“Affirmation”

“Disagreements”

Nothing saves the ungrateful king,

on his throne,

full of righteousness,

No words can reach him

beyond the veils he put

over his eyes

 

Yet beneath his robes

of lavish color, and crown

of bright jewels, a child

cowers, frightened

and alone

(it’s why his scepter’s gripped

so fiercely)

 

In seeing the hidden one,

the façade collapses,

the kingdom is liberated

from tyranny, and

the dark age gives way

to joy and play

 

“Attachment to Knowledge”

Insights come

like birdsong in blue sky:

clear and beautiful.

You can’t keep them,

but you can listen.

 

“False Seeking”

He fled in haste

the shadows seen

in the corner of his eye

To find the Love

he seemed to lose

his life’s pathway gone awry

The dark ones wait,

anticipate,

the day he’ll embrace their cries

 

“Affirmation” (first)

Sunlight sweeps over plains

and mountains, at dawn,

Awakening the hearts

of the ten thousands

 

In a village

a little girl is born

to embark on a journey

all her own

 

The planets spin,

Galaxies fly

through space, and when

will you say Yes?

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Paradox and Poetry

Feeling

There is one I,

Listening

There are many,

Looking

There is no one,

Confusion dawns

As wisdom

The definition of a paradox is, “a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement which, when investigated, may prove to be well founded or true.”

When we think long enough we arrive at paradoxes. They make us want to check our premises again. They baffle us. When I arrive at a paradox I want to make a distinction that lessens the ‘contradictoriness.’ And being able to, I often do. The newly made division provides some assurance that logic hasn’t failed me. However, I go back “into the mind,” back into thinking.

But what if the point of a paradox isn’t to go back into thinking, but to be broken by absurdity, and opened to the unknown? There is a certain way that it feels to think you have everything “figured out,” to have everything “put in its place.” Yet it comes with a form of closed-mindedness. You’ve filled the room with furniture and haven’t left space for any new stuff to come in.

A good question or an inquiry ‘opens’ the mind, because attention begins looking for something that it doesn’t already have. It turns us to experience, not just to what we’ve stored in memory. In that moment of questioning there can be an inner silence and receptiveness to novelty. In a similar way, a paradox invites the mind to a natural, quiet stopping, as if the ground you were running on was hard pavement, and it suddenly turned to soft sand.

If we look at life from the perspective of where our attention is, then in thinking, attention is absorbed in the movements of mind. This has physical consequences in terms of forming neural pathways in the brain, and emotional consequences, as well. So when a paradox confronts us, and there are two roads, so to speak—one leading to more thinking, the other not—then the choice is substantial. Really, it’s a choice between the comfort of the known and journeying into the unknown, between two realms of experience.

One thing that puzzled me from the Harry Potter series was the inscription written on the Golden Snitch that Harry catches in his first Quidditch game. It was a paradox: “I open at the close.” Leaving aside what that means at the end of the series, it’s a statement that can describe how the mind works. It comes to the close of a line of reasoning, is faced with a paradox, and then has the opportunity to open to something new, to what is not known.

Another great text that makes use of paradox (in a slightly different league than Harry Potter) is the Tao te Ching. If what is truly awesome about the Tao te Ching can be explained, then it is some combination of mind-bending paradox and soul-nourishing poetry. The words were penned by someone who intimately knew the “quiet aliveness” in things. Thus, when you read it, attuned to that, the words become “bright.” In such a light we begin to find ourselves:

There are some things

that feed the soul of man

Things that are incredible

Indescribable

and

without impurity

But they are the kinds of things that vanish

with too much learning

When I arrive at paradox my mind can be filled with fear, anxiety, and dis-ease. It no longer believes that it “knows.” The poetry of the Tao is an antidote, in that it makes paradox seem like a place to rest rather than something to struggle with, as in martial arts when your sparring partner moves a joint to a sharp angle of pain, in one moment, and in the next moment relieves the pain through transition to a more natural position. It’s actually one seamless happening. Or it’s like the life of a wave of water as it forms a crest and “peaks,” and then collapses back into the ocean. The Tao reads like water moves.

