Variations on a Photograph of a Bed

IFAn old Zen master once said, “he who sleeps on the floor never falls out of bed.” I feel the same message in this as in Lao Tzu’s recommendation that you “keep your home close to the earth”: make Nature your confidante and collaborator, instead of attempting to subdue, conquer, or poison Her.

Bed is such a crucial locus to life: think of how much time you spend there — roughly a third of your life. I am sure you are already aware of the cognitive, neurological, and psychological harm that is a consequence of sleep deprivation. So even if you’re not a Jungian who finds a world of meaning in what happens during sleep; you must admit that the voices of science and Nature are unassailably united here. Good, restful sleep — or its absence — is a matter of life and death.

So if you follow those voices and happen to have a spouse or lover(s), then you might spend more than a third of your life in bed (isn’t that still done in bed?). I don’t have a mate, but I meditate a fair bit in bed: I have a bedtime and a waking meditation; these set the tone for both sleep and conscious action.

What happens in bed tends to be the tonic chord in the key of a day or a life. My waking meditation leads me into a stretching meditation and an exercise meditation; then the toilet and the shower become environments of inward-turning. The first cup of coffee has mystical or visionary elements in its experience that I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone, no matter how much they reject or ignore the usefulness of formal meditation.

My walking-to-work meditation leads me to my elevator ride meditation. Then I can enjoy another brief meditation at my desk, while I wait for the computer to boot up and begin its day of work and action. The computer, I well know, has its own will and consciousness: AI is not some sci-fi deus ex machina; it is here and among us now, and will no doubt be with us for many generations to come, unless of course we destroy ourselves, which is entirely possible.

I and many others have made the mistake of imagining that our technological addictions are purely psychological or sociological problems. Yes, they are, but that isn’t by any means the whole story. The young person walking with a mobile device like a drunk or mumbling like an old man or a psychotic into an invisible electronic presence is being dragged through a parallel reality by AI.*

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, however. Have you ever witnessed or personally experienced the positively marital (one is temped to say “martial”) relationship that forms between a person and his car? The automobile, and our often neurotic dependence on it, has been around for a century already; I am continually astonished at how people freak out when the mildest problem appears in their vehicles — as if the possession of a machine should somehow make you immune to trouble.

Life is relationship: to me, the two terms are synonymous. But too often we assume that relationship is only about the encounters and involvements we have with others of our species; and that’s a crucial mistake. There is relationship with our food; with our homes and the things inside them; with animals, plants, and the beings of Nature; with our work; and with our technology.

I am tempted to say that we need a new relationship with our machines; but the fact is that we don’t have one in the first place. Any relationship that is defined by separation, control, dominance, or the other fatuous marks of alienation, is not relationship. The most hallowed of our human relationships — love, marriage, parenthood, friendship — these are defined, both experientially and doctrinally, by union, the merging of free individuals into a relationship that simultaneously supports and surpasses their individual autonomy. This experience of union — what the Hindus call yoga (it literally means union) — is a universal aspect of human life; and I think it needs to be invited into our postindustrial relationships with machines, technology, and everything we falsely assume is inherently dead, inert, and alien to ourselves — except to the extent that we manipulate and control it.

Any pretense at being the Master of a thing is most likely to make you its slave. So whether it’s a car, a phone, a PC, or any of the burgeoning IoT (“Internet of Things”); I recommend that you begin developing a partnership with stuff. This applies even (and especially) to those who think the whole Gaia thing is a hot, steaming pile of BS. The best science we have tells us that our relationships are defined not by what we do in them but by what we bring to them. Attitude, I am saying, is everything: whether or not you believe that the Earth and all its features, elements, organisms, and physical entities are alive and responsive; treat everything with a measure of respect for its presence. I predict that you will see a restoration or awakening of the balance within yourself and in the performance of the things of your life.

Among New Age types like myself, sleep is too often used as a term of disparagement, a synonym for ignorance. We’re always going on about waking up and coming to our senses and rising out of the torpor of superficiality. The most dominant symbol of the last 2,000 years of Western religion is of rising or resurgence (the Latin root of our word “resurrection” is resurgere); and the guiding metaphor of Buddhism is awakening (the Buddha’s name means “the awakened one” in Sanskrit). Now there is a useful point to this stream of metaphor; but like many good ideas, it tends to get pushed too hard and too far, beyond the realm of simple penetration and into something that vaguely evokes prejudice.

