Subjectivity

Subjectivity is the Achilles’ Heel of modern science.

The discovery of quantum mechanics can be instructive. At the dawn of the twentieth century physicists were rather confident their discipline had captured the most essential aspects of how the physical world works. There were just a few experiments and observations that did not fit the prevailing theories, but for the most part the work of physics in the twentieth century would be one of, as Albert Michelson quipped (and lived to regret!), filling in the sixth decimal place. By 1927 the whole apple cart of our physical understanding would be overturned.

The items that did not fit the standard models of the physics of the day seemed to be rather small discrepancies. Three experimental results in particular were troubling. The first was what was known as the ultraviolet catastrophe associated with black body radiation, the solution of which would lead to Plank’s quantum of energy replacing the previous conception of energy as continuous. The second experiment was the photoelectric effect, which Einstein’s explained provided evidence that light could act as particles as well as waves. The third was bright line optical spectra, which would lead to the Bohr atom as the first atomic model to account for the discrete energy states being observed.

It is important to understand just how successful Newton’s gravitational theory had been in classical physics. Objects in motion were subject to rigorous analysis with the tool of the calculus and the conceptual abstractions of force and momentum with such accuracy we still use the same techniques in our age of satellites. It is also important to understand just how successful Maxwell’s wave theory of electromagnetism had been in classical physics to appreciate just how radical the coming of quantum mechanics really was. It was not just that the universe once thought to be continuous became discontinuous and radically momentary. A deterministic universe gave way to one ruled by probability.

Philosophy was there before science. Kant had identified space and time as absolute categories of thought, presenting us with the picture of the mindless, clockwork universe as the scaffolding on which the very ability to think at all depended. When relativity removed the absolute nature from time and space, the way was open for Schopenhauer to explain the world as will and representation. The subjectivity, the will, of what had been discovered in our hunt for objectivity was laid bare. The mechanical universe of classical physics, the one made in the image of our machines, gave way to, well, no one is quite sure just yet what the new picture of reality is trying to teach us. There are, however, clues.

The difference between determinism and probability is a very big deal. To glance for a moment at the headlines: the fundamentalist fanaticism of the true believer is built brick by brick from their certainties. Those who hold their truths more humbly, recognizing the limitations of human understanding, are less likely to forget logical inferences are founded on probability.

Classical science was understood to be dedicated to seeking a type of truth that was completely objective. The revolutionary scientific method insisted that opinions no longer be taken as facts. We learned to insist that if you make a claim about what is actually real and what is not, there needed to be evidence to back it up. The mathematical methods the sciences use are all designed to provide the type of knowledge that relies on measurable evidence. It was a revolution in where the ultimate authority, the final court of appeal, was to be found. No longer could the king, saint or pope declare what was and what was not, simply by virtue of their position. Facts took on a new importance. When the scientific revolution began this was indeed a very revolutionary position to take. It was also democratic. These scientific measurements could be taken by anyone anywhere and each person could prove for themselves the experiment properly performed lead to consistent results. The acceleration of gravity, as we learned in school, is 9.8 meters per second per second at sea level. It is so as much for a Chinaman as it is for an Englishman.

For those who really understood what this was all about the authority did not move from the kings, saints, and popes to the scientific experts. The authority moved into each person’s own eyes and hands by which they could handle the evidence for themselves and, most importantly, the authority of each person’s reason became recognized as the final court of appeal. Power can torture a man and make him recant his beliefs but only what is undeniably true for his reason carries the real power to persuade. (Mindful Ecology has suggested since its inception that every home that can should have mind tools at the ready; a telescope, microscope and access to encyclopedias. It is not what you read or watch that teaches best, it is what you do.)

Science insists its investigations remain grounded in the realms of evidence, which works to keep it deeply embodied in reality. This was a powerful blow against superstition. It was a liberation from our inherent gullibility and the conmen that have ever been at the ready to exploit it. On the other hand, the pursuit of scientific theory involves finding the right abstraction, the one that will capture the essence of what the embodied evidence is indicating. We do not do good science when we have one law of gravity for apples and another for planets. Those mathematical abstractions exist in a realm where the body of the thinker no longer seems to be playing any vital role at all. In the Platonic realm of pure mathematics where is blood and flesh? Over time the abstract was given more respect than the particular, standing things on their head. Our societies became even more committed to Descartes Error: reason defined as thought wholly uninfluenced by emotion came to be considered the summit of humanity’s capacity for understanding.

With the coming of quantum mechanics and relativity the role of the observer could no longer be ignored. Subjectivity is the blackbody radiation of our times, an indication that something fundamental is missing from our view of what is really going on: we do not know what the role of consciousness is in the universe.

Our Shaman

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things”
Isaiah 45:7 KJV

“You can’t get there from here, and besides there is no where else to go.”
Sheldon Kopp, No Hidden Meanings

 

Christmas can be a hard time for many western Buddhists. Some of this is from family issues, some of it from toxic encounters with Christianity itself. We have touched on family issues and how the contemplative runs into them under the tutelage of training in compassion. I want to talk now about the toxic twisting of a Christianity too often co-opted by patriarchy and consumerism or used by others to play out the needs of their own neurosis.

