way, right?. Got news for you. You are still monkeys. And until you learn to dwell on the knife-edge of reality called NOW, and live in the joy that surrounds and infuses us when we connect with the power running through us like high volt electricity, until then, you are also insane.

So, just for a moment, accept the possibility. Suppose, hypothetically, we are really insane. What can we do about it? Is there some way to step out of insanity and into the clear air of the truth of this moment?

Obviously I think so. Let's explore that next week.