Category Archives: Ramblings

Letting Go of Our Sad Stories

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For most of us, freedom feels not only unfamiliar, but distinctly unpleasant. That’s because we’re used to our chains. They might chafe, they might make us bleed, but at least they’re familiar.
-Mingyur Rinpoche

Have you ever sat around with friends to show off scars and compare stories about broken bones? (Maybe this is a guy thing. If not, sorry for being gender normative.) I don’t think it’s uncommon for kids to pass the time by boasting about how they received this or that injury. In most cases, the grizzlier the injury, the better the story. Although the experience of acquiring the injury may be quite painful, sharing the story of that experience is often quite the opposite. For many, it’s a point of pride, something to brag about and show off. It’s a way of showing some of the difficulties we’ve been through and conquered.
I only have 2 substantial scars, neither of them coming from injuries that were especially serious (though they’re still badass.) But I love my scars. I love my sad stories. In a weird way, I love my suffering. And, in the words of Rinpoche-la, I also love my chains.
This might sound totally paradoxical. Surely we all want to be happy, to be satisfied, to be free from suffering. So why do we often take so much pride in the experiences that were the exact opposite?

The greatest danger to self-realization is self-doubt. If we’re actively working to undermine ourselves, the battle is already lost regardless of external factors. Self-doubt seizes on all of our sad stories, all of our problems, all of our sufferings, all of our excuses for not changing. Because changing is hard. Holding onto our sob stories and perceived shortcomings is easy. It’s extremely comfortable to take refuge in our sufferings  We have invested so much in our sad stories and self-pity that the idea of letting them go is extraordinarily painful. Even just thinking about letting go automatically raises serious resistance. These things define us. Think about why many people are so proud of their scars. They are physical evidence of hardships that we have had to endure. They are an outward manifestation of an experience that we believe has contributed to our character. In many ways, we are our scars and our sad stories. How could we possibly let them go?

Holding onto them, on the other hand, requires no work whatsoever and, in many cases, it even garners support from others in the form of pity. People will often support this kind of self-doubting, self-pitying behavior if it doesn’t go too far, encouraging each other to just ‘let it out’ or even go so far as to applauding someone for being brave enough to address their personal issues.

Taking refuge in suffering also feels strangely productive. It only requires a small amount of courage to look at what makes us suffer. Maybe we don’t penetrate down to the deepest causes of suffering, but it usually isn’t so difficult to get a glimpse at what causes us pain. It can often be extremely satisfying to look at what makes us suffer and be able to identify the causes.

Trouble is that this doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Just identifying the things that make us suffer very rarely causes them to just disappear. But because this task of identification can feel so immediately rewarding it also lures us into a false sense of complacency: because I know what’s wrong, I can figure out how to fix it. But knowing how to fix something doesn’t amount to actually taking the effort to fix it.

This is symptomatic of a deeper issue that I personally struggle with, and, based on conversations I’ve had with other practitioners, I believe it’s fairly common, not only to people practicing meditation, but as a general human issue. In Freudian terms, the issue is repetition compulsion: we want to change but simultaneously exert tremendous amounts of energy to keep everything exactly the same. Identifying our own psychological problems without actually doing anything about them fits perfectly into this framework. By recognizing our issues, it can appear that we are taking a big step towards changing ourselves, but, in reality, it isn’t actually moving in any direction at all. It feels like we’re changing but without exerting hardly any effort, which is why it’s so seductive and such an easy place to get caught up.

During the early stages of practicing meditation it’s common for practitioners to notice that they have a far deeper and clearer awareness of their thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, this can be somewhat terrifying. Early on, spiritual experience may actually exacerbate psychological and functional difficulties by bringing things to light that we aren’t immediately prepared to deal with.
On the other hand, this deeper insight into ourselves is incredibly exciting. By seeing our mental states so much more clearly it feels as if we’re making some sort of serious progress in remedying our issues. This is such a convincing view that it becomes very easy to get caught up at this stage of meditation without even realizing that we’ve gotten stuck.

The issue lies in becoming concerned with the content of our minds when we should be examining the processes. It’s an issue that I find myself facing very regularly when I sit down on my cushion. As Westerners, we’ve been habituated to the idea that there is something inherently beautiful about the sense of individuality that we each possess, and our thoughts and feelings are intimately related to this sense of individuality. It is easy to be lured in by the prospect of becoming more intimate with ourselves through meditation, though this is really just a diversion from the traditionally established stages of practice.

Additionally, over the past couple hundred years, especially since Freud, there has been a strong trend in Western society of using therapy centered around addressing and working through our psychological concerns. For many Western practitioners, this need to address and analyze the various components of our psyche as used by psychology has merely been given new clothing in the form of meditation. Rather than using meditation as a tool for analyzing the processes of the mind, it has become a method of analyzing the specific content. However, this is a complete misuse of the attentiveness developed through practice. As we become more familiar with our internal states, it can be very easy to grasp onto them and feel like we’re doing some sort of important inner work when, in reality, all we’re doing is hunkering down deeper into our sense of independence, individuality, and selfhood.

Psychological therapy is designed to help us live more comfortably with the various facets of ourselves by increasing the flexibility and realism of our self-representations; meditation seeks to annihilate the idea that our selves have any true existence, ultimately doing away with the true reality of self-representations entirely. This is because self-representations can be dangerous, no matter how helpful they may seem to be. There is a certain functional utility to them, but they prevent us from seeing reality as it really is by filtering all experience of ourselves through subtle, fixed lenses. Psychology aims to help us change our self-representations. Buddhism helps us to stop identifying with them at all. In this sense, getting rid of the idea of a true self entails giving up automatic, reactive, inflexible identification with and attachment to our self-representations.

There is a strong argument to be made that the idea of a true self cannot be rid of until the conventional self is well adjusted and functional. Reducing emotional problems in the short term can lead to clearer, more productive meditative practice in the long run. However, there are 2 serious problems with this approach. One, while psychological issues may arise during time spent on the meditation cushion, it is unlikely that that is the best place to deal with them if one is serious about actually meditating. Two, actively shifting the focus of meditation to dealing with emotional difficulties increases the likelihood that the greater, transcendent goal of self-realization will be completely abandoned. However, this is a far larger topic than I’m attempting to address here. I’m merely trying to point out that meditation is very frequently being assimilated into classical Western schemas to the disadvantage of both the practice and the practitioner. Rather than using meditation as it was practiced in India, Tibet, China, etc. for thousands of years, it has become warped into a tool to meet our perceived psychological needs.

Returning to the idea of loving our sad stories, it is very commonly the case that we use these tragic narratives to define who we are as a person. We may profess to hate them, to wish we could be rid of them forever, but, at the end of the day, many of us still cling to them because they help us understand who we are and there are few things more enticing than self-knowledge. After all, that’s why many people pick up meditation in the first place.