For quite apart from its well-established physical benefits, sleep has value even on that plane of psycho-spiritual metaphor. How would I recognize an awakening, had I not first been asleep? Krishnamurti used to talk on this theme (for example, in this video). We can’t spend every moment (or even most moments) of our lives in an awakened state; but part of living the awakened life is to recognize and even appreciate one’s sleep. It might even be said that I am most enlightened when I am fully aware of my torpor; I suspect that was Krishnamurti’s point.

Sleep is as much a part of the round of life as death is an essential aspect of the round of eternity. It is their very similarity that sometimes scares us about sleep. Sleep is, after all, the real “little death.” (Freud, of course, being neurotic, believed that the orgasm is the little death). But we are so often the most aware when we are the least conscious. Think of all the life-sustaining activity that is done beneath the veil of consciousness: your heartbeat, most of your breathing, glandular function, homeostasis, temperature regulation, lymphatic movement, digestion, cellular creation, apoptosis, and maintenance — the vast majority of our physical life is, as the scientists say, autonomically managed. Why, I ask, can’t we do the same in our intellectual and emotional lives; and in all our relationships, be they with people or with things?

This is what I think Krishnamurti meant when he said that the completely free person never makes a decision or a choice. Freedom is not the permission to indulge anything (though that tends to be the common modern American definition); freedom is a psychological state in which right action arises from you in the same way you beat your heart or operate your hypothalamus. Such action has precisely the perfect measure and vector; when we look back at it, we cannot imagine how it could have been different.

We tend to sleep most soundly when we don’t force it, either via an act of will or the consumption of pharmaceuticals; when we don’t “try to fall asleep.” In the same way, unforced action delivers more benefit than any work done under the oppressive weight of expectation, control, and impulse. The irony, of course, is that we can’t force ourselves to live in an unforced way; we can’t train ourselves to live and act autonomically, even part of the time. That is to say, this is not something you learn; it is far more a matter of unlearning.

To unlearn all the beliefs and fears that feed the inner monster of control is to open the door of your cage. Once that door is open you needn’t worry anymore about who built the cage in the first place — whether it was the government or your neurotic parents; whether it was a malevolent or indifferent God or universe; whether it was Fate, bad luck or your ex-wife. Freedom doesn’t look back; nor does it look forward into the future. It is merely present; it is right in its moment and its unique challenges. As the old saying goes, the key to success is showing up — or as I might say, in being there.

Now this kind of unlearning is, I suspect, the work of a lifetime. Presence is ephemeral, but even when it isn’t there it leaves behind a kind of aura that can carry you through those clanging moments of conflict, indecision, worry, and despair. It is like the odor that remains in a room where a beautiful sandalwood incense has burned: the light and the smoke of the fragrant sticks are gone, yet something invisible still fills the air of being. Thus it becomes increasingly easy to return to the center once you have been there. To sleep amid the fragrance of awareness is never to be lost.


*AI is generally considered to be near but not quite here yet. The problem is that when most people think of AI, they think of robots and androids. The reason I sense the presence of AI in our current technology is in its tendency to turn us into robots and androids. In any event, prominent techno-leaders and celebrities are weighing in on the relative desirability of AI — most recently Woz.

21st Century Banality

We, like our companions in the animal kingdom, are designed by Nature to live with a problem or crisis long enough to hear its message, make our correction, and move on. Once this is accomplished; our mandate is to let the damned thing go. To hold onto or lie under a misfortune beyond its limit of useful presence is like unto a mother nursing a child into its teenage years. Nature demands better of us than that.

I wrote the paragraph above over 2 years ago, and I stick by its message. But our problem as a society, it seems, is denial rather than brooding. We repress a mistake long before we have learned its lessons. Did you know that today is the anniversary of the beginning of the invasion of Iraq? No, I haven’t heard anything about it either, and that’s how the Fear Dept. likes it.

IFNow I’m most interested in the psychological sources of such darkness as geopolitical murder. War is fundamentally a psychological more than a political phenomenon; it permeates our inner lives before it manifests as the barbarity of nations. The following is something I wrote years ago, apparently during Bush’s 2nd term. Yet it seems oddly topical right now: you can update the events listed below with those from the Ukraine, Egypt, the Mideast, and our own police state USA.