A lot of this sour taste for Christianity comes from those of its salesmen (or women) that insist you need to be a Christian or else your going to hell. What a mixed up theology that is. That is using religion as a magic stick to torment and control others. What the theology was meant to convey, far as I can tell, was that if you are not a Christian you are already in hell. Or, equally, if you find yourself in a living hell the way out is to become a Christian. This followed naturally from the definition of Christian that was being used, namely, anyone who had faith that in the end the good guys win. Saying yes and thank you to the new day after a long, dark night of the soul – this is the morning of resurrection, something often very hard to find. When it comes, it seems to come as a gift, a grace given to the brokenhearted. The idea of who was and was not a Christian was here very catholic. It is one that applies to anyone in any time who comes to believe that in the final analysis life, the universe and everything, just as it is, is worth experiencing. It is the conviction that it is good, that in some fashion that far exceeds our intellectual grasp, our lives and loves are precious and meaningful.

Those who would dare to bully others by using god as their beat stick have confused one definition of what it means to be Christian, a member of a particular institution, with this other which was much more universal in its motivation and meaning. I think there is a lot of this mixing up the planes which has all but completely obscured some enlightening messages we would do well to remember. In this post I am going to try and use the voice of the western tradition to talk to the themes important in every tradition. We don’t integrate Buddhism with western thought by tossing Christianity out. In my admittedly limited and dim view, there seems a way in which their reconciliation works. Is it a particle or a wave? Buddhism speaks to what it means to be fully human, and speaks of it as being mindful and awake to the precious sacredness of the world here and now. Christianity speaks mythically of that which is sacred and precious in every human, and speaks of it that we might recognize how the divine god, creator of the world, lives right here and now in everyone we meet.

With the winter solstice darkness has gone as far as it is allowed to go in its absorption of the day. Though the sunlight hours have been growing fewer and fewer, they never wholly disappeared and now, at this very moment, the balance between night and day ever so slowly begins to tip the other direction.

The ancient conception of the universe and man’s place within it held to a number of ideas we would directly recognize. Previous posts touched on the parallels between the Christian and Egyptian holy families and the stories told about their dying and rising god men. Works like Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, while hardly recommended for their conclusions, are useful for the summary they provide of other religious scholars data collection. They make the case that the key components of the mythical roles that Christ as the man-god fulfills are found assigned to Horus or Osiris as well as to Jesus. In other words, according to this reading of the evidence, the core western tradition we find in Christianity has western roots leading as far back as the archeologists can take us.

It is helpful to recognize that anything as long lasting and pervasive as a religious tradition that has spanned east and west for centuries will have a very rich and multifaceted presence. Different aspects of the western tradition have been emphasized at different times. I would like to suggest at minimum it is helpful to recognize three parts, that while they work together, each present fairly distinct teachings. The three are redemption, creation, and defeat of the powers.

Today when Christianity is discussed it is almost exclusively under its redemption mode. The whole of our mythic inheritance, for many people, consists of little more than a set of shoulds and should-nots. Religion, for these people, is what children are taught in Sunday school; be good little boys and girls and god will like you and you’ll get to go to heaven; be bad ones and you will go to hell. This is foolishly childish magical thinking which amounts to not much more than the ‘better be a Christian or you’ll go to hell’ magical beat stick we mentioned already. It captures the outer form but fails entirely to convey the essential point of the Christian conception of sin. This is not what I want to focus on in this essay but because there is so much confusion and pain around this topic a quick reminder of orthodoxy is in order. By the Christian view each human baby is created a loved child of god. The purpose of having created you and I, as well as every bird, worm, and wolf, is so that we can be happy. This is not easy nor is it always possible, but even then nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ.” That is, nothing can ever separate that which finds itself created amidst life, love and light from the life-love-light creator. This is a western version of a selflessness teaching. Sin is taught to be a collective problem that came into the world with Adam – not you – and was removed from the world with Christ – again not you. This view, properly understood, is as far from the Sunday schoolmarm trying to get rambunctious kids to make decent choices by threatening hell fire as it is possible to get. It is very adult, a teaching of freedom for free people.

The redemption story is concerned with forgiveness, vicarious sacrifice of the scapegoat, and tellingly, is the aspect of the mythology most able to be turned to good effect for supporting the ongoing viability of the church as a social institution. The presentation of the Christ as redeemer of sinners uses guilt and sorrow, human regrets and the hope that we can do better tomorrow they cause. All of this has a vital role to play in the psychology of the church’s members. Yet, just because this is true it also lends itself to being abused, to being used to enslave rather than liberate. The classic image of a corrupt Catholic church selling indulgences, more to line its own pockets than to bring peace to its congregations, captures the shadow side well enough.