The issue with this is that our sad stories aren’t who we truly are. Again, this notion is a product of getting caught up in the content of what arises during meditation, rather than the processes that bring these things to the surface. If we’re able to look pass the content, we can see that the content is actually always changing. Over the course of a 15-minute meditation session it’s possible to experience dozens of emotions, yet it’s all happening entirely within our own heads. None of it is stable. None of it is inherently existent. It’s all a matter of perspective, but if that perspective hinges itself on our sob stories then it’s almost impossible to move forward.

Turning to my own personal experience, I’ve found that I often run into the following issue while meditating. A negative thought will arise. I’ll let it drift by. I’ll find myself sinking into a deeper state of clarity about what’s going on in my mind, which makes me feel good. Then, as a sort of test to myself, I’ll actively recall the negative thought to see how I receive it now that I’ve reached a more settled state and to see if I can work with it. I like to tell myself this is productive but, if I really look at what I’m doing, I’m simply fixating on my sad story by actively pulling it back into my mental field when I’ve already let it go. Even once these negative states of mind have come and gone, I feel the need to grasp out for them again and bring them back. This comes back to the problem of misusing meditation as a tool of conducting auto-therapy rather than letting the practice simply be what it is. Recalling and delving into negative emotions once they’ve already passed isn’t really a way of testing myself; it’s an attempt to transform them into something else rather than letting them exist comfortably as what they are.

In my next post I’ll provide a meditative practice for specifically dealing with these kinds of issues. Stay tuned!

The Life of a Happiness Junkie

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What’s your addiction? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed? I’ve been afflicted with not one, not two, but all three. Why’s everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good? Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would. Now I tried to stop, man, I tried the best I could but you make me smile with my heart.
-Kanye West

Diamonds are forever. For real doe?

Let me begin with a story about something that happened when I was 15 years old. I had just gotten a new video game and was so stoked on it that I planned on staying up all night to play it. It must have been a weekend night if I could afford to stay up all night but clearly beating this game was far more important than doing something social. Anyways, I brought all my blankets and pillows into the den because I knew I would be there all night and I wanted to be comfortable. As soon as I finished dinner I rushed off to the den and got holed up there for the long haul.
Sometime around midnight I started to get hungry (because I’d barely eaten anything at dinner so I could start playing as early as possible) so I went into the kitchen and looked in the pantry. There were two big boxes, each one filled with 10 small packets of these low-carb, bite-sized wafers. One of them was flavored like Oreos and the other was Chips Ahoy. I’m pretty sure that there were real cookies in the pantry but for one reason or another I decided I wanted to go low-carb. Clearly my 15-year-old self was extremely health conscious. I knew I’d be up for a long time and I needed sustenance if I was going to keep focused on playing my game all night so I brought all 20 packets into the den with me.
Over the next 4 or 5 hours I proceeded to eat every single one of the wafers. They were absolutely delicious. I have no idea how I did it, but somehow I finished every last one. I must have eaten at least 200 of these little cookies. Then, of course, I got incredible sick and threw up. Now I can’t even look at that snack without cringing.

What makes you happy? A fancy new watch? A 6-pack of good beer? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed? Or maybe just some low-carb, bite sized, Oreo flavored cookies? Maybe you’ve moved beyond the material ish and find your happiness in something else. How about long weekends? A beautiful day at the beach? Spending time with a loved one? Obviously these are some pretty great things, the stuff that happiness is surely made of.
But are any of these things actually true sources of happiness? What would it even look like for something to be a true cause of happiness? For something to deserve this label I believe that it would have to fulfill two conditions:

1)   It would always make you happy.
2)   The more you have of it the greater your happiness.

So think back to those things that make you happy. Do they meet those two conditions? Are they still making you happy right now? Would you keep getting happier with more and more of those things and experiences? Although it’s a simple example, I certainly learned that cookies were not a true source of happiness for me.

Because here’s the crux of the issue: what we view as happiness is actually in the nature of suffering. This is not to say that it is suffering, but that within every happy experience the seeds of suffering are already sown. As soon as a source of happiness arises so too does a new potential source of suffering. Buddhism labels this as the suffering of change, but an example might help.

Let’s say that you agreed that long weekends make you happy. Great, it’s 5 pm on Friday and you’ve got 3 full days of freedom ahead of you. But what starts to happen on Monday as it creeps up on you that you have to go back to work tomorrow? Suddenly the happiness of a long weekend starts to feel a lot like suffering.

Here’s another example. You’ve spent the whole day walking around and your body is exhausted. Sounds like suffering. You finally come to a chair and sit down. What a relief! But as soon as you’re sitting you’ve already created a new opportunity for suffering. As you sit for a longer and longer time your body starts to become uncomfortable until you finally stand up. What a relief! And yet soon the suffering of standing will set in yet again. And so the process goes on and on. There’s no relief.

Think about any experience you’ve ever had that has made you happy. Is it still making you happy right now at this very moment? Or did it come to an end? Even if the external conditions continued, do they still make you as happy as they once did? Don’t just take me at my word. Examine your own experiences. See how real the suffering that is inherent to happiness is.

Siddhartha saw merchants trading, princes hunting, mourners wailing for their dead, whores offering themselves, physicians trying to help the sick, priests determining the most suitable day for seeding, lovers loving, mothers nursing their children-and all of this was not worthy of one look from his eye. It all lied, it all stank, it all stank of lies, it all pretended to be meaningful and joyful and beautiful, and it all was just concealed putrefaction. The world tasted bitter. Life was torture.
-Herman Hesse

I understand that this may sound incredible pessimistic, but it is merely a realistic assessment of the way that our happiness works. Because it is common for us to grasp at things that make us happy, it is inevitable that we will experience dissatisfaction once the source of happiness comes to an end, as all things must.

Objects that we designate as sources of happiness are not pleasurable in and of themselves. They only seem to be because of the way that our minds perceive them. As I talked about in my meditation on the ‘I,’ once we label things as being agreeable to the ‘I’ we tend to grasp at them. This is not to say that happiness is inherently bad, but that it must be coupled with equanimity in order to avoid the suffering of change that grasping brings about. The mind that grasps is a mind that is always wanting more, always wanting better, constantly searching for its next fix of happiness.The mind that grasps is a mind that suffers. This doesn’t apply merely to material things, but to any sort of sensory-derived experience. So long as we want, we will never be satisfied.

Consider the 8 Worldly Dharmas. We all want to be happy and to avoid suffering. We all want profit and to avoid loss. We all want praise and to avoid criticism. We all want respect and to avoid disrespect. So long as we fall into this pattern of grasping and aversion we’re bound to remain dissatisfied. We must cultivate the mind of equanimity.

Just look at the impact of living in a society that runs on desire. It’s virtually impossible to maintain a steady level of happiness when we’re always in search of our happiness high. And each of these highs must be accompanied with a low. Such is the life of a happiness junkie.

To Be or Not to Be: The Dangers of the ‘I’

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Let’s play a game. It’s in the same vein as yesterday’s “Find the Computer” but today’s game might get a bit more personal. It’s called “Find the ‘I’.”