But it is not just another instance of Godwin’s Law. Arendt’s insight, discussed below, goes beyond Nazism or any other parochial variety of tyranny; it reveals a psychological dynamic of dehumanization of both oppressor and victim. That is to say, before I can dehumanize you, I must first dehumanize myself.


It seems like an appropriate moment to summon the spirit of Hannah Arendt, for we are drowning today in the “banality of evil”– the phrase that Arendt invented to describe the dutiful attitudes of those who participated in the extermination of the Jews under Nazi Germany. They were folks who were just doing their duty, doing their jobs, cleansing their nation of undesirables. Today, they have a lot of company:

  • The Janjaweed and their cronies who are just doing their jobs, cleansing their nation of undesirables in Darfur.
  • The Burmese military, who are just doing their jobs, cleansing their nation of undesirables.
  • The Americans of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, the Extreme Rendition society, and their Washington overlords, who are just doing their jobs, cleansing other nations of undesirables.
  • The Chinese government, which continues to do its job of suppressing dissent, silencing political and cultural opposition, and cleansing its nation and the land formerly known as Tibet of undesirables.
  • All the corporate, religious, and institutional supporters, profiteers, and enablers of these tyrants, all over the world.

IFThat last one leads me to my point today, which is about how and where the banality of evil begins: right here at home, within the individual self. As an illustration, let me tell a story from my own corporate past.

I was working as a consultant for a massively multinational role playing corporation, during a difficult period of its history. As a result of some painfully obvious accounting prevarication, there was trouble with the government, which was demanding to see some changes in the corporation’s leadership. If you were in the trenches amid this firestorm, you knew it was a good time to keep your head down and not ask questions (which is a very practical, if admittedly cowardly rule to follow in corporate America — if you’d like to keep your head attached, anyway).

I was sitting in a tiny, cramped conference room, watching a project manager demo a new version of one of the company’s more exclusive web applications. He was showing the new features and page design for this prestigious information tool, which was used exclusively by corporate executives and high government officials. There is a screening process (and a hefty bill) to go through before you can even get a login ID for this site. Bill Gates and Dick Cheney were among our customers, so you get the idea.

So the PM for this application’s enhancement project was pointing out all its exciting new features, and he showed us a window that contained a drop-down menu of major corporate clients who were involved in the research and information contained within the app.

IFAs he scrolled down from the top, I recognized the names Bechtel and Fluor, and I couldn’t look any more. A dark pall spread within me, as I realized that I too, have a place in the barbed-wire nest of the banality of evil.

For those unfamiliar with those names, Bechtel is infamous for being the corporation that bought up all the water supply in Bolivia: they owned every drop of drinking water there, including the rain that fell from the sky (to see and hear the entire bizarre story, watch this film segment, and then rent or buy the dvd of The Corporation).

Fluor and Bechtel are both prominent profiteers on the Iraq War and other US-sponsored military conflicts around the world. They are the corporate friends of tyrants everywhere, benficiaries of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”

Anyway, I was supposed to plan and execute the testing of this website. That’s why I was being shown this secret and confidential information. It was one of the more revealing and reviling moments of my 25 years in corporate America.

fool2So, what did I do about it? Did I quit that day? Did I protest to the besieged CEO of the company, that he was partnering with corporations that promote tyranny and exacerbate the murder, torture, and impoverishment of innocents around the world?

No, of course not. I did my duty, I did my job to cleanse the application of undesirable code bugs.

Now, I have never been ordered to go out into the street with a club, a gun, or a teargas cannon, to harm and kill Buddhists monks, Falun Gong practitioners, peaceful protesters, or poor people. I hope that if I were, I would do what most of us would: find a way out, an escape that would deliver me from both the consequences of insubordination and the equally painful costs of becoming a tool of group violence. Every act of violence is a long but inexorable act of suicide.

But in corporate America, the process of bringing people round to enabling the supporters of such tyranny is the same, in essence, as the brainwashing and distraction used on the direct human instruments of despotism. In Burma, we know that the government called in remote military units that were far removed from the scene of the Buddhist protests, and they used the ignorance of the soldiers thus summoned to their advantage. They depersonalized the enemy: they informed the soldiers that the saffron-robed protesters were communists in disguise; hardline reactionaries; terrorists posing as monks in order to rouse the common people to violence and social disruption. In other words, they easily demonized the opposition, thus making it easier for the soldiers to do their duty–kill, disrupt, capture, and silence the Buddhists.