There is another set of teachings in the same Christian tradition that is less capable of being used to prop up sociological institutions. These are the ones related to what we are exploring in mindful ecology and deal with what is sometimes referred to as creation spirituality. St. Francis’s sermon to the birds and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical addressing ecology are both representatives of this current. In my opinion this mode of expressing religious sensibilities is only going to grow stronger as the years of limits to growth’s inflections go by. We have spoken of it a little already and will pick it up again by and by.

It is the third mode, however, that has most relevance on the solstice. It is concerned with the meaning of the descent of the Christ into hell and the ascent of the Christ into heaven. By these activities, it is said, the man-god defeats the demons and devils of hell and causes the angels, principalities and thrones to worship him. He returns to us with a boon from his healing work, a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” Do you see what is involved here? Christ is the western world’s shaman.

One of the Tibetan Buddhist prayers is for any who do not have their own protector. Jesus is the shaman that is the final protector of the lost. This is all about the last shall be first, how those who cry out ‘Lord, Lord’ do not know him, how he is the shepherd that leaves the ninety-nine in search of the lost one. Remember our discussion about how the shadow is 90% gold? Remember the biology of violence and the very real multi-generational “sin” we touched on? The final truth of things is far from clear cut in the place where mythic story touches on molecular history. It is the Christ who goes the last bloody steps with those who tread in blood themselves.

Reading the earliest works of the Christian world it cannot help but strike one as odd that the church fathers went on and on about how with the coming of Christ the kingdoms of magic and superstition had fallen. They discussed this by talking about how the invisible powers would be (or had been) overthrown. Those powers were not conceived of as spooky, ephemeral spirits such as a medium might channel, but as the very real deathless gestalts of institutional power. The angels, archangels, choirs of angels, principalities and powers all represented what we would recognize as emergent phenomenon. They were presented in a hierarchy of ordered creation, the so-called great chain of being. These angelic beings were said to represent a people, or a nation, a city or a family. They were related to the starry heavens as the place where astrological forces determined the fate of all that happens on the earth. The fall of Rome was taken by the early Christians as a result or illustration of the Christ defeating the powers. All this was rather common currency among the ideas of the time.

The main message of the of the Christ, pagan or otherwise, has been said many ways. I like ‘the sun at midnight is always the sun’ as it captures both the underworld journey of the boat of Ra, alludes to the Copernican revolution, is itself a quote from the Hellenistic mysteries and includes the essence of what I understand about the work of our shaman Christ. This work banishes the darkness of hell and reveals the darkness of night; aka reality is blessed just as it is, though there is darkness in it. But that is the darkness of the broken heart, a darkness without the devils, demons, and ghosts of our fears. Those are no more real than the horns of a rabbit. They are produced by a  mistaken view of things. The boon the Christ brings us is the good news that creation is ultimately gracious not malign, that we can call the creator Abba, not monster. The power of the mind-spooks’ bewitching develry depends on the idea that the other side (or eternity) is somehow more real than this world of flesh and blood that we deal with everyday. The Christ light comes to call BS on all that. The passion of Christ shows, in no uncertain terms, that living includes dying. It is a package deal – but death is not the devil. Even god must die.

Christianity teaches that death is rest, peace. Life itself, that which sees through your eyes, feels through your hands – it does not taste death at all. And that which does die, this mystery that is our existing at all, this mystery ends in a beatific vision. The beatific vision is the teaching that for each and every consciousness that has ever awoken on god’s green earth there will be a reunion with that which created it. From dust to dust. In the process our unique longings for love are fulfilled by our expressions of love, for it is taught that god is love. Love mystically embraces the soul, spirit and body in death in what is taught to be a marriage celestial. In this that which has been created is always the bride, passive to the touch of its creator’s kiss of dissolution. As I understand Dante’s celestial rose, this teaching of the final beatific vision in the life of a soul, it is a view from individual love, our own very personal vision of god, that is, how everything in our life was actually perfect.

Perfect? Well it was needed in the great work. To use western terms we could say god’s plan required it to be just so. In eastern terms we would say each event had to be the way it had to be to do its part in the all pervasive interdependent way of the Dharma or Tao. How do we know each thing that happened to us and within us and because of us was needed in the great scheme of things? Because they happened, really happened. Reality reveals complete interdependence. Whatever really happened stands under the creator’s purview, without one set of rabbit horns to be found anywhere.

However, the death is real. When a loved one is lost, as the poets say, god is the first to cry. The loss and the heartbreak, for those who remain among the living, is real. But, as anyone who has lost someone dear has learned, it is also true that in a very real way those people remain alive in our hearts. In the Christ myth, after the death of god, the disciples learned not to look into necromantic arts full of sigils and magic circles, books of the dead full of spells or any of the other tomfoolery centuries of superstition had burdened death and dying with. They found, it is said, an empty tomb because they too found their beloved teacher, their shaman, still alive in their hearts.