Seems easy enough, right? ‘I’ am right here. Well my body is. So ‘I’ am sitting. ‘I’ am my body. I won! But ‘I’ am also thinking, analyzing, and writing. My body doesn’t do any of those things, the mind does. So ‘I’ am my mind.

But wait. ‘I’ am my body and ‘I’ am also my mind. How can ‘I’ be both? Wouldn’t that mean there are 2 ‘I’s? Maybe ‘I’ am the combination of my mind and my body. But if ‘I’ consist of multiple parts then there’s no single, locatable permanent ‘I.’ Just like the computer, ‘I’ am entirely dependent on my parts, as well as the existence of minds (mine and those of the people around me) to impute any sort of true existence of ‘I’ onto my collection of parts. ‘I’ don’t really exist. ‘I’ am a projection. ‘I’ am a hallucination. ‘I’ am a mirage. ‘I’ am empty.

However, in the conventional reality in which ‘I’ live ‘I’ don’t see that ‘I’ don’t actually exist. ‘I’ go to school. ‘I’ do work. ‘I’ have friends. And it can go on and on, essentially forever. As we go about our daily lives we constantly identify with things around us that become incorporated into our sense of having an ‘I’, thus making this identity increasingly complicated and dense and, consequently, increasingly ‘real.’

Because we don’t see that we are projecting an ‘I’ where it does not actually exist, the self-cherishing attitude emerges. This is the aspect of our mind that only cares about satisfying the needs of the ‘I.’ Because it views ‘I’ as stable and permanent, the self-cherishing attitude makes its main priority satisfying the needs of the ‘I’. Everything that is agreeable to the ‘I’ is labeled as ‘good’ and grasped at. Everything that is disagreeable is ‘bad’ and we display aversion.

Let’s take a look at each of these reactions in turn.

We’ll start with anger. There are actually only 2 reasons that people ever get angry. The first is because somebody does something you don’t want him or her to do. The second is because somebody doesn’t do something that you want him or her to do. All cases of anger can be boiled down to one of those two scenarios, whether or not you are consciously aware of it.
The negative aspects of these two scenarios (“don’t want him or her to do” and “doesn’t do something”) arise from a hallucination in regard to the object of our anger. We either exaggerate the negative aspects of a person, object or situation, or we project negative aspects that aren’t even there to begin with. And this is all done in relationship to the ‘I.’ If something is disagreeable to the ‘I’ then it is likely that the self-cherishing attitude will engage in the projection and exaggeration of negative aspects.

Next we’ll turn to attachment. It can be a bit harder to see why this is a bad thing. After all, we are all attached to many things that appear to make us very happy and be good for us. I’ll return to this idea in a future post on the concept of all of us being happiness junkies.
Attachment works in the opposite way of anger: it causes us to exaggerate the positive qualities that something has or project such qualities that aren’t there. Once we perceive something as positive, we then develop this feeling of attachment towards it, causing us to further grasp at it in the expectation that it will give rise to greater pleasure.We label it as ‘good’, don’t even realize we’ve labeled it, and believe that that that thing inherently has the quality of goodness.
But that’s the thing about attachment: it’s never enough. No matter how much of the object of attachment we get, we always want more because that’s the way the self-cherishing mind works. It is absolutely insatiable. And because we don’t realize it’s constantly at work in our thoughts, words, and actions, we don’t even see that this is an issue. But in reality attachment is anything that keeps you from being happy. Think about it. Whenever you become unhappy, take a moment to reflect on where that comes from. It may be a long circuitous route to get there but at the end of the day attachment to an idea, person, object, place, etc. is the root cause of your unhappiness.

But surely in romantic relationships you need attachment, right?
Actually, attachment is perhaps the most dangerous killer of relationships. Attachment by itself is not necessarily bad, but it’s incredible unstable. Because attachment is based solely on what is considered agreeable to the ‘I’, as soon as the object of attachment becomes disagreeable all bets are off. Once the self-cherishing mind is no longer pleased it can immediately turn on that which it clung so dearly to before. And even when the person is still agreeable he or she can never be enough to satisfy so long as one is attached. It can lead to feelings of dependency and possessiveness, which then may ultimately turn into fear of rejection and loss. As we go through these emotional minds it is very easy to identify the ‘I’ with them and thus ‘I’ become my delusions.
In many cases when someone professes to love another it is really just a case of strong attachment. It has become very easy to confuse attachment and love and, when both exist in a relationship, it is often attachment that predominates. Attachment is conditional, constantly expecting something back (“I only want you to be happy if I’m involved.”) Love, on the other hand, is purely unconditional. It is a genuinely heartfelt emotion that expects nothing back. It causes one to wish the object of love to be happy without any conditions whatsoever. From this, it should be clear that attachment actually prevents genuine stable love because love runs directly against the needs and desires of the self-cherishing mind.

This goes beyond romantic relationships to cover any and every sort of interpersonal relationship. When we enter a relationship with someone asking only what can ‘I’ get out of it, we immediately taint the entire thing. We allow the self-cherishing mind to take control, going completely against reason. After all, just think about it for one second. What is more important: the happiness of 1 ‘I’ or the happiness of the 6+ billion other ‘I’’s in the world? What contributes more to the grand sum of happiness? After all, when you and your self-cherishing mind die all of your happiness goes with you anyways. But if you spread happiness to those around you then it continues to grow and grow.

At the end of the day, this all comes down to ignorance of the essentially nature of absolute reality. Everything is empty of inherent existence, ‘I’ included. The ‘I’ exists on the conventional level but this is relatively insignificant when compared to absolute reality. The goal would be to go about one’s life making use of the conditional ‘I’ to accomplish daily tasks without getting caught up in the idea that it exists as anything more than what our mind makes it to be. The problems really only arise when we treat ‘I’ as something more than that and allow the self-cherishing attitude to dominate our lives, causing anger and attachment to run amok.

I’ll be carrying on with this topic in the future (probably tomorrow) in a consideration of the idea of being a happiness junkie. Be on the look out!

The Doors of Perception and the Gates to Heaven and Hell

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It’s crazy to think today is only my 2nd full day of being off retreat. I feel like I’ve done so much. It’s providing a very odd and distinct juxtaposition between living in the mind and living in the external world. It’s also provoking a lot of deep questions, most of which have only been twisted up even further by Sophie’s World, which I just finally got through. Concepts of time and space seem far less concrete than my mind would often have me believe.

Here’s a story I just heard.

Once upon a time in medieval Japan there was a samurai. He was walking proudly down the road, head held tall and armor shining. He happened to pass a small Buddhist monk sitting quietly on the side of the road. He strode up to the man and boldly proposed a challenge: “Monk, demonstrate to me the existence of Heaven and the existence of Hell.” The monk slowly turned his head up to the samurai and looked him in the eye, asking, “Why would I waste the time answering such a silly question for an ignoramus like you?” The samurai immediately puffed up in fury, face growing red and his whole body becoming tense. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head, focused in on the monk. The monk merely continued looking at the samurai and responded, “That is Hell.” Shocked, the samurai paused. Just as soon as he’d grown angry, the samurai relaxed his whole body and settled into a peaceful disposition. He put his sword back in its sheath and pressed his palms together in front of his chest in reverence to the monk. “And that,” says the monk, “is Heaven.”