IFCorporate America does the same sort of thing with its employees. Pundits often make the mistake of thinking that tyrants influence people by appealing to their baser nature, their evil, animal instincts. That is an error, because there is, in fact, no such baser nature, no such evil side to our purely animal selves. You may as well claim that there is an evil side to a mountain or a star or an elephant.

Actually, what these group entities–governments, military leaders, and corporations–do is to appeal to our natural virtues: a sense of duty, loyalty, the natural desire for order and peace. But they distort these virtues with the stain of We, so that your duty is no longer toward what is objectively right, but toward what is right for the group’s narrow interest. Your loyalty is no longer directed to truth or reality, but to an insular code of belief. Order suddenly becomes what delivers peace and profit to a wealthy few, rather than what brings benefit and opportunity to everyone.

Listen carefully to a corporate meeting and you will hear this trickery at work. The conversation is always polite, measured, often superficial, and formulaic. We speak of “reaching out” to our colleagues who may be able to provide information or services that will aid the “forward movement” of our project. We talk in terms of “bottom lines” and “win-win outcomes.” Sometimes, even the group-appeal itself will be gilded with images and slogans that bear a Madison Avenue kind of attraction: the corporation I’m working for now just concluded a company-wide “training and information sharing seminar” titled “One Vision, One Voice.” I am not making that up.

When you feel good about your position, relatively united with your co-workers, and supported in your particular role within the entire scope of a corporate (or military) endeavor, then it becomes easy, and even seemingly natural, to “do your duty” and “do your job.” The dissonance of power and the quiet inner voice of dissent is easily quelled amid this loud, gleaming, and repetitive stream of dogma. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Welcome to the banality of evil in the 21st century.

Crow Calling, Winter Dream

A bank of storm clouds, dark with their burden, came into view at the bay windows of my apartment. Even as I watched them, their black deepened, until they resembled more a cosmic nebula than a bank of clouds in our local atmosphere. Then, in the midst of this dark, a crack of light formed, like a mouth opening; like a string of stars merging into one stream of white light. I watched this crack working its way through the clouds, as if it were writing a message into that darkness. It spread across the cloudbank, deepening as it went, back into the seemingly endless interior. Suddenly, as if this scene had been given voice, I heard the cry of crows; I opened my eyes further to see them. And I awoke.

IFAnything taken by force is not worth having. This principle, I feel fairly sure, is the key to what many call success; what I refer to as blessing. A personal quest involving the maturation of the self via the destruction and dispersion of ego can be truly led by such a guide. At any rate, it has become the theme of my inner and outer life these days. Different moments require different measures.

This is one personal meaning I’ve taken from a recent dream (above). But I can’t honestly tell you if that was a dream or a vision, and that doesn’t matter anyway, does it? Was I asleep or awake; sitting or lying down, when it appeared? I don’t remember; and I’m sure you’ve also noticed how, even in a single moment, consciousness can rise and ebb like a wave, until you are no longer aware of what is “real” according to our conventional understanding of that term. It happens to me virtually all the time now, and I like that; I think it’s fun.

IFMy awakening at the end of that dream may have been the ordinary shift of awareness from sleep to the so-called normal state of attention. Or it may have been somewhere along that continuum between somnolence and alertness, whose wave-states have been scientifically classified with letters from the Greek alphabet.

Now the effort of consciousness to objectify itself — to treat its own energy as an experimental and external object of analysis — seems intractably surreal, maybe even impossible (Watts used to compare it with the teeth biting themselves or touching the tip of a finger with that same fingertip). So we are drawn to a point where the meaning of such moments must be revealed rather than grasped.

This is the spirit in which I wish to explore the message of my dream-vision above. That is to say, I offer it with no claim of truth, veracity, or universal insight: my world is not the same as yours. Yet if you find some grain or suggestion of personal meaning in it, then you are of course welcome to draw it into your world.

Lightning_simulator_questacon02I have been working on my personal variant of the old yogic practice known as kundalini meditation; and I found or sensed something in my dream that is evocative to this context. Now traditional kundalini imagines a snake coiled at the base of the spinal column; a kind of genital energy, which leaps snake-like up the spinal column into the brain. That is a potent symbol that is common to many cultures (think of the caduceus symbol of Western medicine). But as I am a child of the 20th century, and have a certain predilection for science, I have adopted the image of the Tesla coil over the snake — a bursting spread of resonant energy between the magnetic fields of two circuits, which share the same or similar frequency.