Buddhist eastern thought touches the same things in its teachings about rebirth where you come back but as someone else because, you see, you have no independent, unchanging self. The eastern teachings that include reincarnations, Hindu and Buddhist, also include the idea of eventually leaving the wheel of rebirth in a state of final nirvana or parinirvana. Is this so different than the final rest Christianity also teaches about, the peace which surpasses all understanding?

In all this it is easy enough the see the same mythic accounting for both the reality of death and the reality of ongoing life. Today we would touch on these things by talking about evolutionary deep time and the DNA: this mystery which has never itself tasted death and yet has only ever been expressed through unique individual incarnations each destined to die.

What east and west are affirming through these mythic teachings is that life is worth living. That it is worth living in spite of the fact that love must die. We are called to walk the path of beauty with a noble heart and live in a sacred world.

I offer you this to contemplate as my holiday gift. The sun in the sky also burns in our chests, sparks of stars that we are as molecular elemental beings. We walk the path that suspends these cosmic fingerprints between the earth and the sky, body and thought, perception and emotion. We live and move and have our being held between the ever embracing mother earth and father sky. Love, sometimes dark and elemental and other times light like a rainbow, really is all around us.

The View from Here

“‘Everything exists’: that is one extreme.
‘Everything doesn’t exist’: that is the second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
The Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle…”
Buddha

 

In wrapping up our whirlwind tour through the foundational view I would like to share a sketch of how these ideas might be helpful in understanding our times, like an impressionist painting in words.

First here is a reminder of why any of this is being discussed. We are trying to find a way to live knowing all the detailed horrors of our ecological circumstances yet still be joyfully appreciative for life just as it is. The paradoxical nature of this agenda is leading us throughout. Earlier posts have already addressed that this joy we are looking for is not the happy face, Pollyannaisms of popular feel-good society but recognition that in order to be of benefit to those we come into contact with, being suicidally depressed is less than helpful. If you are in a relationship, celebrating your loving bond involves being happy to be alive in the circumstances of that relationship. If you are a mother or father, inspiring your children with the best of your love entails showing them how life can be lived well. If you are a teacher or a nurse or any of the countless other professions that seek to serve the needs of others your effectiveness involves the ability to share an appreciation for life. Basically we are trying to understand how in spite of it all, being aware and awake to the exquisite highs and lows of life is worth the pain involved.

The pain is unavoidable, the suffering is optional. That is one way to summarize the teaching the view is trying to convey. It is a tricky thing to communicate and a tricky thing to grasp because it is looking to navigate a middle way between the two extremes of what was known classically as eternalism and nihilism or what might be more readily understood today as idealism and realism.

On one side there are all those thought systems that claim some aspect of our experience touches upon eternal, unchanging somethings. Platonic forms, deathless souls, mathematical truths and gods as popularly understood are a few of these types of thought systems that entail some aspect of eternalism. More pedestrian, yet perhaps more relevant in the final analysis, the same tendency is found in our social and political realms when the value of justice or freedom or other ideals are held up as more than guides amidst ever changing conditions. Ideas and ideals are meant to serve the needs of living, breathing beings – not the other way around.

The other side is populated by all those skeptical thought systems that wield a deconstruction of those eternalisms that are taken so far only confusion and meaninglessness remain. There are fewer widespread instances of these thought systems since they do not compliment our egos but they remain as undercurrents in much of what passes for normality today. The suspicion that mortals with conscious awareness is a joke at our expense or as H.P. Lovecraft had it most colorfully; that the universe might have a blind, gibbering, idiot god at its heart, the conviction that love is nothing more than chemical reactions and chemical reactions are somehow less worthy of holding such an elevated emotion is more of the same.

It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the eternalism position. Our ego would like to build a castle in the air and then move into it and thereby avoid death. The defense against this danger is the advice to always ‘take your body with you’, advice familiar to anyone practicing mindfulness. Our elaborate religious and philosophical systems all seek to identify a truth that will stand for all time, outside the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If we can just find the right combination of conceptual details the puzzle of existence will be unlocked and then we can proceed with life fearless and free of suffering. It is our happiness project.

When the happiness project falls apart, which it inevitably must if in fact all compound things are impermanent, the ego falls not to the ground of the particulars but into the hells of the nihilists.the-towerThat this is the usual way of things is well known yet resisted, feared. We see this in the religious fanatic quick to kill anyone who might threaten the legitimacy of their particular castle in the air. Just living in a way different from the fanatic’s choice threatens to be the lightning strike that will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. The same dynamics play out in the political realm when war is justified not because a physical threat to communities has occurred but because belligerents have dared to question our castles. Those of us old enough to have lived most our lives under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and Russia are all too familiar with how these seemingly philosophical differences get translated into very real policies and actions. More recently all the rhetoric about ‘they hate our freedoms’ used to turn attention away from historical grievances and injustices between East and West is more of the same type of air-castle defense.

The classical presentation of the middle way between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism uses the idea of self and the possibility of an afterlife. The eternalism position is found in those that teach the self exists now and will continue to exist after the body dies. The nihilism position is found in those that teach the self exists now but will not exist after the body dies. The middle way between these two is held by those teachers that teach that the self does not exist now nor will it in some afterlife. This is the teaching of selflessness within the Buddhist traditions.