The monk uttered only 16 words to the samurai, and yet in but an instant he put the man through two extremes of existence. In a very real way we create our existence. In that way, we control our reality. I may be looking out into the woods, seeing trees, prayer flags, a dirt path below and the sky above. But how does the tree really exist? When I look at the world around me I don’t see a tree that is existent in and of itself. The same goes for the prayer flags, the path, and the sky. Each of those things is merely a collection of parts. These parts happen to come together in such a way that they perform a particular function. Because this composite object, the base, performs that particular function, it receives an according label.

An example probably makes this easier. Look at your computer. There seems to be a very real, concrete computer sitting in front of you. After all, you can read this and feel your hands resting on the keyboard (or maybe the also very apparently real table supporting your computer.)

However, the computer has a screen. It has a keyboard. The keyboard, in turn, has dozens of little parts. And if you open the computer up, it only becomes more complicated. Without taking this argument down to the atomic level, it should be clear that the real object of the computer is merely a collection of parts. If you were to take away the screen, would the remains still be a computer? How about if you removed the keys as well? After a certain point, you would certainly say that it is no longer a computer. But where did the computer go? Did the computer disappear alongside the removal of that last part?

 

 

 

The computer doesn’t actually exist.

 

 

 

 

More specifically, the computer does not exist inherently. Its needs a mind to project that existence onto it. Because you and I see a collection of pieces that came together to have the function of a computer, the parts have assembled to form a valid base we therefore assign the label ‘computer.’ The mind becomes so habituated to labeling the environment’s bases that it does so nearly instantaneously. This labeling happens so quickly that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Suddenly the collection of parts that performed the function of a computer is not receiving the label from us ourselves but naturally possess that quality of ‘computer-ness.’ We don’t realize that this cognitive fusion is occurring because we so quickly merge the base and the label. This therefore gives the computer the appearance of truly existing as a ‘computer’ but its existence is actually only imputed by the mind.

This is where the samurai and the monk reenter the picture. If the samurai was merely projecting inherent existence onto the monk there would be no reason for him to become so angry. Something else must be at work.

Our lives have been filled with a constellation of experiences, people, and places that elicit 3 possible responses in us: aversion, attachment, and indifference. Experiences, people and places we feel attachment towards we label as ‘good.’ Those that we feel aversion towards become ‘bad.’ And those to which we are indifferent there’s no need to provide any further qualification. It’s not a concern to me so why waste the mental energy?

I can look at the chair underneath me and notice that it’s missing one of the legs. It still fulfills the function of a chair, but not quite as well as a chair with all four legs. Therefore it falls somewhat short of fully fulfilling its function and becomes a ‘bad chair.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So too with our experiences of the world. If something is pleasurable to our sense of identity, it is good. If not, then it must be bad. We often fall into the illusion that experiences, objects, and people have some sort of innate ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ to them. After all, we can all agree that Hitler was a ‘bad man.’ But was he really? Surely there were many people in the world that thought Hitler was a ‘very good man.’  He can’t possibly be both of these things at THE SAME DAMN TIME, can he? Rather, it is each of us projecting this sense of inherent ‘badness’ or ‘very goodness’ onto Hitler. Or should I say ‘Hitler”? (Sorry, I’ll save the ‘What is a person and who is the ‘I’?’ game for tomorrow)

The point is that we may each experience an object as being ‘this’ or ‘that’ but these objects don’t have those qualities outside of the way in which we perceive them:

 

 

 

 

the perceived is the function of the perceiver.

 

Returning to the labels, it is interesting considering where they came from. Each of us didn’t individually decide how to label the things around us. We inherited them from those around us, from society, from culture. Much of going through life is merely acquiring more and more labels to place on the bases that are around us. The labels become more specific, allowing the computer to take on qualities such as being ‘silver’, ‘well functioning’, and therefore a ‘good computer.’

These labels often change over time, especially those related to value judgments, but to truth judgments as well. As each age invents new labels and alters the old one, it is constantly recreating reality. To be sane (or at least to qualify a base as requiring the label of ‘sane’) one must have a ‘healthy view’ of ‘reality.’ But what if reality is constantly changing? If I were to announce to a class that the universe orbits around the Earth and be willing to maintain that position until the bitter end, surely my sanity would come under question. And yet in the not so distant past many people maintaining that exact position would have been labeled as completely sane. If reality is constantly changing, then sanity is an ever-moving target as well. We often require hindsight to see whether a person is ‘insane’ or simply ‘ahead of his/her time.’

Just to clarify, this is not nihilism. I’m not saying that nothing exists. Things exist on the conventional level on which we interact with them on a daily basis. The computer is a ‘computer,’ Hitler is a ‘bad man,’ and so on. But on an absolute level, these things do not actually exist. They are dependent on their parts and the mind to label them.

 

 

Perhaps this finally answers the question, “If a tree falls in the woods and nothing is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ It seems that it certainly creates wave of vibration but without a mind to receive those and then label them, it creates no ‘sound.’

 

 

So what happens when you understand this on the deepest possible level? Well what happens when you’re in a dream and you realize that it’s a dream? What happens around you doesn’t affect you because you know that it’s a product of your mind. So too with seeing reality as being empty of inherent existence. Hellish moments are no longer Hellish but instead capable of becoming whatever the mind wants them to be.

I’m tempted to jump straight into an exploration of the ‘I’ but this I know this post is already way too long and abstract. Since I know everyone likes photos, maybe I’ll put in some pictures of emptiness to make it a bit more lively and engaging.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading.

Mayan, Millenarian, and Messianic Musings

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Note: Not a huge fan of the word ‘musings’ but alliteration is too awesome to pass up.

In honor of the upcoming end of the world this Friday on December 21st, I figure it would be worth making a (non-exhaustive) list of the possibilities that we should all be expecting as potential ways in which we might be heading off this mortal coil. It really just gave me a good excuse to look up what various cultures have said throughout history about how all this comes to a finish since I think end of the world scenarios are pretty fascinating (though not quite as fascinating as how much this single date and event has been blown up in pop culture. I guess it makes for good movies and provides an opportunity to build some badass apocalypse balls.) Maybe if we come out alive on the other side of this one I’ll put together a similar list of creation myths in celebration of the fact that we didn’t all die a fiery death.

-Siva the Destroyer stops dancing and the eternal fires that he has been keeping at bay throughout the ages finally close in and bring the cosmos to a fiery end.

-A massive gravitational shift caused by the combined forces of the sun and Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, wrecks havoc on Earth.

-The future Buddha Maitreya arrives and brings all of the elect to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, which will transform it’s two towers into wings and fly off to a new world to start anew.

-Nibiru, also known as Planet X, collides with Earth. Short, sweet, and to the point.

