Archive for the ‘Wisdom’ Category

Mastering Perspective

Monday, June 25th, 2012

If genius is the art of being fully conscious of reality in the midst of daily life, then an essential step towards perfecting this art is learning how to master perspective.

Most people are the opposite. They are slaves to perspective. They allow themselves to become trapped within a limited range of perspectives, which closes their minds to everything else. Setting up home in these perspectives, they feel compelled to defend them vigorously, even violently. What makes their situation so comical is that the perspectives they cherish are not even theirs to begin with. They did not arrive at them independently through a conscious process of logic that has been thoroughly grounded in ultimate reality. They simply accepted them second-hand from others – from their peers, from their culture, from their tradition.

A person might be born in the deep south of America and thus grow up to be a fervent, bible-bashing Christian, yet if he were born in Pakistan he would be directing the same fervour towards Islam. He did not choose to be born in a region of Christian fundamentalism, anymore than a Pakistani chooses to be born in an Islamic state. Yet they both vigorously promote their respective values and beliefs with a blind fervour, oblivious to the absurdity of their own situation. Each of them have passively allowed their lives to be shaped and determined by the mere roll of a dice. They are but empty clones of one another. The fact that they both hate each other only serves to make the whole thing even more comical.

This madness is everywhere you look. I watched a football match recently between Croatia and Spain and the thing that strikes you about international football is the naked patriotism on display, from both the players and the crowd. You look at the singing, chanting and flag-waving and it is obvious that each set of supporters thinks their nation (their culture, their people, their ego) is the greatest nation of all. They have all bought into this perspective and emotionally invested in it. And yet each of these supporters could have just as easily been cheering on the opposing nation had chance rolled the dice differently. The arbitrary nature of their birth and the absurdity of their passive acceptance of this either escapes them completely, or else they are too wrapped up in the emotional pleasure contained within their limited perspective to care.

It is not just a matter of where you are born, but when. A lot of college students nowadays naturally believe in the supremacy of science and have absorbed the popular nihilistic belief that truth can never be known, that everything is uncertain. They are quick to sneer at religious people for their belief in irrational superstition. Yet if these same college students were born 1000 years ago, they would have just as naturally believed in the supremacy of the Church and the doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and they would have been sneering at pagans instead. Their mindless acceptance of the dominant cultural myths of the 21st century makes them just as ignorant and irrational as the medieval Christians of old.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I used to be astonished at how accepting and submissive my peers were. Just the fact that they were so obsessed with women, and therefore obsessed with the business of making money and appearing powerful and cool, was a puzzle to me. I would say to them, “Doesn’t the fact that you submit so easily to your genetic programming bother you? Surely there is more to life than living like a standard, pre-programmed robot!” Most of them would laugh and think I was crazy. But to me, they seemed unimaginative and meek.

It is hard to believe that here we are in the 21st century, with all of the technological sophistication around us, and people everywhere are still happy to play lottery with their lives and allow chance to completely dictate their beliefs, values, perception, knowledge and experiences.   It is even harder to believe that most of them are oblivious to this madness.  But I suppose I should cut a little slack. After all, the human race has barely emerged from the Middle Ages. Or more to the point, we have barely come down from the trees.

People tend to have very low standards concerning what it means to be intellectually independent. It is not enough to simply reject the beliefs and values of one’s culture and adopt another set of beliefs and values. That is merely trading one perspective for another, which means that your life is still being ruled by the roll of a dice. For example, if the person in the American deep south were to reject fundamentalist Christianity and embrace Islam, or if he were to embrace science and become an agnostic, either way he is still allowing chance to determine his understanding of things and the course of his life. These chance factors might include what his genetic make-up happens to be, what people he happens to meet, what books he happens to read, what experiences he happens to have, what kind of intellectual theories happen to exist in the world, what parts of his brain happen to fire up in any given moment, etc – all of these things play a role in determining what belief-system he happens to find pleasing. Despite making the movement from a traditional mindset to a more individual one, the core madness in his life remains.

If you want to give full expression to your genius and become truly sane, then you must go all the way and completely eliminate the role of chance from your life, and this can only be achieved by pushing the mind beyond all perspective. And to do this, you must learn to become emotionally free of all perspectives.