The idea of selflessness is important because relief from suffering is related to how well we understand it in our heart-mind, yet it is easily misunderstood. I recently completed Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy by Evan Thompson and can recommend it to those interested in the contributions neuroscience can make to our understanding of these things. The summary is that there is no self as an entity but only as a process; life lives us. We could say there is indeed a center to the mandala but that it is occupied by centerless space.

By the way, speaking of the afterlife, this middle way view is the root of the contemplative recommendation to call to mind one’s own death every day. While our feel-good, all is awesome in consumer-land culture sees only depression here, it is actually a way of staying in touch with what is most real and important, as well as cutting through the fog of habit that so easily blinds us to just how precious each and every day actually is.

Taking in the last few hundred years of philosophy in the west allows us to use reason to illustrate the middle way. I think for many people this resonates more deeply than speculations about selfhood. This is all about the role of science, the inheritance from the age of the western enlightenment and how we justify our educational and political institutions today. The Descartes – Locke – Kant traditions have placed reason on a pedestal as the means by which we might grasp the eternal truth and the really real. They would like to have the certainty deductive logic provides extended to inductive logic. Recognizing that inductive logic can only provide insights of a wholly different type the skeptics rise and in their deconstructions soon give rise to nihilism. The Hume – Nietzsche – Derrida traditions have been interpreted this way. The Bayesian approach to reasoning sketched out earlier is one way to navigate the middle way between these two extremes by recognizing that reason is a useful tool, thereby avoiding the nihilism and yet it is not some sort of direct line to cosmic truth central, which avoids the other extreme of eternalism.

It is worth returning to the point made earlier. The middle way is not meant to be a final answer, an alternative air-castle. The wisdom it embodies is that the answer to the riddle of life is to be found in the living of it. What it offers is an alternative lifestyle which satisfies the existential longings and conforms to the existential circumstances of a finite, conscious being. This contemplative lifestyle is the alternative to dogma and any conceivable conceptual-only system claiming to be or represent the final truth. It offers an ever changing process instead of fixed structures, relationships as primary instead of things. It teaches us to train in seeing that right here and right now is an ever new and fresh moment – open, spacious and relaxed, even while being in the midst of all these appearances that are so luminous, vivid and clear.

Ecological issues today also illustrate the three positions people can take regarding what is really real. The eternalists assure us there is nothing to worry about. The nihilists are sure the end of the world is just around the corner. The middle way between these extreme sees a collapse of fossil-fueled industrial civilization as inevitable but not fundamentally different than the collapse of previous civilizations in the past. Can you see how each of these positions will lead a person into distinctly different lifestyles? Can you see how accepting finitude might lead one to be able to let the huge cycles of history unfold as they will, while we carefully tend our gardens and take joy in their harvests?

The Imaginal

“So it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.”
Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty, italics in original

 

The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, and the thought is not the thing it refers to. Yet these representational images are not nothing; they have power.

MagrittePipeIt is true what it says; it cannot be filled, it cannot be lit, it is not a pipe.

The modern human environment is one saturated with images, representations created by, for the most part, advertising agencies and their clients. They serve a single purpose, pursue a single goal: to convince people who already own a lot that they need to have more. In the world they craft it is sensible that those well off should occupy themselves with increasing their store of goods and services the planet has to offer as opposed to doing something else with their current abundance.

It is a bit astonishing. Studies show how short-lived the buyer’s high actually is and supporting the consumerism habit is an all encompassing endeavor requiring full time jobs and all the rest. You would think numerous dissenting populations would be found scattered throughout our society but we do not see that. This mono-myth has captured the social imagination. Even while running faster and faster just to stay in place and seeing our very earth-home being poisoned and mangled species after species, mountain after mountain, and sea after sea it is impossible for us as a society to imagine any viable alternative to business as usual. The economic growth paradigm by which we have organized our fossil-fueled industrial civilization no longer serves the interests of our species but we are unable to voluntarily replace it.

It is not replaced because by and large the great majority of the members of these societies do not really object to the agenda being promoted by the advertisers of business as usual. The economic growth paradigm allowed increasing numbers of families to find relatively secure circumstances. Among our deepest human needs are those that seek to provide for and support those we love, our family and friends. Humans have always sought these things. So the advertising art did not need to invent its seductions out of whole cloth, the ingredients were handed to them ready made, as it were. Their art consists of hijacking our empathy that leads us to provide for one another.

The mono-myth works through an obfuscation. As our societies grew ever more secular they became prey to various attempts to move heaven to earth, to re-clothe the old religious imagery in more mundane garb. We see this in the gladiator games, sex gods and goddesses, heroic quests and always, always either explicitly or in the background, the implied belief that somewhere there is a charmed circle of “beautiful people” for whom life on earth is perfectly satisfying. They own all the right things, look the right way, know all the right people, and do whatever is exciting, dangerous, sexy, cool or otherwise awesome about being alive. This is our consumer paradise. It is what we see when we pull back the veil on our worlds of television, movies and internet.