-A solar flare occurs, sending out a massive electromagnetic wave that shuts down all electronic equipment across the world.

-The Age of Pisces comes to an end as we move into the Age of Aquarius, pouring the fish of humanity out onto the land to fend for itself in a new environment.

-This current Kali Yuga comes to an end and Kalki, a manifestation of Lord Visnu, rides in on his white steed and brings this universe to a swift end to begin the period of cosmic latency known as Pralaya.

-The Antichrist and the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive on Earth to punish the wicked, while the Messiah Jesus Christ raptures all of the truly devout up to Heaven.

-The world will come to a glorious end at the hand of Bolon Yokte, a Mayan deity, in a display of his tremendous power.

-We reach a singularity of infinite complexity in which anything and everything imaginable occurs simultaneously. (This idea comes from Terence McKenna during a the period in his life when he was most frequently using psilocybin and dimethyltriptamine. So he’s probably right.)

My money is personally on the future foretold by the Ecuadorian myth of the eagle and the condor. Back in ancient times, human society split and took two different paths: that of the eagle and that of the condor. The eagle represents the intellect, the rational, and the material, whereas the condor stands for emotion, intuition, and the mystical. Nearly half a millennia ago, the eagle began to rise to power and was said to almost push the condor to the brink of extinction. Yet it was foretold that 500 years in the future a new epoch would begin in which the two birds have the opportunity to unite in the sky, moving mankind forwards together, held aloft by a condor’s wing and an eagle’s.

I’m far from believing that on the 21st some magical change will happen in which a global shift in consciousness will instantly occur. But I do belief it’s some kind of marker, indicating that we’re at a special time in history in which humanity is being pushed to the extreme in a number of ways and we face some sort of grow or die scenario. Not grow in a physical sense, but a psychological expansion. Unless we correct our course in one way or another, it’s likely that we will ultimately drive ourselves to extinction, or at least drastically alter the way in which we live. This is a period of change, one in which great things can happen. We just need all of the individual paradigm shifts to make that one massive leap in consciousness possible. Treat the 21st as you would treat New Years, but on a whole different level. Make a resolution and make some leaps upward.

The Religion of Inevitable Progress Part 6: Lead Us Not Into Temptation-R.I.P RIP

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Nature is much more playful than purposeful, and the probability that it has no special goals for the future need not strike one as a defect.
-Alan Watts

Thus far this all seems incredibly bleak. We are faced with a situation in which it appears that Western culture has been systematically constructing and strengthening an ideology that will ultimately bring about its own destruction, all the while becoming further convinced that we’re getting closer to living in a Utopia.

So what can be done?

It seems entirely unreasonable to suggest that people give up religion in every possible form. As animals that rely on the construction of a deeply complex symbolic network to help us make sense of the world and function on a day to day basis, it would be impossible to complete eliminate religion from our psychologies. The only feasible solution would be to find a suitable ideology to replace the Religion of Inevitable Progress.

This certainly won’t be an easy process. For many, the mourning period may seem almost unbearable. RIP provides material comforts in a more efficient manner than nearly any other ideological system possibly could. It is so successful that many people don’t even seem to be aware that there’s a problem at all. Daily life is usually bearable enough and the artificial amusements are generally distracting enough that things seem good enough. Bad things happen, and people deal with them with varying degrees of grace, but, well, “that’s life.” But that doesn’t need to be life. Many of the problems we face are not cruel twists of fate that the Universe has thrown at us to torture us, but are caused by our fellow man. So what ideology would serve to mitigate many of our intraspecies injuries?

Huxley proposes a widespread acceptance of the Perennial Philosophy and social policies guided by one simple creed: lead us not into temptation. Human beings are remarkably adaptive animals that are incredible responsive to the environment in which we live. I’ve previously struggled with the idea of whether man is innately good or evil, but I think that it’s the wrong question to be asking. Far too much of what man is and does is connected to his surroundings for the idea of innate nature to need to come up. While there may be an answer to what man may be like at the most basic level, it isn’t a particularly pragmatic question to ask because we do not exist in a vacuum in which man’s innate nature is the principle guiding factor in behavior. So much of man’s actions seems to be driven by what appears to lead to the best outcomes for oneself. On the surface, this might sound incredibly similar to the assumptions that modern capitalism makes about man and his desire to act in self-interest, but this new religion would provide man with a very different sense of self-interest than our current economic incentives do. As Alan Watts has discussed, that man always acts for some good or pleasure, whether immediate or in the future, that really is to say no more than that “we do what we do, for if we always do what pleases us-even in committing suicide-there is no means of showing what pleases us apart from what we do.” Thus any discussion of man and his acting in self-interest is a real muddling business that is much more complicated than our current view of Homo Economicus would lead us to believe and appearing not to even say anything (or at least anything rational) at all. In many ways, self-interest is a rather meaningless term and it begins to make more sense to consider the whole rather than oneself as an individual part.

Man must be lead away from the temptation to covetousness, pride, cruelty, power lust, and, most importantly, uncharity, all of which are behaviors that are seriously damaging to one’s fellow man. While many of these types of behavior might appear to act in favor of one’s self-interest in a society governed by a capitalist mentality, they really only serve one favorably in terms of economic and social status successes (and arguably evolutionary in the Neo-Darwinian sense that social and economic success lead to increased productive success.) They do nothing to help better one’s internal states in any meaningful or long-lasting way; they merely patch up the inner flaws that gape wider and wider, never truly providing in the way that one thinks they might.

Man must come to see that the Perennial Philosophy is really the highest common factor in all the world’s major religions, a fact that Huxley spends an entire book elaborating upon and is certainly beyond the scope of being adequately being covered in this post. This isn’t to say that all religions in the world are ultimately saying the same thing, as they most certainly are not, but that there are a number of common threads running through them, many of which have unfortunately been obscured by centuries of institutional and political constructions and alterations.

These are not inherently religious ideas, but ones that should come naturally to any and every human of somewhat reasonable sensibilities: love, compassion, interdependence, and charity. In recent years, the Dalai Lama has been adamant in promoting these ideas under the label “secular ethics.” People must become accustomed to seeing the innumerable number of ways in which we effect everyone else and everything living on this planet, often times in ways that are quite apparent to us, but far more frequently to degrees that we could never even conceive to imagine. And as with the Religion of Inevitable Progress, this is not a religion to be paid attention to only on Sundays or when in a house of worship; it is one that must be actively lived in daily life, unconsciously guiding mans every action. Life itself must be lived as a continuous ritual in which every object in the surrounding world is regarded as a remarkable symbol of existence. Not only would adopting some form of secular ethics or Perennialism help to reduce the amount of harm that man inflicts upon his fellow man, but such a philosophy also makes the slings and arrows of life itself far more bearable, giving one the appropriate mindset to take them on as opportunities for personal growth rather than impediments on the path to future progress.