…Paradox and poetry—two tickets to the “amazing show;” the music, magic and mystery of existence.

In everything

Mystery roars

like great flames

* * *

(Second block quote by D.R. Streeter, from his translation of the Tao te Ching. First and third blocks are the author’s… These ideas inspired by Adyashanti’s “Wholeness Beyond Belief.”)

Philosophy for Real Life

Recently, someone asked me “what’s the practical use of philosophy?” This is a great question! To a lot of people it seems perfectly useless. That hasn’t been my experience, however. In fact, we can make a very strong argument that philosophy is one of the most practical things you can do. Philosophy can play a big role in creating happier, more meaningful lives.

First, a quick distinction. One reason a lot of people have a bad impression of philosophy is that they have only encountered it in a certain form. There is a kind of philosophy that is primarily concerned with analysis and the meaning of sentences. There is another kind which is more socially relevant but still requires some education in philosophy to understand. Both kinds are “university philosophy,” but neither are what I want to talk about.

There is still another kind of philosophy that has to do with you, your decisions and the meaning of your life, here and now. It’s existential. It is more aligned with what the ancient philosophers taught and practiced than what counts as philosophy in the modern university. We could call it “philosophy as a way of life.”

There are two “gateways” into this powerful kind of philosophy: motivation – why we do what we do – and belief – how we interpret and see the world. Looking at these gateways, we discover that every human being already has motivations and beliefs. Philosophy invites us to examine what is already the case and, gifted with new knowledge, act in a way that demonstrates wisdom.

First Gateway: Motivation

What do we really want? What do you really want? What’s the desire underneath all the ideas the mind comes up with?

Well, why bother with this question? Simply because we spend most of our lives trying to get what we want. Eventually, a lot of people get what they thought they wanted—like money, or success at work, or status—and find that that wasn’t really what they wanted, after all. If we examine our motivation now, then we can save ourselves a whole lot of time (years!) that we might spend pursuing what we don’t actually want.

It’s super important to be clear on what all our efforts are directed toward. If we know the real answer, then we can seek that thing out directly, and not waste time with unnecessary activities. If we don’t know, then we don’t have a clear sense of direction.

After we meet our basic survival needs, we seek something else. Why do we want money, or the thing that money can buy, or the relationship with that person, or the promotion at work, or ______? What would we get as a result? What is it that we want just for its own sake? Happiness? Love? Peace of mind? The end of suffering?

Everyone must look for themselves and find their own answer. Yet what we can say that is that these were the answers of many ancient philosophers. Aristotle said “happiness.” The Epicureans said “peace of mind.” Buddha said “the end of suffering.”

It’s interesting to note how all of these are very close together. The end of suffering is also peace. Peace promotes a kind of happiness or contentment. Contentment brings peace. Love brings feelings of relaxation and peace; probably happiness as well.

The philosopher Gurdjieff suggested that when you begin to find what you really want, you see that it brings, at the same time, other things, like love brings peace and peace brings contentment.

So if we get clear on what we really want, then we can ask the next question: what is it that would bring that into my life? Will money do it? A partner? A promotion? Will anything in the outside, external world do the trick? …Thus begins the path.

Examining one’s motives like this, and finding the true way to fulfill one’s desires, is what the ancients did. It is to practice philosophy as a way of life.

Socrates had this idea of “self-examination,” and discovering one’s motives was a big part of it. But self-examination isn’t a one-and-done thing. “Now I know my desire and I don’t need to examine anymore.” No, examination is done over and over. We keep checking why we’re doing things and our reasons for doing them, and seeing if our motives align with our best interest, and if our reasons actually make sense. Examination is continual because the path to true fulfillment is riddled with distractions and confusion, and it’s nice to stay on track.