This is the power of images.

The whole world has become bewitched by this tantalizing chimera. The vision of the consumer paradise convinces its acolytes that pursuing it will provide them with a meaningful life. Our communication devices have indeed brought us closer together than ever, sewing opportunities for compassionate understanding everywhere but they are also a Pandora’s Box. The unleashing of the consumer paradise meme from within the nexus of our societal self-reflections as found on all our screens, which Michael Greer aptly dubbed our prosthetic imagination, diverted the care and concern once expressed towards family, neighbors and neighborhoods into alienating narcissism. Shorn of the intimate ties to people and place that once provided meaning and security the naked consumer is born. Stripped of the compassionate tenor of interpersonal interactions in a society that places competition above all other values, getting ahead becomes the one sanctioned activity.

Looking at how many billions of dollars are spent annually on the advertising that props up this world view I cannot help but entertain some deliciously subversive thoughts. It looks to need a serious effort to co-opt these altruistic tendencies we find among friends and family. Helping others, being of benefit to others is obviously a viable alternative world view. Many people over the centuries have formed meaningful lives in the service of others instead of shopping. Those billions of ad dollars providing content for our prosthetic imaginations basically drown that signal in their barrage of hymns to the consumer paradise.

I have had moments where the whole PR-drawn cognitive environment in which we live suddenly looks both starkly manipulative and tawdry. At those times it seems obvious to me that we have a freedom to choose to extend the same efforts towards teaching and promoting empathy and compassion that we currently invest in teaching and promoting violence, competition and narcissism. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – what the human mind creates the human mind can undo.

There are two points I’d like to make and then will wrap up on a practical note. The first point is that as our growth paradigm continues to stumble and fall on its way towards tomorrows defined by limits to growth, the societies that have taken the vision of the consumer paradise to their bosoms will be facing more than just a crisis of infrastructure and energy delivery. A loss of faith is an equally devastating feature. There is a real danger that the cognitive dissonance that propped up this vision in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary will collapse, leaving people feeling like they wasted their lives pursuing the wrong goals. They will also react with a disproportionate anger to the loss since it involves religion as much as Wall Street.

The second point is more personal. We live in an age of decadence where everything goes. It takes but a few clicks to access any perversion, absorb images of any conceivable violence and generally saturate oneself in the hyper-real. Parents have been warning their beloved children about ‘those parts of town’ forever. Today the parents – inner and outer – are stunned and mute as that part of town became town. Cutting at the fiber of the intimate relations of conscience and concern has poisoned the strength of human dignity. Dignity comes from respect; respecting what it is to be a human being, respecting the earth by whose bounty such being is possible and respecting one another as equal in this being. With dignity we are able to face into the winds of change from the storms of the age and not flinch. No shallow, manipulative self-esteem program is going to deliver the goods if this fundamental respect is lacking. We cannot stop the billions of dollars being poured into catering to our basest desires and spreading traps for the unwary who are ignorant of just what is at stake here. We can however choose not to participate in the worst of it.

Which leads to a practical point: Learn to fear becoming desensitized! Only partly tongue in cheek: save the splattering of brain pans and the chopping up of bodies to the shamanic visualizations and save the sexually charged images for making love or other moments of non-dualism. Then they remain effective tools of the psyche’s transformation. If the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted?

The contemplative is learning to tame the mind. Time spent with the mind brings profound respect for the power of its various states. Most of those states are mediated to consciousness through images of one sort or another. Images can drive a jealous person into a murderous rage or trap a fearful person in their paranoia. They can drive people crazy and, it is taught, they can lead to the very edge of enlightenment. Taming the mind begins by recognizing its power and evolves to involve working with its images to ultimately transcend them. Last week we looked at a mandala and I offered a few suggestions about how it might be seen to be expressing something meaningful. Here is another one. Those gates on the square have guardians in them. These guardians of the thresholds protect the treasures that lie within. The gates are our senses. Remain watchful over what images you allow to penetrate your inner sanctum.

Like all things, even the actions of these protectors is best in moderation. There is no wisdom in going overboard and cutting off all contact with the imaginal discourse of our societies. Nor am I suggesting you expose yourself only to what the ego finds most comfortable. Our social nature is nurtured through our socio-linguistic and imaginal games. We reach others’ hearts using them. What I suggest is we train in picking and choosing them skillfully.

Radical Momentariness

Last week we ruthlessly cut off thought from things and plunged into a dualism between mind and body. Our minds are so filled with the ideas we have inherited from our culture that a necessary first step in trying to learn to think straight is a period of purifications, purging the countless inner voices that tell us what to believe. That collective consensus about what is real and what is wise is leading us all into the horrors of global civilization’s collapse. Perhaps it is high time we individuals took back the power to think for ourselves. On the contemplative path that process starts with sitting down with an object or two and digging into the existential questions as deeply as you can.