As far as the actual social, political, and economic organizations that can turn this religion into a living reality, decentralization is absolutely crucial. There must be widespread private ownership of land and the means of production must be organized on a more local scale. These rearrangements will help to reduce the temptation for ambitious individuals to act tyrannously, while democratic and cooperative local organizations will prevent this decentralization from becoming too rugged and disorganized. As I covered more thoroughly in an earlier post about Perennialism and EcoBuddhism, we sit on the potential cusp of a 3rd industrial revolution in which sustainable energy sources combine with the remarkable level of globalization we have reached over the past decade. As Jeremy Rifkin discusses in his book The Empathetic Civilization, we are being presented with the opportunity to create an open source sharing of energy in which renewable energy is produced locally and is then distributed on regional, national, and continental grids according to needs. And because the potential for harnessing renewable energies doesn’t rest on the same geographic considerations as harvesting fossil fuels does, every region is more or less equally capable of achieving self-sufficiency and sustainability. Through such a system mankind would have no choice but to become intimately aware of our inherent interconnectedness and the sense of a force that exists beyond that of the individualized consciousness, the force of life itself. In a very real sense, the central nervous system of every individual would be expanded, connecting man to his fellow man and fostering empathy and understanding.

It seems that our species has gone through many of the growing pains of globalization over the past century as people have come into contact with folks that are different and, consequently, appear threatening. But if the new generation that drives this 3rd industrial revolution is educated at an early age about secular ethics and many of the ideals of Perennialism, man will be in a much better position to adequately handle new cultures and experiences, allowing empathy and compassion, rather than fear and hatred, to flourish. As the Dalai Lama often likes to say, the past century has been one of war and conflict, but this next one can be one of dialogue and openness. The minds that made these problems are unlikely to be the same ones to solve them, placing the burden of change on the backs of the upcoming generations. Will we bear this task with optimism and courage, or shy away from it as has been done far too frequently, potentially dooming both the planet and our selves?

The Religion of Inevitable Progress Part 5: Living in a Society of Organized Lovelessness

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Aside from individual dissatisfaction with life and our potentially species-threatening imperialism against Nature, adherence to the Religion of Inevitable Progress also bears a number of other poisonous fruits. As we have shifted towards a culture of mass consumption and mass production to feed our need for external markers of our progress and success, we have demonstrated a lovelessness towards the men and women that must engage in the fool-proof monotonous tasks that such high levels of production require. While much of the actual physical handiwork that goes into the economics of mass production has been delegated to machines (though not all of it), there is still the interminable paperwork that such a regimented and bureaucratic system demands, numbing the minds and spirits of the individuals that must be employed to deal with them.

This culture of mass production can only persist through an accompanying culture of mass consumption, which is perpetuated on a daily basis through the efforts of mass advertising. In Western society, the desire to have the material means to sustain oneself has been elevated to an absolute obsession with consumption and the supposed joys it can bring. Somatotonia, the personality type associated with assertiveness and energy, has traditionally been systematically discouraged by societies for fear of the potential for power-loving aggressiveness to rise in the majority of the population. Modern advertisements, however, have actively worked to shift public consciousness in the opposite direction, seeking to persuade everybody to be as extroverted and uninhibitedly greedy as possible, “since of course it is only the possessive, the restless, the distracted, who spend money on the things that advertisers want to sell” (Huxley, 160). Modern advertising is really nothing more than the socially sanctioned and organized effort to extend and intensify craving (a fact that is mighty unfortunate considering that nearly all modern religions hold craving to be the most sure-fire route to a life of suffering.) Indeed, RIP could not continue unless the somatotonic ideal is promoted and proliferated, constantly encouraging people to work ceaselessly for the undoubtedly brighter future.

Going hand in hand with mass consumption and mass production is mass financing, a practice that has placed the ability to drive industry in the hands of a disproportionately small number of people, “thus reducing the sum of freedom among the majority and increasing the power of a minority to exercise a coercive control over the lives of their fellows” (Huxley, 94). This minority is comprised of a combination of private capitalists and governmental bureaucrats, working collaboratively to ensure each other’s continued economic and social success. This is a system that is hardly restricted to Western nations, but has pervaded nearly the entire world, producing a fairly uniform ground of loveless relationships, clothed in a variety of ways according to local culture and habits of thought. In America, this issue has come to a head in the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. Much of the public is finally catching onto the loveless relationships that drive modern capitalism and have resulted in the clash of the so-called 99% and 1%. (Keep in mind that Aldous Huxley issued these prophetic words in 1945, revealing an eerily remarkable foresight.) However disorganized and uninformed much of the OWS movement has been, I certainly find it heartening that much of these issues have been brought to the forefront of public attention. I’m optimistic that we can expect OWS to come back with greater organization and a more coherent and uniform message in the near future.

This historic lovelessness of the 1% toward the 99% has resulted in the “crowning superstructure of uncharity”: the organized lovelessness of the relationship between state and sovereign state, “a lovelessness that expresses itself in the axiomatic assumption that it is right and natural for national organizations to behave like thieves and murderers” (Huxley, 94). By its very definition, a sovereign national state is an organization that not only allows its members to steal and kill on the largest possible scale, but actually encourages them to do so under the guise of nationalism and patriotism. Since power is of its very essence indefinitely expansive, it cannot be checked except by colliding with another power, leading to many of the international conflicts we have seen throughout history, from tribal warfare up to the world wars. And since, in our modern society, those that instigate these conflicts are unlikely to be the ones that bear the full burden of their actions, the less privileged are often the ones that suffer.

Even while this self-perpetuating conflict of interests in which the 99% must face the consequences of the crimes committed by the 1% continues, it’s rare that an impetus for change will actually occur. So long as the costs are not too high, even the masses of the ruled will continue their nationalistic idolatry, relating the state to themselves-“a vast and splendid projection of the individual’s intrinsically insignificant ego” (Huxley, 122). Continuing to buy into this illusion elevates the suffering that RIP causes from the merely psychological pain of the individual to a societal-wide epidemic, striking on both the psychic and physical levels. As has been mentioned in an earlier post, many people find it easier to continue to bear these inner wounds so long as the external comforts continue to increase, as they traditionally have in America, rather than turning to face the truth of the matter. Hopefully, on the heels of the financial crisis and the uprising of the OWS movement, people will stay awake this time.

The Religion of Inevitable Progress Part 4: Sizzurp and Lambos Make Me Happy, Right?

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While it may not be possible to accurately weigh the net costs and benefits of our technological progress, we can at least examine the fruits of individual human experience: does modern man find his life to be satisfactory?

The answer this question would have to appear to be a resounding “no.” Clearly I’m in no position to speak for every person living in America today because there are hundreds of thousands of people for whom genuine happiness is very real, but I think I can pretty safely point to the general trend that people are not even remotely close to being as happy with their lives as they could be. Based on how amazingly fun and glamorous everyone makes their life appear on Facebook, people seem to be pretty adept at hiding their dissatisfaction with their existences. But digging a little deeper into these virtual facades reveals that a disturbingly large portion of the photos in which people appear happiest are the ones in which they are surrounded by alcohol. As Kendrick Lamar notes, “my generation sippin’ cough syrup like water…got a high tolerance when your age don’t exist.” Much of youth culture appears to be going on a particularly hedonistic bender in which immediate sensory gratification is favored over personal development and a serious consideration of tomorrow. If progress is inevitable, it probably won’t hurt to put oneself in a drug-induced stupor, right? And perhaps the upcoming generations are getting a sense that the future that all this progress is supposedly leading to might not even exist. In that case, might as well go out in a blaze of fucked up glory while we can.

