The genius of Alan Watts in 15 minutes. He was the consummate master of cut-the-crap: he could, from the first sentence of his first lecture in a series, pierce straight to the core of his topic. Hearing Watts is perhaps as close as we can come in our era to what the ancient Athenians must have felt every time Socrates spoke publicly. So I’ll get out of your way now and let you enjoy this.
Note that Watts does not say, “self-improvement is impossible or an illusion.” He merely says, “I’m not here to improve you.” It was not his intent or purpose to change people; for he knew that real change — what many of us call transformation — isn’t done. It just happens.
The difference only matters to those of us who have experienced it, who trust it. Transformation occurs from the inside out; change works solely on the outside, or at least primarily. So it is a matter of mere vector rather than quality. Now if you ask what’s better for me, then I will say, transformation. I like it, it feels better and more complete; but that is a preference, a personal opinion.
Granted, I think it is a pretty compelling opinion. For if our bodies are parts of a vast systemic whole that operates within us, and we within it; then it makes sense to practice life as if we really belonged here, all of each of us in all of It.
When you think about it that way, improvement really doesn’t bring home the bacon here. And anyway, as Watts also used to say, if the same screwed-up person who needs improving is the one managing the improvement, then how can one expect … Continue reading
Watts taught that our consciousness — thoughts, memories, feelings, actions — do not survive our physical deaths. Yet he also taught that something does; the aspect of ourselves that Lao Tzu called “the nameless essence,” the inviolable connection and identity with the All. Therefore, to die well requires the same inner action as living well: we must be letting go — constantly, mindfully, lovingly.
Well, was Watts right? Was he wrong? If you say yes or no, you are not responding, only answering. And very often, an answer is the worst possible response. This morning, as I thought about the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a “non-answer” occurred to me, which I wrote into a haiku:
the rain of yellow flowers.
Mother Spring in mourning.
It has been a somber month for lovers of great literature; and also a turning of an era (take the “u” out of “mourning”). Two weeks ago, it was Peter Matthiessen, the great American writer of The Snow Leopard and one of the core books on Zen practice, Nine-Headed Dragon River. And now, the giant who stands beside Cervantes as one of the two pillars of Spanish language literature. If you’ve never read the work of Garcia Marquez, I’d recommend 100 Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera.
There has probably never been a writer of greater daring. He wrote with such a naturally fierce psychological verismo that a new term had to be invented to embrace his style: magical realism. It’s a kind of silly way of saying that this artist had such command of his themes, his stories, his characters, settings, and his language; that he wrote inner narrative and outer poetry, until … Continue reading
Where, I wonder, does your body end? This is what the old Zen masters called a koan, one of those puzzles that can’t be held in the hand of Reason, any more than air or smoke can be gripped by the fist.
The general, common sense answer would of course be: at my skin. Yet that answer ignores the electromagnetic emanation of the living body; it has nothing to say about what the Chinese called chi and the Japanese qi, or the life force. It tells us nothing about the arcs of energy and body-force that artists such as Da Vinci have explored (see my earlier essay on the Life of Empty Space). Nor does such a response account for the breath. And as for mind, the greatest of all Western mystics may be allowed the definitive word: “one thought fills immensity.”
The honest answer is that body has no definitive, measurable endpoint. And the insightful answer may be that there is none; and this is because we are not strangers, not separate, foreign entities dropped into this world, this universe. In any event, the question itself, the koan, is a nice topic for meditation. Such a question is (in the spirit of the new season) to the game of consciousness what the red-seamed white sphere is to the play undertaken today in ballparks across our nation.
Fairly often, I wonder: can meditation be taught? That is, can I show you how to connect and communicate with all of who and what you already are but have been taught to deny or repress?
It is, I suppose, as it is with teaching art or music: … Continue reading
If this 70 second slice of Krishnamurti doesn’t leave you falling out of your chair laughing, then maybe this self-development stuff just isn’t for you. But it’s a great introduction to my theme today, which is difficulty.
We love difficulty. We embrace it as we do our deadend jobs and failed relationships and handheld technology. Even as we compete against one another to climb the highest cross, our politicians fly the banner of pain loudly ahead of us. We must have constant sacrifice, hard work, struggle, and the determination to fight, fight, fight for hope and change and the greater good and glory of America. Who would dare to question such a dire and imperious Necessity?