This week we continue our investigation into what the light of reason unveils when it is focused on the existential characteristics of our daily lives. Last week we relied on direct valid cognitions to observe the characteristics of sensory experience and thinking. We found the world of thought is one of unchanging, independent generalizations that seem to capture an invisible essence of the object of our contemplations yet this very move simultaneously blinds us to the uniqueness of that very object.

Now we will use the ability of inferences to carry our analysis further. We are asking ourselves what is really real? What exists beyond our own projections of hopes and fears, desires and pride, mental philosophies and imaginative artistic creations?

I am gazing at a candle flame. Yellow and orange wisps of an outline surround a glowing white core. Smoke, heat and light are all being thrown out into the air within my room. Each of these material elements have arisen from the continuous breakdown of the wax and wick as a ceaseless molecular metamorphosis. In my minds eye the imagination is able to provide pictures of the processes as I understand them; here a release of a photon, there an absorption of a carbon. The more still I become, the more open I am to a subtle awareness of the cacophony of such dynamics; the coming together of literally trillions and trillions of tiny interactions that produce the burning.

All things are fundamentally like this candle. The mountains we see as so solid and serene are no less dynamic when viewed from the geological timescale. The candle is useful because it comports with our own timescales, it’s fundamentally dynamic nature is obvious.

If we turn our attention to a single photon our imaginative eye begins to lead us down the path of all kinds of questions related to the fundamental view we are exploring. In quantum mechanics a photon is said to remain itself throughout all the transformative events it might participate in. It cannot be broken down any further; it is like a particle without parts. If it had parts we could break it down even further along those lines, into the top and bottom parts for example. On the other hand if the world actually consists of these partless particles, how do they ever congregate to create anything larger? When the imagination conceives of particles coming together they stick to one another at particular locations. Any aggregate grows around a particle on its top and bottom, front and back, left and right as it achieves extension in space. But how can this be with a partless particle?

Reason cannot see its way through the thicket of these types of questions. Like the quantum physicists we seem to be confronting a reality that includes paradox at its very core.

Instead of investigating the space-like characteristics of our existence perhaps an examination of the time-like aspects will be more fruitful. Looking again at the candle flame it is obvious that it endures only due to the fuel being supplied moment by moment. The oxygen reaction of fire is a process of energy transformations but so is every other aspect of the candle. An understanding of these types of changes would go a long way towards comprehending the larger world as well. To get anywhere with this investigation the imagination is turned into a high speed camera.

BulletAppleBy learning from pictures such as this one our educated imagination recognizes that there might be a whole realm of experience outside of our ability to apprehend in our typical time frames of observation. Taking this clue seriously causes us to ask what is the smallest slice of time in which we might capture the essential nature of the changes taking place in our candle flame? Again, paradox seems to arise blocking our way forward. Would there be any change at all if the slice of time chosen was small enough? Look again at the bullet piercing the apple, doesn’t it seem that in the moment of the photograph time is standing still, that there is no actual change occurring at that moment at all?

In the west the calculus explains how to work with these types of paradoxes. In the limit, we say, the arrow hits the target and Achilles crosses the finish line. The calculus achieves this by summing infinitesimals but this is no more acceptable to common sense than an aggregate built from partless particles. The same opacity to reasoning is found in geometry when the question becomes how does a dimensionless point achieve extension and become a line? There is a rich and wonderful collection of western thinkers struggling with these questions. In particular the debates around the legitimate intellectual foundations for the calculus provide a fascinating set of materials for contemplation.

In the eastern world when thinkers confronted these same limits to rationality, explanations and speculations were offered by investigating an alternative model of time. The same thing happened in the western sciences when Einstein perceived that the only solution to seemingly paradoxical laboratory observations was to change the very model of time itself. To understand what this model is all about we will return to our insight about the difference between thoughts and things.

Our experience of the moment includes a sense of memory from which we derive the sense that time has been continuous throughout the past. From this sense we draw the inference that time will continue to be continuous into the future. Without giving it much conscious thought most of us live with a model of time that resembles a ribbon. In this ribbon of time one moment follows another without a gap between them; the ribbon is continuous. Time itself seems to exist independently of all those things that come and go within it, which is demonstrably false by Einsteinian experiments. This ribbon extends as far back into the past as we care to imagine and equally far into the future. By the modern cosmology the past eventually runs into the Big Bang which it said to have created time itself by creating space and by the same theory the future runs forward until the thermodynamic heat death of the universe.

Recognize what is going on? This ribbon exists in one place only: our imaginations. All we have ever known ‘in the past’ is the current moment; all we will ever know ‘in the future’ is the current moment. This ribbon is a thought, nothing more. Accepting this with all its ramifications leads to what has been referred to as Buddhism’s radical momentariness. What is really real, according to this view, are only the moments. Instead of a ribbon as the semi-conscious model of time, this view teaches a mandala. In the center of the mandala is the nanosecond of the current moment, the very edge of its existence, disappearing as quickly as it arose. Radiating out from this inconceivably small moment are the time periods we can perceive. Each moment is supremely new and fresh. Existence is supported on an ever changing, blink-of-an-eye out flowing.