Further pointing towards the state of dissatisfaction that much of America seems to live in is the prevalence of the idea of the midlife crisis in American culture, marking the period at which an individual becomes haunted by the specter of their wasted years, coming to the painful realization that life has not been quite so satisfactory as one has deluded oneself to believe. This realization is usually staved off through buying an attractive sports car or bigger house, finding a more attractive girlfriend or boyfriend, or by consuming a mountain of prescription drugs, all of which are hopefully amusing (or mind-number) enough to serve as a sufficient distraction, pushing away the discomfort of one’s true circumstances for just a bit longer. The world of modern man appears to be so dull that one must constantly divert his/her mind from being aware of this dullness through a variety of these artificial amusements. So long as we keep singing the national anthem of pussy, money, weed as loudly as we possibly can, we remain assured that we really, deeply, and truly are happy. Sometimes this can lead to intensely pleasurable experiences, but when the high dies down the experience often becomes disagreeable at best and agonizing at worst. William Law, a relatively unknown name and likely one of the greatest thinkers that Western society has produced, has questioned,

How many inventions are some people forced to have recourse to in order to keep off a certain inward uneasiness, which they are afraid of and know not whence it comes? Alas, it is because there is a fallen spirit, a dark aching fire within them, which has never had its proper relief and is trying to discover itself and calling out for help at every cessation of worldly joy.”

(Note: On our current neglect of Law, Huxley has commented that it is “yet another of the many indications that 20th-century educators have ceased to be concerned with questions of ultimate truth or meaning and are interested solely in the dissemination of a rootless and irrelevant culture, and the fostering of the solemn foolery of scholarship for scholarship’s sake” (Huxley, 177). Why concern ourselves excessively with our roots in the past when our future is so clearly where happiness lies?)

The one saving grace that manages to pull modern man through these darkest of nights is the shining creed of RIP, that perfection lies in the future and happiness will come tomorrow. By clinging to the idea that happiness is attainable in the near future, if only a few more external conditions could be met, man is able to keep on propelling himself forward, driven forward by nothing but the faith that RIP must be true. This idea is reinforced on a daily basis by modern advertising methods, perpetually telling man that his dissatisfaction with life is obviously a result of his lacking the hottest new gadget and if only he could buy it, then life would be all that it is meant to be (I’ll return to the dangers of advertising in a later post.)

However, that this idea that happiness exists in the future is entirely self-defeating in that it essentially guarantees that it is always kept just out of reach. By perpetually believing happiness comes tomorrow, we guarantee by our very definition of where our happiness exists that we cannot be content today. If we cannot achieve an internal state of satisfaction with what we have in our lives, no amount of material accumulation will ever prove to be enough: “For those who seek al the rest in the expectation that (after the harnessing of atomic power and the next revolution but three) the Kingdom of God [again, I prefer sustainable and genuine happiness] will be added, everything will be taken away. And yet we continue to trust in progress, to regard personal slime as the highest form of spiritual moisture and to prefer an agonizing and impossible existence on dry land to love, joy and peace in our native ocean” (Huxley, 91). Once the most basic material needs of food, shelter and relative security against bodily harm are met, the only thing stopping man from being happy is himself. Material gains are ephemeral and always subject to being taken away, no matter how secure they might appear. One must be honest about one’s own internal states and work to improve these, not the surrounding environment. If you cannot be happy with life at this very moment, why would tomorrow be any different?

The Religion of Inevitable Progress Part 3: Is our Progress Really Progress?

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All this discussion of moral, political, and technological worship leads, albeit somewhat longwindedly, into my main point: all of these forms of idolatry ultimately fall under the encompassing Religion of Inevitable Progress. The creed of the devotees to this apocalyptic religion is that the Kingdom of Heaven (as Huxley refers to it. I prefer sustainable, genuine happiness and peace but it really depends on your personal perspective on the end goal of all of this) is outside of ourselves, and in the future. As I stated in my previous post, people tend to believe that if we can make our political and economic systems more effective and our technology more powerful, we will eventually reach a Utopian society. Heaven on Earth will be achieved through the human effort and ingenuity that has proved so effective in the past as we further our ability to manipulate and control the world around us. However, in our attempts to achieve the best possible future situation for ourselves we often neglect the serious acts of imperialism that we commit against Nature.

Today in America many people like to levy criticism against the empires of the past for their acts of colonial imperialism, but altogether neglect the war that we rage against Nature today, producing increasingly deadly tools that destroy the planet and the natural systems that provide for us. Instead of trying to cooperate with the Tao or the Logos of the world around us “we try to dominate and exploit, we waste the earth’s mineral resources, ruin its soil, ravage its forests, pour filth into its rivers and poisonous fumes into its air” (Huxley, 93).  We look on our technological advances with tremendous pride and yet ignore the consequences of these material strides. This comes back to a point made earlier that we seem to have a tremendous hope and faith (“in the teeth of all human experience” (Huxley, 79)) that one can get something for nothing. Modern man no longer has the appropriate reverence for the planet and, as such, finds it perfectly acceptable to act as an overweening conqueror and tyrant. Our hubris has grown to a cosmically unsustainable size and yet we refuse to acknowledge that our nemesis is coming.

As it is said in the Bible (boy, never thought I would ever write/say that), “the tree is known by its fruit; fruit will discover what a tree is, and accordingly judgment may be made” (Matthew 12:33). This judgment need not necessarily come from some sort of divine force, but can merely be the reaction of the natural systems of the planet toward our actions, or, often even more harsh, our own evaluations of ourselves when all the external noise we surround ourselves with dies down. “At least to some extent, the collective conduct of a nation is a test of the religion prevailing within it, a criterion by which we may legitimately judge the doctrinal validity of that religion and its practical efficiency in helping individuals to advance towards the goal of human existence” (Huxley, 242). It is through the boons that technology has provided us, as well as the afflictions that we receive as compensation for these advancements, that we may judge the success of RIP.

However, we face the insurmountable problem that it is impossible to accurately weigh the costs and benefits of our technological advances at the planet’s expense. As Huxley puts it (with some slight modification by me to account for the further increase in the power of our gadgets since Huxley originally wrote this): “Has the ability to travel in 6 hours from New York to Los Angeles given more pleasure to the human race than the dropping of bombs and fire has given pain? There is no known method of computing the amount of felicity or goodness in the world at large” (Huxley, 79). We can never truly judge whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs until we get to the point (as it seems we might soon be) at which it is impossible to ignore our nemesis as it is right in our face destroying the planet.

