Category Archives: Buddhism

The Peril of an Unexamined Life

This bumper sticker, actually the title of a book by Thubten Chodron, probably summarized what life had to teach me in 2016.  This wisdom has been percolating in my heart for several years and primarily with the Presidential election in my country I finally “got it” fully, seeing how much lunacy I’ve subscribed to over my lifetime merely because I subscribed to every idle thought that fluttered through my mind without giving any of them much scrutiny.

I can’t fully explain how my life ever took the course of getting out of the echo-chamber variety of thought that I was born into and indoctrinated with, destined to continue for my allotted “three score and ten” years.  I do remember in my teen years posing a question or two in Sunday school that challenged some of the premises of my belief system but I readily overlooked my realization that my questions were not being answered and continued dutifully along my charted course into my twenties.

But critical thinking flirted with me, gradually finding a home, and I discovered the wisdom of the Greeks who told us to avoid “the unexamined life.”  For if we never mature to the point of using the metacognitive skills that our neocortex blesses us with, we will live our life in a very narrow world of unexamined preconceptions.  This is what prompted the fear of Henry David Thoreau that he would come to the end of his life and realize that what he had lived was not really life at all.   And this is very much what Jesus had in mind when he warned us about “gaining the whole world and losing our own soul.”  Jesus knew that we are only a soul, a spiritual being having an earthly moment, and to never engage in the “working out of our own salvation with fear and trembling,” as the Apostle Paul would  put it, would mean never knowing that Inner Essence that seeks so desperately to find expression.

Thinking itself is never the problem.  The problem is our ego’s attachment to our thinking which too often blocks us from the realization that other people might have equally valid ways of thinking about the world.  This is only too apparent in my country now as the division between drastically different ways of viewing the world has been exposed by the arrival of Donald Trump and the phenomenon of Trumpism.  And there can be no resolution unless these contrasting belief systems employ some transcendent reference point and get beyond themselves long enough to focus on a common good. I sometimes facetiously suggest to friends that what we need to have is the threat from an alien life form that threatens our very existence!  Perhaps that would encourage us to overlook some of our petty differences.

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I blogged several months ago about “the unity of all things.” It probably will continue to be a recurrent theme in my life as I see…and feel…its truth in the whole of my life. And, with my heart being more open now, I have intuitive knowledge that I was intently conscious of this unity very early in my life, much longer than one should if he is going to “join the human race” on schedule. (That is a story for another time.)

This discovery in my adulthood can probably be attributed to my marriage in 1989 at the age of 37. I think marriage for both of us was the onset of an exploration of the phenomena of “otherness.” This exploration is a boundary issue, a daring pushing of boundaries in a new manner which has led to profound changes in my life, changes in the depths of my heart. The Universe offered me a little hint at what was coming in the Spring of 1990 when I plucked a lovely tulip in our front yard to take in and give to my wife. The thought immediately flashed through my mind as I plucked this tulip, so taken with its exquisite and intense and beauty, “I don’t know if I’m plucking or being plucked.”

Immediately I knew this flashing thought was “interesting” and revealing. I thought, “Oh, wow! This is psychotic” for my knowledge of psychology had given me the awareness that this was an experience that could be the onset of a psychotic break. But, at the same time I was not alarmed in the least for I knew that I wasn’t psychotic but that this experience merely reflected that my boundaries were beginning to become fluid, that the rigid distinction between “me and thee”, between “me” and the object world was becoming less pronounced. I also knew enough about linguistics to quip later, “My signifier is beginning to float!” My life since then has been a steady but mercifully slow story of my “signifier” learning to float and my learning to adapt to the resulting duress of a new view and experience of the world.

Just last week I was having coffee with a new friend of mine who has had a similar experience in her life.. She is a retired corporate “uppity up”, highly intelligent and accomplished, and with a keen spiritual intuition. We were talking about this phenomena of boundary subtlety and the complicated nuances of having this awareness. I shared with her my tulip anecdote and some other similar “adventures” and she shared similar anecdotes, all in the context of a discussion of spirituality. Suddenly, I abruptly noted, “You realize that someone listening in on this conversation would say that we are psychotic?” She paused briefly and then noted, “Yes, but there are layers to reality but when I experience the unity of myself and a tree….for example…I simultaneously know that this is not how the rest of the world experiences it and also know that if I went around announcing it everywhere I went I would get myself into a lot of trouble.” Our discussion then ventured into the multiple dimensions of reality and how that “common-sense reality” allows only one, one that can be summed up as that of time and space, a linear and thus sequential world.