Like all models this one offers some insights and some problems. The problems include deep questions about just what is cause and effect if there is no past. Hume in the west recognized that what we call cause and effect is nothing more than a habitual tendency to experience repeating configurations of things. The mandala view of time is similar in recognizing that all that appears is nothing more than the configuration of the existing moment. How do they explain that configuration?

Here again ancient contemplative wisdom and modern sciences have some harmonious teachings. In the ancient view there are said to be three moments involved in our conscious experiences. In the first moment the senses process direct intermingling with the world. In the second moment it is said that mental cognition begins. This is not yet thought but the building blocks of what will become thought. In the third moment a conceptual thought arises and with it a label; we think ‘that is a lit candle.’

Neuroscience has discovered the same thing. More accurately, one of the models for how cognition arises in neuroscience includes a three stage process that shares numerous aspects of the old phenomenology. At the lowest level of processing in our nervous systems the sensory signals are known to be recognizing what are called the percepts. These are the low level characteristics of the environment each sense is capable of noting. For the sense of sight, for example, the percepts are those that communicate form and color: edges, contours, hues and such. These percepts are then gathered into bundles. Instead of a set of disconnected edges the nervous system now recognizes a full shape; say a 90 degree angle. In the final, third step these bundles are compared with the store of experience and best guess associations are made which are delivered into conscious awareness and we think, “oh, there’s a corner.”

ObjectIdentificationThis great illustration is found on pg. 344 of the most comprehensive yet approachable coverage of systems science I have found, Principles of Systems Science by Mobus and Kalton. Note how the concept is able to occlude the perception, illustrating the power of the conceptual mind to filter our experience.

I’d like to play with a more ancient symbolism on which to hang our model, one more in keeping with the origin of the view. It has been my experience that most people in the west do not have associations with what mandalas might be said to teach. I offer this set of interpretations as an introduction to the types of things these mind palaces can be about.

We don’t see it this way, with that ribbon of time so dominating our minds, but in this view of radical momentariness existence is a fleeting, tiny moment in which all things are hanging together. In this exquisite moment, 1/64th of a finger-snap the teachings say, appearances arise interdependently. Everything depends on everything else right down to the smallest conceivable partless particle and smallest increment of time. We perceive objects as independent from their environments but in this we are mistaken. This sense that objects have some inherent existence, some essence stretching out over time, is exactly what they lack – that is the exact space taken up by the complete and total interdependence of all things dependently arising together. Arising in this moment.

mandalaWhen we analyze how a perception must come about we encounter a model like these three moments. There is the point of contact where the physical world sends a physical signal to the sense. Then must come the stage of transduction of that signal into information where the physical medium is converted to electrical impulses, the lingua franca of the nervous system. Finally the information is classified within the conceptual world of consciousness. What the mandala is teaching us is to set aside our ribbon models where these moments follow one another sequentially and consider them reverberating simultaneously…timelessly.

By another reading the mandala is teaching us how time has lags built into it. In the center of the mandala the moment flashes, a spacetime event – say our toes encountering the warm wet sand of a beach. Sensors send electrical signals much like the next ring of the mandala, from the point of view of consciousness this information seems to surround the event, engulfing it whole. There is a finite amount of time required for the expansion to occur. It can take up to 300 milliseconds for the electrical pulses leaving the toes to reach the brain and be registered. This is the outer ring on which consciousness depends and which consciousness cannot transcend, it can get no closer.

The concept when it appears does so full-born, cutting a sharp edged outline making it distinct from everything else, like the square in the mandala. In this third and final ring is a clarity as awareness of the event arises, as we relish the sensation of the earth intimately touching us. That clarity is held in a space that cannot be collapsed; the concept is a box we cannot penetrate with further concepts. Again, this is the outer ring on which conceptual consciousness depends and which conceptual consciousness cannot transcend, it can get no closer.

The outermost ring of the mandala is the whole universe as it appears to us – every conceivable bit of it that seems real to us. Now with conceptual mind we are able to navigate the world of ten-thousand things, the world of relative reality. The question becomes, will we navigate it skillfully or ignorantly?

As we learn to respect the reality of interdependence we naturally take responsibility for the well being of all the other sentient beings we find ourselves sharing this moment with. I would suggest we can take a measure of our wisdom by asking ourselves just how much of the interconnected world we are cognizant of as we go about our daily activities. Do we sense the workers in the field that provided our fruit or the young person putting in long hours on the factory floor that made our shirt? These are the types of levers deep in our minds by which we can move off our default positions of fear and isolation and open up to the wide open spaces of the magical world around us.

This is the model of the view I wanted to share. It says let’s take things just as they appear to us; think very simply but rationally about what we find. It is of no small import that the conclusion from these basic investigations involves the interdependence of all things.