To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.
Most mornings I walk three or four miles. As I walk I like to listen to podcasts or books on tape (or whatever they are now called). This morning it was episode 257 of the Kunstler Cast, an interview with Piero SanGiorgio, author of Survive the Coming Economic Collapse, a practical guide. Fascinating stuff, especially in light of the different approaches Americans take (lone wolf survival, a la Jeremiah Johnson) vs. European approaches, which do not involve turning your back on society and manning big guns. The great thing about being alive today is the ability we have to go further, track down books we hear about, and even download first chapters on Kindle to read. That’s what I did. And .. even though I will probably not read the book in its entirety, I read enough to be inspired. I love the quotes which open each chapter. Here’s one from Einstein: “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” And also this:
“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”
― Jules H. Poincare
Yes. Yes .. it works on so many levels, from the unthinking, uncritical fundamentalist, to the whack jobs who populate the far right – the birthers, the truthers, the deniers and the assholes who throw sand in the face of truth, for whatever benighted or greedy reasons. What, I ask you, can you do with people who refuse to believe in climate change, despite overwhelming evidence, but who are more than ready to believe that ISIS is at the Mexican border, spreading Ebola. For the former there is evidence – ample, sound, mainstream evidence. For the latter there is none – just naked, ignorant fear. Imminent “threats” trump long term problems. Cranks and crackpots get listened to, while mainstream expertise is ‘elitist” .. or whatever. Fear does this, fear and denial.
To doubt everything is no different to believing everything – it all amounts to the same lack of thinking. And my oh my, that makes life convenient, doesn’t it?
It’s this thunderous truism: We all know on some level that we are thinking all the time, that we have this voice in our heads, and the nature of this voice is mostly negative. It’s also repetitive and ceaselessly self-referential. We walk around in this fog of memory about the past and anticipation of a future that may or may not arrive in the form in which we imagine it. This observation seemed to describe me. I realized that the things I’d done in my life that I was most ashamed of had been as a result of having thoughts, impulses, urges, and emotions that I didn’t have the wherewithal to resist.
I picked this up from “The Mountain Path”, July 2006, and it’s a breath of fresh air on this cold February morning:
The problem, however, lies in the teaching that it is through thinking and through study of the scriptures (shastras) that we will gain enlightenment. Endless scriptural study is a serious error because it strengthens the habit of thinking. Such study is founded on a fundamental error, different from an error in mathematics, or physics, because it assumes that (a) one has a ‘self’ and is an individual person; and that (b) one needs something external to oneself to help one to get rid of this ‘truly existing’ selfhood. The moment you depend on the thinking mind to guide you, you implicitly assume that your Reality is not here and now, and that to discover our Reality will take time. All this is mental delusion. How can you get at Reality by seeking it in the future, when it is already here right now?
The more you study and the more you reflect on concepts in order to gain enlightenment, the more you indirectly assert that you are not Reality. In thinking like this, you are falsely conditioning your mind, reinforcing your ignorance. Because, as long as the thinking mind is in full swing, Advaita is out of question. To realize Non-Duality through thinking is an impossibility.
Tao Te Ching
The generals have a saying:
“Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard.”
This is called
going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons.
There is no greater misfortune
than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy
means thinking that he is evil.
Thus you destroy your three treasures
and become an enemy yourself.
When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.
Berkeley – “Surely it is a work well deserving our pains to make a strict inquiry concerning the First Principles of Human Knowledge, to sift and examine them on all sides, especially since there may be some grounds to suspect that those lets and difficulties, which stay and embarrass the mind in its search after truth, do not spring from any darkness and intricacy in the objects, or natural defect in the understanding, so much as from false Principles which have been insisted on, and might have been avoided.”
Wittgenstein – “The proper task of philosophy, he says, is to make the nature of our thought and talk clear, for then the traditional problems of philosophy will be recognized as spurious and will accordingly vanish.” (from Wittengenstein, a Very Short Introduction, by A. C. Grayling)
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the “two wolves” which exist inside each person, from an old Cherokee tale. One wolf was your traditional wolfish wolf, full of violence and venom. The other was a nice wolf, which seemed a bit of a stretch at the time, but the story was a good one. But as it turns out, wolves are nothing like as wolvish as we humans like to think.
“The idea that when humans are at their worst when they behave like wolves has been around a long time. Hobbes used the Latin tag homo homini lupus – man is a wolf to man – to illustrate his belief that unless they are restrained by government, people prey upon one another ruthlessly, while descriptions of rapacious or amoral behaviour as wolfish can be found throughout literature.”