So there you have the light spreading across and within the cloud bank of my little vision. The dark principle that is the cloud’s mass is distinct, yet not separate from, the photonic energy of sex. They are in fact in a union that you may be justified in calling sacred. In my dream, I felt the cloud-mass as “burdened” — not by its physical presence, nor by some Original Sin or inherent Evil — but by all the beliefs, fears, guilt, and alienation that are common to the acculturated and self-conscious mind. That Tesla-light of sexuality contains the capacity for expelling the distortions of the dark without losing its essence; for cleansing the misshapen stains trained into the individual’s body, thus celebrating the design which Nature originally gave it.

IFThis practice, then, is not about repressing the dark or demonizing the body. It is about arousing the dark to the extent that light may be given room to play. This, after all, is what great sex is all about: bidirectional excitement. Lao Tzu tells us that in Nature, “the light and the dark mingle like the breaths of lovers.”* After all, without the dark, the photon would be a solipsistic cipher– an energy with no background to live in nor eye to distinguish it; no mind to understand it; no heart to love it. Thus, a true kundalini practice celebrates the field of the dark equally with the light that penetrates its mass.

Since sexuality is the primordial creative force of our animal being, and as its source is within the pelvic floor, where the connection between the spine and the lower body is felt — it makes sense to call upon its unique energy to inspire the work of maturation. I would go even further than that and say that if such a practice were taught to priests and ministers both during and after seminary, the horrors of clerical pedophilia and other perversions would diminish toward non-existence.

Now the Tesla coil features an alternating current, meaning that the charge runs in both directions, rather than uni-directionally (direct current). This is another area where I tend to revise traditional kundalini practice, which focuses on the direct-current model — that is, the movement of energy from the genitals to the brain, across the various intervening spinal points or chakras. I prefer the sensation of bidirectional movement of the electromagnetic charge: the brain’s activity here is characterized by release — a letting-go of thought, belief, and twisted emotion — think of Lao Tzu’s metaphor of “settling the dust.”* The light force of sex meets and reinforces that energy of release, so that the effect is of a cooperative cleansing of the self rather than a forced displacement of a “bad” element with a “good” element. Remember, the light of my dream appeared as a natural formation rather than a projection.

crow1I’m hoping that this isn’t coming across as esoteric, because that’s utterly contrary to my intent here. We have developed such complex and distorted patterns of language in our spiritual traditions, that more than half the battle of communication in this realm seems to involve penetrating the various prejudices and myopia that are built into our common languages of spirituality. Consider, for instance, the presumption ingrained in a simple expression such as “I have a body.” Who is the “I” who owns this body, and in what way are I and body separate? That separation, I would argue, is the very foundation of the entire architecture of belief and prejudice that is institutional religion. Undermine that foundation within yourself and the whole tower of lies collapses on itself.

So the light of sexuality writes its design, its beautiful message, throughout the dark of body; cleansing the whole of the burdensome, iron shroud of derived belief. The call of the crows (which, as it were, brought me out of the dream) seems to reinforce this purifying energy of Nature: the dark, soaring creatures of the sky, whose language is so stark and strong; so free and clear. That sexuality should become the focal energy of meditation would seem to them obvious.

nightintowerThis, of course, is not an insular practice: it is not navel-gazing (or, in my case now, penis-gazing) as a respite from “real life.” The whole point of meditation is that the spirit of its practice spreads through our lives as the energy of digested food spreads through bodies. When I walk or do Chi Kung, or lift weights, the action of body serves the same intent as does kundalini. I let meditation happen at my desk at work; during elevator rides (I work on the 35th Floor); and while standing in the checkout line at the market.

Returning to my original theme: the effort to take growth and blessing within life by force is to in fact banish them. As Watts used to say, “there is nothing more egotistical than ego’s attempt to get rid of ego.” When you contrive to take things by force, you in fact repel the energy of blessing. Meditation is not a pilgrimage of conquest; it is a way of life, of ordinary, everyday life. When we destroy the wall of separation between who we are and whence we arose; between Self and Nature; between body and spirit — we grow, inwardly and outwardly — until there is no longer any space between inner and outer.


*The link goes to my translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The “breaths of lovers” quote comes from Chapter 2; the “settling of dust” metaphor comes from Chapter 15 (where I opted for an equally potent metaphor of “settling the mud”).