In some people’s eyes, Mother Teresa was a saintly woman who helped the poor. To others, she was a cunning fanatic trapped within a fantasy. From yet another perspective, she was just another Albanian. Or just another human making up the numbers in society. Or just another animal exploiting a niche in the natural world. Or just another biological machine, comprised of fluids, chemicals and electrical impulses. Or just another manifestation of reality, essentially no different from the mountains, trees and clouds. The wrinkling around her eyes, the warmth of her personality, the slight stoop in her posture, the little moles on her skin, the saliva forming in her mouth – these too are all manifestations of reality, essentially no different from the mountains, trees and clouds. The genius is able to entertain all these different perspectives with ease and can flit in and out of them at will. Ordinary people, on the other hand, tend to be emotionally bound to one or two of them and have extreme trouble seeing anything beyond.

The genius is free because he succeeds in leaving behind all finite, limited, relative, human-centered perspectives and uses his mind to embrace Nature as a whole – that is to say, the totality of all there is. The All. He is free because his mind is open to the boundlessness of the “absolute perspective”. Or to put it poetically, he is free because he sees everything through the eyes of God.

The “absolute perspective” is itself a poetic expression. Strictly speaking, it is a contradiction in terms and falls into the same category as the square circle, as a perspective is always relative by nature. In a less literal sense, however, the term refers to the vision and understanding which arises when every shred of relativism is mentally eliminated. Due to the flexible nature of our conceptualizing minds, we have the ability to abstract our attention away from all relative positions, from all perspectives, enabling us to understand the world in an absolute sense. This is a critical skill in being able to perceive the fundamental nature of reality.

To illustrate this, let us consider the size of an object. Mount Fuji, for example, seems enormous from our perspective as human beings, but to the earth as a whole it is a barely noticeable pimple. What size it has depends on your perspective. If you mentally take away all possible perspectives, then Mount Fuji cannot be said to have any size. From the absolute perspective, it is sizeless.

For the same reason, the Universe as a whole (i.e. the Totality, the All) is sizeless. Not in the sense that it is infinitely small, but rather that the quality of size cannot be applied to it. Without the introduction of a relative viewpoint of some kind, size has no meaning. And so ultimately, the Universe is neither infinitely big, nor infinitely small, nor any size in between.

This principle can be applied in countless other ways. For example, not only is the Universe timeless (for the same reasons as above), but it is purposeless as well. A purpose always involves the perception that there is a deficiency in the world which needs to be rectified, and perceptions of deficiency are always relative in nature. From a farmer’s point of view, a bacteria-infected tree is a problem that needs to be solved, but to the bacteria themselves it is an occasion to be celebrated. If we take away all the relativism associated with perspective, then we also take away all purpose.

The same reasoning applies to existence itself. The relative nature of perspective effectively reduces everything to the status of a mirage. A mirage is something that only appears to exist from certain perspectives and disappears when viewed from other perspectives. When a dying man in a desert spies a lake in the distance only to find nothing there when he crawls closer, he realizes through a change of perspective that he has been taken in by a mirage. In a similar way, if a person believes that Mount Fuji is really what it appears to him to be – namely, a large, solid, immoveable object – then he has also been taken in by a mirage. If he were to adopt another perspective, one that was sufficiently different, he would realize that the mountain was nothing more than a temporary appearance that occurred in the past.  From the perspective of a local atom, for example, the solid mountain gives way to a vast realm of empty space with only the occasional appearance of other atoms to interrupt the monotony.

In any case, the point of all these examples is to illustrate how the absolute perspective is not really a perspective as such, but an understanding that comes into being when all relativism is mentally eliminated. Its chief value is the equalization of everything that exists. When you truly see that reality is utterly everything, when you see that all things – i.e. all people, all events, all objects, all dimensions, all thoughts, all emotions, all states of mind, all mystical experiences, all gods, etcare direct manifestations of reality, all of them lacking inherent existence and thus all of them equal in status, then you have reached the absolute perspective. It is the absolute perspective because, having embraced everything and yet rejecting everything, there is nowhere further to go.

Genius is the art of never slipping into existence. It is the capacity to never be taken in by any experience or appearance or perception, not even for a split second.  This is where skill in mastering perspective comes into play. If you find yourself becoming emotional for any reason, or if you are burdened with fears and worries, then it means that you are no longer the master. You have been taken in and now you are fighting against mirages. You have become a slave to perspective.