“‘The wolf is art of the highest form and you cannot be in its presence without this lifting your spirits.’ Beyond its beauty, though, the wolf taught the philosopher something about the meaning of happiness. Humans tend to think of their lives as progressing towards some kind of eventual fulfilment; when this is not forthcoming they seek satisfaction or distraction in anything that is new or different. This human search for happiness is ‘regressive and futile’, for each valuable moment slips away in the pursuit of others and they are all swallowed up by death. In contrast, living without the sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point, wolves find happiness in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained. As a result, as Rowlands shows in a moving account of his last year with Brenin, they can flourish in the face of painful illness and encroaching death.”
I have taken up Arthur Koestler’s “The Act of Creation” in spurts these days, dipping into it, as I have done time and again for years. In a section on “frustrated participatory emotions” Koestler surveys primitive societies, and rituals used to connect individuals to larger things, like the cosmos … and each other. This quote, about Western society, struck me as true:
“The child is taught petitionary prayer instead of meditation, religious dogma instead of contemplation of the infinite; the mysteries of nature are drummed into his head as if they were paragraphs in the penal code.”
And of course, it is true. Everything is externalized. Nature is treated as something “out there”, something to be saved, preserved, studied, measured, regulated, and guarded like a commodity. It’s not seen as part of us, and no amount of trying to “save” it will change that relationship. In fact, if we continue to regard it primarily as a thing to be saved, we externalize “it”, and objectify it. It’s not out there, though. It’s in here. Save it, by all means; but stop thinking of it as a thing apart.
Michael Agger writes a great article in Mother Jones entitled Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare, about the trend toward self-denial environmental books – those ones where people try to live “intentionally” for a year, going without modern amenities, just to reduce their “carbon footprint” and show that it can be done. And they do it all right – and they get lots of notice, and write books, and promote their ascetic lifestyle for all to emulate and admire. And most everybody does admire them for their stance. Like the Germans, we Americans tend to get behind something with a level of commitment which borders on zealotry. It’s probably a Calvinst thing, and the irony is that even the hippies become extremists. The most extreme case of these self-promotional stuntmen is probably “No Impact Man,” Colin Beavan.
“Colin Beavan, [is] a 45-year-old New Yorker better known as No Impact Man, and even better known as The Man Who Doesn’t Let His Wife Use Toilet Paper. That last detail was the highlight of a 2007 New York Times profile of Beavan, which portrayed how he, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter were attempting to live in downtown Manhattan with zero “net impact” on the environment. This goal involves eating only organic food grown within a 250-mile radius, composting inside their small apartment, forgoing paper, carbon-based transportation, dishwashers, TV, and adhering to whatever new austerities Beavan dreams up.”
Well, good on ya, mate. But I’m not that impressed. Try doing it quietly, or at least not so thoroughly. It’s the thoroughness which bothers me, the “all or nothing” approach, which not only smacks of desperation and thoughtlessness, but also of piety and smugness. I get enough of that from my off-the-grid friends, who never cease to tire of explaining how they are without the corrupting influence of a TV. But wait a minute. Doesn’t living off the grid mean, ipso facto, that you won’t have a tv? I mean, can you even run a tv when you’re off the grid? One lifestyle choice would seem to dictate the next. Necessity, then, is not so much the mother of invention, as the trigger for more posturing. It’s nice that you are living “intentionally” (as opposed to thoughtlessly, like me), with your low carbon footprint and all. But please, just keep it to yourself, will ya? I already know about it. I’ll try and catch up to you some day. Meanwhile, nature calls. I’m off to consume some paper.
“We all realize, now that the Internet is humming all around us, that in one way it’s a blessing and it helps us, and that in another way it enslaves us. To give you an example, I recently became aware that I was in a dream, and I realized that by the fact that the transition from one dream scene to the other looked exactly like the way I click from one website to another. So, working with all these computers and new technologies does something to the brain itself.”
How true it is that technologies shape our stance towards the world, even in our dreams! Tivo, for instance, has infected my brain, making me think momentarily that I can pause and rewind other events, like radio, like conversations. Maybe this could explain why kids nowadays (am I sounding like Andy Rooney yet?) always blurt out the word “Wait!” when what they really mean is “Could you say that again, please? I wasn’t really listening the first time. I was multitasking.”
“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail,” wrote Mark Twain. We are shaped by the tools we use. Edgar Lee Masters put it this way in Spoon River Anthology:
Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself–
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.