Justice: Courting a Lady with a Sword

And others are proud of their handful of justice and commit outrages against all things for its sake, till the world is drowned in their injustice. Oh, how ill the word virtue comes out of their mouths! And when they say, “I am just,” it always sounds like “I am just — revenged.” With their virtue they want to scratch out the eyes of their enemies, and they exalt themselves only to humble others. (Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra)

IFJustice is a strange and slippery thing. This is surreptitiously acknowledged even in our patriarchal culture, which depicts Justice as a blind female carrying a weapon. I’ll come back to that image in a few moments, but first some personal background is in order.

I am currently involved in a legal matter of some personal moment, and I’m learning a lot about the energy — or to be more accurate, the inertia – that moves our culture’s engine of justice. Now inertia, as I am using the term here, means an artificial resistance to change. You may also imagine the natural force of human will, warped nearly beyond recognition by the hammer of fear.

One evening before a recent hearing date that I was to attend, my lawyer and I were going through a dry run of the questions to be expected when I would be on the witness stand. During the course of some routine questions about my financial situation, he suddenly asked me, “Mr. Donohue, do you know what 2+2 is?”

IFI smiled and said, “The same as 2X2.” He repeated his question, with some emphasis on the words “do you know…” There was an edginess in his voice that vaguely annoyed me, so I spat back, “okay…4.”

Now he smiled and said, “the correct answer to my question is either yes or no — that is, you either know what 2+2 is or you don’t know.”

His point was that in our legal system, the supreme unwritten guide to conduct is our old friend TMI (“Too Much Information”). Thus, in answering any question, a single rule applies: provide the least possible amount of information in your response; let knowledge drip rather than flow. The robes worn by that blind woman with her sword must be torn off thread by thread, so that she never stands completely naked before us.

justitiaThis, indeed, is a kind of intellectual voyeurism. There is a perverse delight to be had in that sort of stony and hyper-logical resistance. The ecstasy of surrender is heightened in exact correlation to the energy of resistance that precedes it. To this extent there is some wisdom in the image of Justice: her sword is big and threatening, yet it points toward the ground. That she is generally portrayed as female is also admirable: Lao Tzu urged the leaders of his world to “acknowledge the masculine but be one with the feminine.” Emphasize that part of your being that is ordinarily and culturally repressed: it makes a lot of sense.

In this respect, the scales that this female Justice holds are an interesting symbol: as a woman in a western culture, any female is somewhat at a disadvantage when it comes to justice — economic, political, and professional justice. But there they are, the two pans of balance — upraised and extended — this is the instrument with which she will measure the massless, weightless, and insubstantial elements of judgment: right and wrong; good and evil; innocent and guilty; and (in our culture) life and death.

IFSo I am now being taught to place my body of truth onto one side of that balance — not as a single weight, but particle by particle as it were. It is interesting that the scales of this balance are held in Justice’s left hand. “Manus sinistra manus diabolo” goes the expression, which is nearly as ancient as the pagan image of Justice herself: “The left is the hand of the devil.” Yet let us also remember that the table at the judge’s left side is always that of the prosecutor or plaintiff. Accusation is made from the left of the judge; defense is given from his right.

When, in another three months, I deliver my final testimony in this case, I will sit near a wall on which the following message appears in foot-high golden letters: IN GOD WE TRUST. This message hangs just to the right of the judge’s seat, behind the bench. There is nothing written on the wall to his left. Alan Watts used to say that Satan, so far from being the apotheosis of Evil, is actually the district attorney of Heaven; the one who bears the burden of proof and whose job it is to test the mettle of the defense (Watts claimed the Book of Job is a typical example of this).

IFWell, these myths may be amusing to entertain intellectually; but I see one reality being exposed amid it all: the God we pretend to trust is not a truly trustworthy God; else we would not feed Him our truth piecemeal, as I am being taught to do. I can’t speak for others (least of all judges and lawyers), but when I talk to God, I tell It every secret I can fathom from within myself — the darker and more painful they are, the better. If anything is withheld, it is from the fear and arrogance of my ego-self. If you truly trust the universe, you give it everything you have or can find in the depths of your being.

I guess my point here is that we are just as false when we pretend to trust in God as when we pretend at being God. It seems that if we want to find justice, we must start within ourselves. The priests and advocates of the world of institutional justice need to take down the sign and leave the wall blank. Then, drop the black robes of ministerial pomp and knock down the high bench; raze it to the level of the floor.