Well, imagine if we did. Come on, it’s the first day of Spring, let’s be a little adventurous, if only vicariously. Are difficulty and struggle natural and necessary preconditions of a full and successful life? What if we just gave up on fighting, competing, suffering, sacrificing, and all the other bombastic inanities of the great religion of opposition and victimization? What if we just quit on difficulty — left it there naked and alone on the field of battle, with no opponent to give it the energy of combat?
What if we all came down off our crosses and pinned Difficulty onto one of its own? I know: with our luck it would rise from the dead after three days and then be the God of us all — the Big Boss who orders you to suffer and like it; who assures you that if you play your cards right you’ll be forgiven. After, of course, you’re dead.
But let’s gamble anyway. In the spirit of the season, a little New Age Bracketology … Continue reading
I stopped writing about politics some four years ago, after having been at it continuously since 2004. What made me stop was a sense of being poisoned. Hatred is poison, even — or especially — if we are right (or righteous) in our hatred. Hatred is a self-regenerating fuel, the crude oil of the mind: the more we spew it, the more it consumes us. Politicians live on that fuel and give it other names — patriotism, justice, security, defense — so that the emotional blindness is compounded with deception.
This is what I finally realized with respect to political commentary: it didn’t matter who sat in the throne, it was the belief in kings that pollutes the air of sanity. But this belief is such a matter of faith in our culture (etymologically, the word “belief” means “by wish,” lief meaning wish or desire) that it cannot be opposed or overthrown. That is to say, I cannot remove the illness from society; but I can dispel it from myself.
So I stopped writing about politics and focused instead on the search for mental health. Nevertheless, our lives and our stories are bound up with our culture. We are born strangers neither to the universe at large nor to our social worlds. Recently, I have felt this directly in my own story.
Until two weeks ago, I had been unemployed for 15 consecutive months and 27 of the last 30 months. I exhausted the full run of unemployment insurance benefits, depleted my small savings, and finally went on public assistance — welfare. The support of family and friends made a vast difference to my outcome, but if it hadn’t been for public … Continue reading
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary
of Tim Berners Lee’s
first proposal for a “WorldWideWeb.” I don’t want to say that it was a monumental achievement, because that would make it, well, a monument. The web is not a stone toilet for pigeons; it is a living thing, a vibrant organism. So its invention and development were perhaps merely necessary
achievements, as the parturition of a baby is necessary to its birth and growth in this world. And the web is so very, very young — still, in so many respects, a child.
So I shouldn’t have been much surprised when, during a course in HTML that I taught last year at the United Nations, my enthusiastic introduction to the history of the Web was met with a kind of stony indifference (the pictures, above and below, are my first two slides from that presentation — you can click them for larger views). This indifference, I later realized, proceeded from mere impatience — indeed, a kind of childlike impatience. My students wanted to have the meat without the salad; they wanted a literal knowledge transfer — as if I could channel instantly the ability to create whole pages and sites of working code into them, without any tiresome context or perspective.
Technology absorbs and sometimes entraps us with its lure; and yes, it has a way of infantilizing us. But it is not technology’s fault that many of us can no longer walk, talk, or think above the level of a toddler under the influence of our device-dependence. As with any other drug, it is not the item consumed that is evil; it is the obsession and the dependence that comprise the evil.
… Continue reading
Last year’s poverty
was not real poverty.
This year’s poverty
is poverty indeed.
(an old Zen poem)
I’d like you to stay with this talk (below) by Alan Watts through to the end and try to address his questions within yourself. It is about business, so no matter how you make your living — and even if you’re unemployed –I suspect you’ll get a lot out of it. After you’ve listened to Watts, you can read some of my commentary below, though that is far less essential.
The illusion of the past is created not by direction but by distance. That is, time is directionless, or at least in no way direction-dependent. No matter what direction you look to in the sky, you are viewing some past — light that was there long ago and is now finally visible here.