Reality is multi-dimensional. Yes, my experience with the tulip was a valid and meaningful experience but it is fortunate…and a sign of mental health…that I had the immediate understanding that there were other ways of looking at my experience. There are always “other ways of looking at my experiences” and learning this has helped me to be a little more open-minded and more tolerant of difference, or “otherness.”

To summarize, a tulip spoke to me! Now if I ever feel that a tulip literally speaks to me and perhaps communicates to me, “Don’t pluck me! Don’t pluck me,” I’m gonna be alarmed! In fact, I will go down to “Wal Marts” and buy me an hypodermic of industrial strength Haldol just in case! But the tulip did “speak to me” in a powerful way, a message that has reverberated through my life to this very day.

And each day the whole of the world speaks to each of us, every bit of this beautiful world offers a word to us–flora, fauna, fellow man/woman. All we have to do is listen but to listen we have to first realize that we have a deep-seated inclination to not listen, to pay attention only to the self-serving whisperings of our own unconscious needs. We have “ears to hear but hear not, eyes to see but see not.” And truly understanding this wisdom of Jesus is something we just don’t like to acknowledge, even we Christians who love to quote it!

One caveat here. Now suddenly if the whole world opens up to us and speaks to us, if it suddenly cascades in upon us, all at the same time, you might want one of those aforementioned hypodermic needles! This could be a psychotic break. We merely need to be aware of the need to listen and to observe and at specific moments we will have the opportunity to listen to and see the subtleties of our world. The rest of the time we will dutifully go about our day to day life keeping this dog-and-pony (linear) show afloat.

 

NOTES:

Here is a link to a BBC story in which the interconnectedness of the forest is explained, illustrating one dimension of “the unity of all things.” http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet

For further explanation of “floating-signifier,” you might see the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floating_signifier

Here is a beautiful description of the sense world collapsing in upon the ego, and the ego being saved from catastrophe (psychosis) by poetry:

bewildered with the broken tongue

of wakened angels in our sleep

then, lost the music that was sung

and lost the light time cannot keep

 

there is a moment when we lie

bewildered, wakened out of sleep

when light and sound and all reply

the moment time must tame and keep

 

that moment, like a flight of birds

flung from the branches where they sleep

the poet with a beat of words

flings into time for time to keep

 

words in time by archibald macleish

“This Spirituality Stuff is Nuts!

“This stuff is nuts!”  I would periodically make this observation with my Sunday School class when I returned to the Episcopalian church in the spring of 2011, doing so with feigned frustration Now, I did so only after they knew me well enough to know that I was not being serious, but was only reflecting the cognitive dissonance between the mature approach to spirituality the class afforded me and the very linear, legalistic spiritual mind-set that still lay in the depths of my heart.

This was not an ordinary Christian church as it permitted a Sunday School class of this sort, one which emphasized a non-dual approach to Holy Writ and the Christian tradition. Each week we would meditate for 20-30 minutes and then discuss the book we were reading at the time, each book reflecting the non-dual approach to reality/Reality. And our discussion was personal, not being a mere regurgitation of the “party-line” that the church or the Christian tradition suggested. This discussion was an open, honest exploration of spiritual teachings and the meaning they had in our day-to-day life. But, with this “non-dual” emphasis we usually waded deeply into the aether, into the nebulous dimensions of spiritual life, “wrestling with words and meanings” (T. S. Eliot) and finding that our faith in God, in the human enterprise, and with each others deepened in the process.

And, from time to time I would abruptly interject our discussion with, “This is nuts” and then share how dissonant our discussion was with my past but also how absurd it would be with most people in our community, not to mention the world. For our world is very linear and depends on our ability to mute the “non-dual” dimension of our heart and mind in our day-to-day functioning and fulfill our responsibilities in our personal and professional lives. And the people in this class were highly functional, highly educated and accomplished people who were very adept in making their way in the linear world. But their presence in this class, and their discussion of the subject matter in the class, revealed their awareness of another dimension of life that was very important to them and actually gave meaning to their day-to-day life.

This experience taught me that it is possible to live in two different worlds at once, the “common-sense” world that people take to be real as well as the spiritual world that I was facetiously describing as “nuts.” For, when we venture into the realm of the spirit, we are led beyond the pale in a certain sense, into a realm where words cannot capture the matter we purport to discuss. And this does not mean that these words are unimportant. They are. But they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves; or as the Buddhists teach, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”