I don’t really know what justice is — not any more than the judge in the courtroom knows; not any more than the lawyers and the court functionaries know it. But I think I can tell you what justice is not: it is not Law. It is not Fear. It is not Revenge. It is not Punishment. It is not Death. It is not big buildings made of stone and lined with Greco-Roman columns; it is not the statue of a blindfolded pagan woman with a weapon and a measuring device.

IIFndeed, the weighing scales may be about the worst possible symbol of justice, especially in a place where trust in God is promulgated. Yes, it’s true that when we think of justice, most of us imagine some notion of balance, order, equity. Everything we know about the universe tells us that physical reality is an illusion — a frequently useful illusion, but not reality. So when we weigh things, we are not measuring the mass of an object but the energy of a pattern, a form of subatomic action. This is the philosophical meaning of Einstein’s famous equation. And in any event, measurement distances us from reality: as Watts used to say, you can’t cut a block of cheese with a line of latitude; you can’t build a house from feet and inches; you can’t eat a dollar bill. Real truth is revealed, not piled onto the pans of a set of scales.

I can sense that justice exists, yet I have never encountered it in any courtroom experience I’ve ever had — even those in which I “won.” To play at winning and losing is already to estrange yourself from justice; in exactly the same way as playing at right and wrong, saved and damned, is to alienate yourself from god, from the cosmic unity of Nature.

IFNow I am not in favor of demolishing courts, nor would I echo Shakespeare’s butcher (from Henry VI) and say “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Institutional justice does need some drastic reforms — in its environments, its characters, and certainly in its ideology. Yet even if it could be killed, its death would not serve justice.

What I am saying is that our courts might be beneficially reformed if enough of us would look for justice in the only place where it can truly be found — within ourselves.

A Geek’s Guide to Inner Living

IFJust the other day I was talking with a friend about drugs, and I mentioned that I’m very likely to try LSD at least one more time before I leave this mortal coil; and that I’ve learned immensely from listening to the lectures of Alan Watts on this and other topics.

Then I did something that I ordinarily tend to avoid doing with people: I recommended that he listen to what Watts has to say on the topic of our conversation. Of course, he immediately brushed me aside: “I don’t think so, that’s not my thing.”

I let it drop instantly, but have since given the larger matter some thought, and can write it all down here, since, as I’ve mentioned before, writing on the World Wide Web is like living in a great city: you can go out and be visible to millions yet seen by none.

IFNow the point I wish to raise arose from my reflections on that conversation: both I and my friend work in technology; or as it’s better known, IT (Information Technology). I have often wondered, by the way, how different that industry might be if we called IT Insight Technology. Insight, you see, tends to flow; it is river-like in its movement and capacity. It is greater than the drip and smaller than the torrent. At the same time, it is never linear, though it does have banks and edges that define its width and vector (both of which change continually). Indeed, the river’s ability to flow is enabled by those limits, just as our capacity for insight is made possible by both the potential and the limitations of our minds.

IFGood geeks understand this kind of thinking (and “geek,” by the way, is an honorific of sorts among technical people: to be a geek is to have earned a certain distinction among a professional class of folks who work with the hardware, software, code, methodologies, and mindsets of technological people).

Now back in the 1960’s, technology was very much in its infancy; yet the foundations of what we know as tech today — the chips, circuits, controllers, displays, and communication media of our culture and its devices — were being laid by geeks in both the public and private sectors. One of the primary institutions of this formative period was, of course, IBM; and they had the insight to hire Alan Watts to speak to and with certain groups of the company’s engineers. The video below is a half-hour snippet from one of these encounters between Watts and the geeks. Should you have the time and disposition, just give it a listen and I’ll pick up the discussion afterward.

IFNow those familiar with the books and lectures of Watts will easily recognize certain recurring themes of his that appear in his talk with the geeks of IBM. But he presented them here very differently from how he explored them with his usual audiences (Beat Generation youth and people with spiritual interests). For example, the thought experiment of “what if you could dream any dream you wished and could compress 75 years of experience into it, each and every night?” — this is offered here not as an intrinsically spiritual exercise, but as a way of making a point about thought, which of course is the fundamental professional tool of the geek.