Examining our motives makes us conscious of them. The only alternative is to be driven by motives that are unconscious. Through philosophy, we awaken!

Yet someone might dismiss all this talk of motivation on the grounds that it’s a “selfish” starting point. Well, this is not really accurate. First, “selfish” seems to imply that it doesn’t benefit anyone else. That’s not true, because we can see that someone who feels happy or peaceful or loving, is able to spread their happiness and peace and love with other people, whereas someone who doesn’t feel that way, isn’t as able. They are probably trying to feel better themselves.

Plus, the likely alternative is to act selflessly because you’re “supposed to”—because one would feel bad or guilty, otherwise. “Why do you only think about yourself? Why don’t you think about others?” Here’s the funny thing about this: if that’s our motive (to not feel guilty), then we are still motivated to not feel bad and, thus, to feel good. We are still trying to feel good, but we’re doing it in a way that someone else suggested, and it probably doesn’t feel authentic.

It’s for these reasons that Sam Harris suggested that pursuing your own authentic happiness is where “selfishness” and “selflessness” converge. Along the way we find that having meaningful relationships and serving the world are some of the highest sources of joy—can’t we intuit this?—so we do those things because we authentically want to, not because we believe we’re supposed to.

Second Gateway: Beliefs

Bertrand Russell once said something to the effect of, ‘Everyone already has a philosophy… and philosophers are just people trying to see if their philosophy is really true…’

He meant that everyone has a belief system, whether conscious of it or not. It’s running all the time, in any case—perpetually translating the world. One sees the glass half empty; another, half full. One sees a problem; another, an opportunity. One sees a criminal; another, a person suffering. One sees an empty, meaningless world; another, the manifestations of God. And the belief system makes it so!

At some point we become sensitive to the fact that other people are seeing things in a very different way than us. They hold opinions that are different from our own. They may even try and convince us that they are right and we should change our beliefs.

Well, changing beliefs has consequences. If we adopt someone else’s beliefs we start to see things differently and start to feel differently, as well. This can happen very quickly and we won’t necessarily be aware of what’s happening.

Our beliefs are responsible for how we’re perceiving the world and—from a mindfulness perspective—how we’re feeling about life, too. It’s so important, then, to be aware of our beliefs. No matter what we think the truth is, we can at least avoid falsehoods. On the emotional level, we can likely save ourselves a lot of unhappiness that stems from distorting beliefs.

This is not the place to talk about how to become aware of our beliefs and change them, and thereby change our lives. That is a committed process, and there are resources for that.

We can say, however, that philosophy is chiefly concerned with aligning our belief system with reality, as much as possible. It is “love of wisdom” and love of truth. Aligning with reality evades the negative emotions that stem from beliefs that distort reality, and vaporizes the fear of “being wrong.” On a positive note, as love of truth it cultivates the virtues of honesty and humility.

This aspect of philosophy ties in, again, with motivation. Once our core motivation is known, then we’ll design a way of attaining it. We’ll do so according to our model of reality, our belief system. But if this belief system is giving an inaccurate model, then the result will be a poor method of attainment. Likewise if the belief system is accurate then our way of attaining what we desire can be efficient and effective.

The strength of this argument derives from the fact that everyone is moving through the world according to their beliefs. We can be conscious or unconscious of our belief system. There’s only two alternatives. Philosophy leads to the alternative that is helpful and desirable. How’s that for practicality?

From this point of view we can claim that philosophy is very practical, indeed. The underlying reason is: all our actions are governed by motivations and beliefs. Whether our actions lead to what we want, and whether our beliefs conform to reality, depend on how conscious we are of their motivations and assumptions. Philosophy—or philosophical inquiry, more precisely—makes us conscious.