There is an ethical side to this issue as well. The more you become a slave to perspective, the more you entrench yourself in a particular viewpoint and seek your emotional happiness and security within it, the more you create the conditions for violence and suffering to occur. We can see this in the way that supporting a football team can quickly lead to fan violence, patriotism can quickly lead to war, and love can quickly lead to jealousy and domestic violence.

People often like to say, “We are free to do what we want, as long as we don’t hurt anyone”, yet their lives are filled with emotional attachments which contain the seeds for future violence. They might not throw the fists or pull the trigger directly, but their lives nonetheless promote a grasping mentality which always has destructive consequences. This is yet another reason why people do not want to be too conscious of reality. Their freedom to live as they please relies on them remaining blind to the nature of their actions. In reality, their motto is, “We are free to do what we want as long as we can get away with it, and everyone else can go to hell!”

It might be argued that if people were not slaves to perspective, if they did not devote themselves wholeheartedly to a particular finite cause, then very little in the world would get done. For example, the progress of science would slow up considerably, and possibly grind to a halt, if there weren’t at least some people fully applying themselves to research. While this may be true, it should also be noted that there would be far less violence, insanity and misery in the world as well, for people would be far less defensive about their particular perspectives. As such, the question needs to be asked: Is having flashy mobile phones, sports cars and super-fast internet really worth the overload of violence and madness that comes with them?

I would much rather people begin their adult lives learning to free themselves from all perspectives and tuning into the Infinite before deciding how to behave in the world. “Seek first the Kingdom of God”, as Jesus urged. Make every effort to exit the world of conditioning and chance, find the tremendous freedom of nirvana which is your birthright, and then come back into the world on your own terms minus any baggage. Then you can decide how best to contribute to society. You might decide to pursue scientific research, or become involved in social reform, or perhaps even write a philosophic blog. But whatever you decide to do, at least you will be doing it in a conscious, rational manner, and you won’t simply be adding to the misery and ignorance that already exists in the world.

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Believing in Death

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

It goes without saying that people generally do not want to die.  Most of us want to live for a long time, if not forever.  The thought that it all comes to an end can be a difficult thing to contemplate.

Consider what death means for you personally.  Utterly everything disappears.  Your memories, your hopes, your emotions, your thoughts, your education, your wisdom, your subjectivity, your consciousness, your very identity as a person – all of it vanishes.  Your position in society, your business concerns, your relationships with friends and family, your passions, your loves, your triumphs and attainments – poof!  All gone in the blink of an eye.  Everything that you love and enjoy in life, all the little things that bring you pleasure, all the delightful moments that you experience in music, art, sport and sex, all the social narratives and soap-opera plots that engage you in daily life – all of it is extinguished.  In effect, the whole world vanishes and you along with it.  Everything about you disappears forever and ever and ever.

The thought that Nature will continue to unfold for the rest of eternity and that you will never wake up again…..

The thought that countless civilizations will rise and fall, that countless technologies will come and go, that countless conscious beings, with no knowledge or awareness of the human race, will emerge, flourish and disappear within the swells of countless universes, galaxies and planets, all of it part of a never-ending series of dramatic events, unique situations and fascinating stories that will stretch on forever and you will never get to experience any of it…..

The thought that it could happen at any moment, without warning.  A sudden heart-attack.  A stroke.  A brain aneurysm.  A virus.  A car accident.  A random act of violence.  A meteor crashing down on you.  Death can strike from anywhere, at any time.  People often use the term “death row” when they talk about convicted prisoners who have been sentenced to death.  But in truth, we are all on death row and there is nothing we can do about it.  How we behave or what we believe or what society thinks of us is immaterial.   Nothing can save us.

It is no wonder that human beings do everything they can to paper over this reality with religious fantasy, or try to block it out by keeping busy, by cuddling with each other, by seeking out distractions, by taking drugs.  When a child learns for the first time that he will one day die he is truly horrified and he never really gets over it.  He might try to suppress it, he might become distracted by the challenges of growing up in this world, but it never leaves him.  It becomes a sort of gnawing background horror to his life – constantly pushed away, but ready to erupt at a moment’s notice.