It is because the reality of this progress can never be truly determined that modern man must take it as an article of religious faith. We can surely posit that we must be happier than our ancestors were, but can never know for sure: “Because technology advances, we fancy that we are making corresponding progress all along the line; because we have considerable power over inanimate nature, we are convinced that we are the self-sufficient masters of our fate and captains of our souls; and because cleverness has given us technology and power, we believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that we have only to go on being yet cleverer in a more systematic way to achieve social order, international peace, and personal happiness” (Huxley, 142). The more time we need to spend convincing ourselves of such, the greater the possibility that much of our society’s progress towards happiness is no more than a self-induced illusion, a charade reminiscent of the vision Orwell paints in 1984:

“It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it” (Orwell, 59)

Obviously this example is a bit extreme and is not meant to suggest any sort of Big Brother-esque conspiracy theory that runs throughout the history of mankind, but is does point to what I find to be a far more fearful scenario: this can all happen without Big Brother. In many cases, self-delusion is often immediately beneficial and desirable for maintaining a semi-contented state of mind, leading us into a self-perpetuating system. There need not be any single person or group of people directing this sort of behavior when the necessary impersonal forces are constantly at work (an idea that I explore in a consideration of the Western will to omniscience). It is a method of control in which the ruled give their consent to be controlled to the controller in the belief that it is in one’s own best interest to do. A totalitarian government is unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective, when the prevailing culture manages to convince people that they are tremendously free when, in actuality, they are psychologically restricted and deluded to the point that an individual’s own interests can seemingly be best served through continual self-delusion. It is a situation in which the ruled will actually love their slavery. This type of system can be created through drugs, various forms of societal segmentation, and advertising/propaganda (an idea I’ll come back to in a later post.)

We cannot possibly know whether or not our technological advances will lead us to a Utopia or a man-made apocalypse, so we take the former to be true as a matter of faith, largely because it is most convenient for us to keep on moving the direction in which we are going. Huxley captures this idea beautifully in noting that, “People always get what they ask for; the only trouble is that they never know, until they get it, what it actually is that they have asked for…If we don’t know it is because we find I more convenient not to know. Original ignorance is the same thing as original sin” (Huxley, 250).

The Religion of Inevitable Progress Part 2: We’re All Idolaters and Most of Us Don’t Even Know It

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“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or evidence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
-David Hume

In his book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley notes that nearly everyone in Western society is ruled by some form of idolatry, no matter how strongly (and frequently in spite of) their professions to a higher form of religiosity directed towards God or, as Huxley chooses to refer to it for greater cross-cultural applicability, the Divine Ground. Even those that boast of their undying dedication to the Divine Ground are often truly just choosing objects of faith and worship that are strictly human ideas and ideals. Huxley classifies these forms of “higher idolatry” under three main heads: moral, political, and technological.

Those that commit moral idolatry choose their own ethical ideals as their object of worship. Virtue is treated as an end in itself, rather than a necessary condition for the achievement of something higher and more lasting. As noble as this form of idolatry may seem it is actually as self-defeating as the other forms of idolatry in that it promotes a form of narrow-mindedness, focusing on only the most benevolent aspects of our moral nature. As Thomas Arnold notes, “narrow-mindedness tends to wickedness, because it does not extend its watchfulness to every part of our moral nature, and the neglect fosters wickedness in the parts so neglected” (Huxley, 252). This isn’t to say that seeking virtue is bad, but that what people often promote as morality is, in actuality, righteousness and false charity. In addition to the dangers of the dangers of the lack of all around development, an excessive focus on virtue continues to foster the idea of a separate and individualized Self, which ultimately acts as a fetter to the achievement of full comprehension and knowledge of Reality. However, I should note that if everyone in the world suffered solely from moral idolatry, we would be in a vastly better situation than we currently are. It is the following two forms of idol worship that pose more serious and immediate problems to the overall well-being of the human race.

Political idolatry is the belief that social and economic organizations are ultimately the key to redemption, if only mankind can make them as effective as they theoretically have the potential to be. Devotees of this type of idolatry belief that “if the right kind of organizations were to be imposed upon human beings, all of their problems, from sin and unhappiness to nationalism and war, will automatically disappear.” (Huxley, 252) That this idea is naive should appear self evident. As beings with at least a certain degree of free will, if all the individuals within the system do not whole heartedly choose to make it work, even the best organization will not produce the intended results. Man’s internal states are not to be neglected. Further dooming these institutions to fail is the fact that the best interest of the general populace is often not the most pressing issue in the minds of the men that run for the positions that will make these dreams into a reality. As Huxley himself predicted in his prophetic novel, Brave New World, in 1931, “All that is needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look sincere; political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate, the way he is projected by the advertising experts, are the things that really matter.” Among the people that buy into this political idolatry, most also have faith in the object of the third form of higher idolatry: technology.

Technological idolatry perpetuates the idea among its devotees that redemption and liberation depend on material objects-in this case, gadgets. It is from technological idolatry that millions of men and women in capitalistic countries today derive their working philosophy of life. This philosophy is couched in the erroneous belief that, where gadgets are concerned, we can get something for nothing-that we “can enjoy all the advantages of an elaborate, top-heavy and constantly advancing technology without having to pay for them by any compensating disadvantages.” (Huxley, 251) In the Greek phraseology, we have allowed our hubris to reach unfathomable levels without fully acknowledging or taking responsibility for the inevitable nemesis that follows.

Technological idolatry has been powerfully buttressed by the widespread belief that Americans have in scientific materialism, which ought to be regarded as a religion in its own right. It seems that many people today have forgotten that science does not possess (nor does it claim to possess) a comprehensive picture of Reality. It certainly has the power to explain much of the ways in which the world around us works, but the scientific method is simply not capable of dealing with all the immense complexity of existence. Through techniques of simplification and abstraction, science has achieved a tremendous understanding and domination of the physical environment, but it’s very easy to lose sight of that simple fact at which things began: it is ultimately an abstraction.

As long as it is kept in mind that much of science deals in abstractions, danger is largely kept at bay, but many people have passed into believing that this abstraction from Reality is Reality itself. With a deep seated belief in the reality of this abstraction, people believe that if we can only just be a bit more clever than we have been, if we can just be a bit more ingenious than our ancestors were, then we can reach that state of perfection and perpetual happiness that is a Utopia. It’s hard to fault society for reaching this conclusion given that it is very clearly difficult to be happy when basic material conditions are not being met. By improving one’s material conditions slightly, happiness increases. And if material conditions get a little bit better, then happiness often increases further! And if that is the case, then why shouldn’t that relationship continue until we can rise above the mire of our current miseries and evils into “a future set of material conditions so much better than the present that, somehow or other, they will cause everybody to be perfectly happy, wise, and virtuous” (Huxley, 201). It’s a slippery slope upon which we can easily convince ourselves that it is within man’s means to construct a perfect society for himself given the appropriate external conditions. But, as I’ll attempt to prove over the following series of posts, that that cannot be the case.