In addition, inquiring into the nature of reality has its own appeal that motivates people to inquire for its own sake. They just want to know the truth. These true philosophers only count as true what they can discover for themselves, and meet all opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism. Many come to find that the world, as represented by popular opinion, falls far short of the truly glorious and amazing world revealed by their inquiry. For example, Socrates said in one of Plato’s writings:

Now of the place beyond heaven no earthly poet has ever sung truly… Even the most beautiful visible motions fall far short of the true motions beyond the heavens which trace out the true mathematical equations of the universe—intelligible, beautiful and just. What is in this place is without color, without shape, and without solidity—that being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to the eye of the mind, the pilot of the soul, delighted at last to be seeing what is real, and watching what is true. And this is where we find true beauty, justice, knowledge, being and courage—that meadow of the truth which only the mind can see.

 

Wonder and Death: The Existential Drive behind Philosophy

The kind of philosophy we’ve talked about is existential, less concerned with theories and more with affecting one’s life.

Because it’s existential, I wonder if these arguments are really persuasive, or if this kind of philosophy comes about as a result of a deeper “encounter” with life. For example, Aristotle said that philosophy “begins in wonder”—like looking at the stars and imagining how far away they are, how much larger than Earth they are, how the cosmos stretches on infinitely.

Perhaps it is the case that simply telling someone that their life is directed by motivations and beliefs isn’t enough to ignite the flame of philosophy within them. Perhaps a person has to realize their own finitude: “I will die, I don’t know when, and I may only have this life to live.” If we could die any day, why would we hesitate to act on what we love, rather than be driven by fear? Moreover, in the face of death, the petty things we care about and spend our time discussing don’t make any sense.

Knowledge of our own death awakens something within us. ‘Keep death close; be fully alive.’ But who can argue this to us? The insight–and urgency–comes when we sincerely want to know how to live, and our mind is radically open.

Or perhaps we are struck by wonder, like lightning. Wow, it could be anything! There are billions of human beings on Earth, alone, that are all having experiences as complex and meaningful and rich as yours, simultaneously. Plus, trillions more organisms beyond that, having conscious experiences that are unimaginably different from a human experience. Not to mention the fact that the human brain can actually imagine this reality, describe it with concepts and language, and communicate it to another brain. What in the world is going on?

…It doesn’t have to be that grand, either. A warm hug from a friend makes us realize: love is real.

I could contemplate that for an eternity.

Simplicity and Complexity

This post has to do with the essay in the last one. It’s not necessary to have read it, but that’s the context.

There can be a tension between simplicity and complexity in our living and thinking. On the one hand a lot of people will give you the message “not to make things too complex,” because they assume it’s not necessary, or that it’ll be overly confusing. There’s wisdom in this.

On the other hand, anyone who has studied a field that tries to model reality (e.g. philosophy, physics, economics) can tell you that life is complex. It’s unbelievably, mind-bogglingly complex. It’s so complex that language can seem extremely inadequate to describe the simultaneity of all events and “multi-dimensionality” of phenomena.

Yet that complexity only appears when we take the point of view of the analytical, logical, rational, intellectual mind. And, if there’s any way of finding a harmony between simplicity and complexity, it’s knowing this: simplicity and complexity appear from different points of view.

Knowing that, we can see why it may be wise to “not make things too complex,” even though, from one point of view, they actually are. The reason is that, first, we see the complexity from the point of view of the intellectual mind, and second, we take basically the same point of view in trying to apply that knowledge to our lives–to make our body, mind and emotions conform to an ideal.

What’s the problem with this? Well, it wouldn’t be a problem if the mind were actually in control of the rest of our being (body, heart, emotions, consciousness, etc). Perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem if the mind were the only center of intelligence or even the only energetic center within us.

If the mind were actually in total control of our being then everything going on internally could be directed just the way we want. Imagine if stopping a behavior you don’t like was as easy as telling yourself once ‘not to do it anymore.’ Of course, this isn’t how it goes. We’re saying “no” in our minds, and struggling with our will, and still can’t stop certain things from happening. The problem may well be that we are beginning from a limited point of view.