For immediately after the dream-story is told, Watts turns his geek audience’s attention toward all the ideas and assumptions of control that inhere within the Western mind, and especially the Western scientific, technological, corporate, and political minds. He’s essentially making the same point to these geeks as I made above in my little dream about the notion of “insight technology” in contrast to “information technology.”

IFInformation is commonly conceived, as Watts suggests, in pieces — bits, bytes, and other minute, separated portions, which can then be fitted together into a relational container such as a database table, query, or mathematical spreadsheet; and thereby measured, correlated, manipulated, and controlled. The problem here is that the flow commonly becomes a torrent, a flood of data (think of the current phenomenon known as “Big Data”).

To continue the metaphor I was using above, insight rarely overflows its banks; and when it does it tends to eventually recede into its normal course. But information too often becomes a flood that loses touch with all its boundaries. Geeks see this all the time in their work, especially if they labor for large corporations or governments: even large and load-balanced servers will lock up and collapse under the weight of Big Data.

nightipodNow, you may be asking, “what’s the diff?” What’s the big deal about this distinction between insight and information, aside from some New Ager’s myth about rivers and floods and such nonsense? Well, it’s about control: information is something we break into pieces (remember Watts’ comparison with the act of preparing and chewing food) so that we can agglomerate it within a vast controlling structure that is often not suited to accommodating it all. To take that food metaphor further, information tends to be manipulated, but is rarely digested.

Control, however, is not a feature of insight. Insight is born fully-formed and functionally complete; it requires no categorization, classification, or control. In fact, such controlling actions are the poison that destroys insight: think of all the religions of the world, those Johnny-come-lately ideological structures that distorted and killed the insights of Jesus into Christianity; of Mohammed into Islam; of Lao Tzu into religious Taoism; of Buddha into Buddhism; of Moses into Judaism; of Confucius into Confucianism.

IFEvery institutional religion inevitably places an overlay of control onto a body of insight. Some do it more or worse than others: the Buddhism of Zen comes with built-in protections against such decay, and it sometimes works. Nevertheless, every classification system applied to insight tends to imprison it, to subject both ideas and people to the same control that the original insight rejected. Whenever belief is encrusted onto insight, the original beauty is stained, obscured, and often lost.

We have made the exact same mistake in our sciences. I feel relatively certain that Newton would be nearly as horrified with what was made of his work as Jesus would no doubt be with Christianity. It is well known that Einstein and Oppenheimer were grievously bitter and repentant about The Bomb that their work became. I predict that many geneticists will soon be having similar regrets. I imagine something like this with the men who planted the seeds of insight that eventually became the weed-infested garden of the digital world. Would Leibniz (one of the fathers of binary code) or Turing (inventor of the fundamental computer language and the algorithm) be satisfied with what society has made of their insights? I seriously doubt it.

IFNow I may appear to be biting the hand that feeds me — almost literally, in fact. So let me emphasize that I see no inherent evil in databases, spreadsheets, and certainly not in the Internet — there is no more of evil in these things than there is evil in the nucleus of an atom. My message here comes down to a matter of balance rather than of exclusion or demonization. Religions do evil only when they enshroud the insights that first gave them life; science and invention become stiff and dangerous only when they are reduced to information in isolation from all else.

We have reached a point in our culture where insight has no value, or nearly none. You can’t google insight into being; but information can be called up in seconds. Information is, or seems to be, easy; but insight for an individual can be the work of decades, and for a society the work of an era. But that all depends on our attitude: if we imagine that insight is painful, difficult, or the product of those few saints or geniuses to whom it is exclusively given; then we will turn away from the quest for insight; we will be justified, in fact, in saying, “no thanks, it’s not my thing.”

IFBut the core lesson of people like Alan Watts is in contrast to this: insight is as universally and equally available as the air we breathe. Watts used to remind his listeners that they can open and close their hands without knowing fully how it is done; yet they can do it as well as the most expert neuro-physiologist who can explain it all. The same goes for spiritual insight: I have known very ordinary people who are utterly anonymous to the world at large, who have forgotten more than any priest or guru ever knew. I can have an insight into Maldacena’s holographic universe model, one that leads my life forward and may even nourish the lives of those around me, without having any understanding of Maldacena’s mathematical basis for his principle.

Therefore, I ask not for the destruction of information but for the resurrection of insight. I recommend that we work to achieve a balance between them — a balance that in fact emphasizes the primacy of insight, rather than the other way around.