The term “mid-life crisis” immediately springs to mind here, yet the human propensity to suppress death, and the grotesque consequences of this, manifests in many other ways as well.  One of the more interesting examples is grief.  When a person suddenly loses a family member or an intimate friend and falls down howling with grief, he openly displays his life-long suppression of the reality of death.  His howls reveal his shock, as though he has been caught completely by surprise; they reveal that he has been asleep, that he has been stagnating comfortably in a fantasy world which he believed would never end – such has been the strength of his suppression.  He might be 40 or 50 years old and highly experienced in business matters and the ways of society, but it is as though he has never lived.  He naively thought he could get away with living in a fantasy world indefinitely.  And now he howls like a new-born babe at the injustice of it all.

Grief, like love, is rooted in selfishness.  And so the howls of a grieving person are invariably steeped in anger and self-righteous indignation.  Anger at the loved one for suddenly leaving him, anger at the Universe for allowing it to happen, anger at those around him for still being alive.  Consumed with bitterness, the grieving person shamelessly throws around the blackness of his egotism in a very ugly display.  Just as bad fruit comes from bad trees, as the old saying goes, the blackness and ugliness of his grief comes from the blackness and ugliness of his love.  For love itself can only blossom when reality is suppressed and ignored.  The whole cycle of love and grief is a cycle of ignorance, one that depends not only on suppressing death, but suppressing consciousness of the nature of reality as a whole.

If one is forced to choose a single piece of evidence that reveals just how ignorant and out of tune with reality the human race is, then one only has to point the finger at the daily outbreaks of grief worldwide.  For it shows that, spiritually speaking, people everywhere are completely wasting their lives.  You can forgive children if they fall into grief over the loss of a parent or a sibling, for they are young and do not know any better.  But for anyone over the age of 25, it is truly shameful behaviour.

Concentrate your thoughts for a moment and avoid thinking in terms of good and evil. While you are not thinking of good, and not thinking of evil, just at this very moment, return to what you were before your father and mother were born.

Hui-neng

An objection could be raised that it is impossible for me, or indeed for anyone else, to be absolutely certain that our consciousness ends with our death.  While this is true, it is all but irrelevant.  Nobody really believes in an afterlife, not when it comes down to it.  Not even the believers believe in it.  When a person howls with grief over the loss of a loved one, he is not thinking that the loved one has simply travelled to another place and they will probably meet up again soon.  No, his howls tell a completely different story.  They tell us that he knows, deep down, that the person has been extinguished forever.  The afterlife fantasy might be useful for suppressing the thought of death in normal everyday life, but it quickly evaporates the moment reality intrudes.

Looked at objectively, the odds that our consciousness will continue on after the death of the brain, that there is an afterlife, are exceedingly slim.  All the credible evidence points against it.  Everything suggests that we fully emerged out of Nature’s causal processes and that we will one day fully dissolve back into them.  Just as a wave crashes against the shore and wholly disappears, and a cloud dissipates in the sky and wholly disappears, there is no reason to think that our own fate will be any different.

And even if, in the remotest of remote possibilities, some kind of mechanism does exist which enables human consciousness to survive death, it is still going to represent a monumental change.  It still means that all of our connections to the world are going to be ripped away from us.  So either way, our death is going to constitute the most traumatic event of our lives.  The only comparable event, perhaps, is expulsion from the womb, but even here a fetus doesn’t spend decades consciously forming an identity within the womb and consciously attaching himself to its various pleasures and comforts within.  Those who cling to the hope that an afterlife will soften the reality and trauma of death are seriously deluding themselves.

In response to this, a few of you will probably point to the reality of near-death experiences which sometimes involve powerful altered states of consciousness imbued with great joy and an overwhelming sense of divine love, persuading many who undergo these experiences that there is indeed a loving God waiting for us beyond death.   This issue is far too large and complex to go into here, but I will be analyzing these experiences in detail, along with mystical states in general and other similar kinds of neurological phenomena, in a future blog.  For now, I will simply point out that the mere fact these people feel compelled to emphasize the sheer beauty and joy of the near-death experience underlines just how traumatic they consider death to be.

The human race is so mindlessly lost in delusion that it tends to automatically couple spirituality with a belief in an afterlife, without giving it another thought.  But if you believe that it is only possible to experience God and enter into heaven after you have physically died, then you will be far too late.  You will have missed the boat completely.  Heaven can only be experienced here on this earth, while you are still alive, or not at all.  Even near-death experiences are experiences that occur within this life.  In the end, the desire to believe in an afterlife is the desire to cling to this life.  And the desire to cling to this life is the desire to avoid becoming conscious of reality.  It is to turn your back on God.  As such, believing in an afterlife is really a form of evil.

The kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead.

Meister Eckhart

Enough!  Away with the fantasies!  Away with the desperate search for loopholes!  It is far better, from a spiritual perspective, to accept the full horror of death at face value and prepare for the worst.  In this way, a sense of urgency can permeate your life.  A powerful, driving need to become enlightened about the nature of reality NOW, before it is too late, can fill the mind.  People tend to work far more productively when they know they have a deadline, for it can focus the mind like nothing else.  If there is no deadline, if you believe that you have endless amounts of time to complete a task, then it is unlikely you will ever begin it at all.  You will procrastinate and dither so much that you will end up forgetting what the task was to begin with.

Weak men ever lose themselves on the way. And at length their weariness asketh: “Wherefore did we set out? All is indifferent!

Friedrich Nietzsche

For those of us who strive to become fully conscious of reality, death is actually a blessing in disguise.  Not because we want to die and lose our consciousness, but because the ever-present prospect of death can steel the wavering mind and urge it forward.  Those on the spiritual path often vacillate between their love of life and their spiritual desire to abandon all attachments for the sake of becoming fully conscious.  Death teaches us that all of our attachments and loves are going to ripped away from us, regardless.  It is definitely going to happen, one way or the other.  You can either abandon your attachments voluntarily (thereby allowing you the opportunity to experience the greatest wisdom of all), or you can be like everyone else and mindlessly wait for the chopping block to fall.

Imagine you are flying in an aeroplane high above a mountainous region and the captain announces over the intercom, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.  Do not panic, but the engines are failing and we will be crashing down to earth in a few moments.  Please follow the safety proceedures.”  How will you respond, knowing that you only have a few minutes to live?  Will you continue to sleep away your time with trivial matters like you normally do?  Or will each moment be intensely focused on the most vital of concerns with unbridled urgency?  It is amazing just how clear and focused the mind becomes when it is fully aware of life and death.  We should be striving for this kind of intensity and clarity all the time, in every moment of our daily lives, and being fully aware of the reality of death can serve as the perfect catalyst for this.

It is not enough to simply understand the truth on an intellectual level.  That is a very easy thing to do.  All it takes is a single glance at the world to see the impermanency of everything, to see that things are like fragile bubbles which are sustained by equally fragile causal conditions, that each fleeting moment is a whole universe unto itself.   Death is occuring all around us at every moment.  It is the reality of change.  But to truly understand what this means – to fully understand the illusory nature of our existence and to live in the tremendous freedom this understanding provides – we have to bring the whole of our selves, the whole of our minds, the whole of our lives, into the equation.

It is eternally true that if one knocks, the door will be opened. But suppose that the difficulty for us human beings is simply that we are afraid to go – and knock.

Soren Kierkegaard

In order to go beyond death, one needs to go through death and beyond.  One needs to become like a dead man, without attachment and desire, and only then can the boundless freedom that exists beyond death be fully realized.  Indeed, this boundless freedom already exists around us.  It is there in the way the wind blows without a care in the world, in the way a wave crashes into the shoreline without any thought of self-preservation, in the way a particle of dust settles indifferently onto a table.  And it is there inside us, in the way the neurons fire and our muscles contract, the way the heart beats and the blood courses through our veins, the way the eyes automatically transmit visual data to the brain, the way each thought spontaneously emerges into the mind.  All of it is effortless, fearless, and free.   This fearlessness is the very stuff of life and death and we are fully part of it.

The sages ramble in the vacancy of untroubled ease, find their food in the fields of indifference, and stand in the gardens which they had not borrowed.

Chuang Tzu

A dead man has nothing to lose.  Possessing nothing, being nothing, he is beyond all possibility of harm.  And so too, if a person empties himself of utterly everything while remaining alive, if he becomes the nothingness that he really is, abandoning all desire for personal happiness, discarding everything he has gained from the past and renouncing every hope for the future, no longer seeking anything, no longer storing anything, no longer paying any attention to forms, being wholly unmoved in all circumstances, unmoved even to his own reputation, even to his own consciousness, even to his own life, even to wisdom itself – then death loses all of its power and meaning.  It melts back into the charade that it has always been.   In the end, death is nothing more than a thief, and not even the greatest of thieves can steal from those who have no possessions to begin with.

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