What’s more, while the mind creates a model of our being that puts itself in charge, and gives disproportionate attention to itself, the funny thing is just that: the mind created a model where it is the most important. Is it possible that, in reality, there are many energetic or intelligent “centers” within us? I won’t argue for this here, but some would say “absolutely, yes.”

It’s easy to understand why we wind up frustrated, trying to make life into what we want it to be, not seeing that we are, as Ross Hudson phrased well, “identifying with a very limited part of ourselves.”

People can have a kind of success that way. According to Pierre Hadot, many ancient Western philosophers were going about life like this. They would formulate and memorize “life rules” that could guide their life conduct in every situation. This is beginning from the mind’s point of view–and it seems to have worked out all right for some of them. Hey, Epicurus was pretty happy. (There are a lot of variables here, though, and we are isolating just one.)

Many people are “living from the mind” and getting along all right. A lot of them aren’t truly happy, though. That’s why it’s good to know that there are other points of view available.

To take just one example, Zen offers a different way to be. It’s about being really simple. There’s a Zen saying, “When walking, walk; when eating, eat.” Zen practitioners just focus on what they’re doing, what they’re aware of–whatever is arising. In Zen, there’s a different point of view at play: the point of view of simple, direct awareness.

The point of view of direct awareness isn’t exclusive to Zen or any one tradition–not at all. It’s available to everyone (right now!) beyond concepts and mental filters.

What’s more, it’s not like Zen isn’t familiar with complexity. Buddhist texts can be very abstruse in their descriptions of reality and in their parables and koans. At the same time there’s this return, this circling back to utter simplicity. The bell chime.

Zen teachings point back to a simplicity of being. In the same way, we could ask of all complex theories, systems, and philosophies: do they allow us to live simply? (Otherwise, the mind tries, again, to be the manager and controller of the entirety of our life and being, which exceed far beyond its limits.) In one of his essays, Emerson said that an accurate philosophy returns us to simplicity:

The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness, which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness. He has not succeeded; now let another try. If Plato cannot, perhaps Spinoza will. If Spinoza cannot, then perhaps Kant. Anyhow, when at last it is done, you will find it is no recondite, but a simple, natural, common state, which the writer restores to you.

Alan Watts, too, suggested that leaving all our aspects of being to their natural functioning–i.e., not trying to interfere and control them with the mind, but just being present and aware–enabled relaxation and well-being to flow forth easily.

With two points of view, we can have our complex descriptions on the one hand, and apply them when useful. On the other hand, we can be simple and go with the flow of life, since we possess a point of view outside the intellectual mind. Not caught up in the mind, we don’t make the mistake of trying to over-manage and control things.

Life just as it is doesn’t need to be controlled. A deeper part of us knows that. It’s already sweet and beautiful. We’re reminded by something as simple as a bell chime.

Intellect, Mindfulness, Non-duality

Writing this essay took several weeks, but my mind’s been grappling with the topic for a couple of years. It’s an address to the perplexities of ardent seekers. And, while it’s quite heady, it comes from the heart, too. So I lay it down as an offering: to whomever may find it useful, much love and best of luck.

Intellect, Mindfulness, Non-duality

…Reflections 10/25/2016:

The main idea in the essay is useful. Intellect can serve egoic mind (e.g., logic can be distorted by fear) or it can serve awakening consciousness. Mindfulness and “heartfulness” help us to discern which one it’s serving.

Another important note is that intellectual mind is a feature of our life before and after the journey into mindfulness begins, whereas being present and loving in a conscious way are things we have to practice, once we begin. It is easy to keep on doing the old things–a bit harder to establish ourselves in a new way  being.

The essay was written in the style of academic philosophy which I studied in college, but it’s written for mindfulness practitioners, and these two groups don’t overlap that much. Perhaps in the future I can try again with simpler language and style.

Ultimately, shifting consciousness has to do less with the mind and words and much more with silence and awake presence. All the symbology is just means to an end.

As Thomas Aquinas said, reflecting on his life’s work, “all that I have written appears to be as so much straw…”