Why, then, do we imagine Time as an arrow with one direction, one flow, whose movement has no fluidity, no potential for transformation? According to one increasingly popular theory, the universe is an arrowless grid of mathematical art, a kind of computer simulation. If, from such a perspective, direction has no ultimate meaning, no reference beyond the ephemeral position of a solitary observer located on an ephemeral planet in an ephemeral galaxy within what astronomers tell us is an ephemeral universe — what then of distance?
Now, for a moment, simply as a thought experiment — or, if you will, an imagination experiment — suppose that we remove the observer, the perceiver. What becomes of Time? Watts taught that Time is a convention, a social institution, a system of movement and exchange in human action, just as money is an informational system of human economy that merely symbolizes wealth … Continue reading
I got a job, and therein, as they say, lies a tale.
I was taking a short walk around downtown Albany, getting the lay of the land around my new environment, the place where I’ll be spending a third of my daily life’s hours, when I saw a branch of the bank where I have been a depositor for over a decade. It is the Canadian financial monolith called Toronto Dominion, or TD Bank.
I went inside and was greeted by a lovely young female teller. I wanted to register a change of address and find out the account balance, as I had set up direct deposit to the account when I onboarded with the consulting agency that had hired me on behalf of the State of New York.
The lady made a computer inquiry and said, let’s go into the office, and she led me there.
“The account has been closed for having a negative balance for more than 29 days,” she told me. I would have to pay off the negatives, including all fees and charges, and then open a new account. Until then, my paycheck deposits would be rejected and my employer would have to issue me physical checks.
As I left the bank (having done nothing at all), a few ideas came to me, as they often do just after we have left the situation in which we might have expressed them. I actually thought of turning around, going back in, and talking with this woman again; because it seemed as if there was a teaching opportunity at hand. But I had to get back to my desk at work, and anyway I’ve never been very articulate … Continue reading
A voice from more than four decades ago, speaking as if he might be addressing the troubles of our very place and moment, here and now in America. He does it with a knife-like humor and a deep sense of what his audience is there for, what they need as a springboard for their own journeys.
The theme of that snippet from an Alan Watts talk is crucial to our very moment here: insecurity. Now I can tell you from personal experience that most people come to a spiritual seminar, or to personal counseling or therapy, out of some sense of insecurity. After all, those who are truly secure in who and what they are; where they came from; and in the knowledge that life and death are not opposing armies in a war being waged by a stupid and unfeeling universe — such people have their own direction and need no staged inspiration for their lives. They find it in everything and everyone they encounter.
But this raises another point that Watts constantly tried to deliver to his audiences: inner growth is not a competition. There is no psychological or spiritual org-chart which we must ascend, with the goal of becoming a CEO of Mind, Inc. or the President of the Enlightenment nation. Indeed, growth is about being drawn toward a center rather than a top; and each individual’s unique center changes with time and circumstance. The center is not a fixed point within a Euclidean circle; it is a present moment of being that reacts spontaneously to the movement of the multiple dimensions around it. The sphere of life has no specific circumference; thus its center is continually transforming.
So, as Watts points out, we find that people with a real sense for the center … Continue reading
Having lived in a family with two alcoholics, I must confess to a certain animus toward drink, though I will not resist the lure of a good Argentine Malbec on occasion. There is darkness in any kind of excess, but alcohol seems to become, all too easily, a black hole of it.
Fortunately, people like a man who is appropriately named Professor Nut are attempting to bring Star Trek’s Synthehol to life in our pre-warp world. I do wish the Professor well, but his work seems to fall into the social category of cutting losses out of despair of any gain. Here, too, as in many other areas of life, we appear to be faced with an implicit personal challenge that lies beneath the social compromise, and this point in time is an opportune moment to explore that.
In the first part of this discussion, I suggested the possibility that there is a fundamental cultural delusion underlying many, if not all addictions. A brief excerpt for those who don’t want to go back through the whole thing:
So how can we effectively judge, condemn, and remove these compulsive actions? Well, we could start by abandoning judgment and giving up on playing the boss. For playing the boss is itself a kind of addiction, a compulsion to a power of authority which we do not merit nor would want, if we were clear-sighted about it. How many marriages are destroyed by this compulsion? How many jobs and fortunes are lost; how many wars begun and dragged through a fathomless pit of blood, all from this obsession with an illusion, the infantile dream of there being a top to which I must rise and from which … Continue reading