An Update On Free Will and Mind

 

I have recently been in a couple of situations where free will (or lack thereof) has come up.

I know some people seem to be helped, more able to forgive and be compassionate, to release praise and blame, by embracing the view that conditioning and contingency determines all we do in life. A radical view of no free will at all, it is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. Of course, they have to say that supposition is their conditioning and biologic predisposition (a biologic conditioning tempered by the environmental effects on biologic development), but that’s not a problem, just how it is.

Some others say:

What about responsibility? Well then, the counter is: conditioned, or just a social fiction.

What about compassion? The counter is: a biologic imperative perhaps (there is altruism in nature) or a delusion, more social conditioning.

I find it interesting that in reading Buddhist texts, at least in translation, I do not run into a specific use of that term, free will, though it is implied in that there is liberation, enlightenment, practice…

And we should ask: free of what? Free to choose without constraints? Sounds like an ego wanting to play God. Obviously, most of our existence does not embody a local/personal free will. Our activities are clearly often determined by our biologic propensities, including brain development, our social and psychological conditioning, and our environmental and social constraints (our opportunities and external limits).

But is that it? Buddhism, and for that matter many spiritual or religious teachings, have an agency implied, or why bother having teachings and practice? Why have terms like enlightenment or liberation?

In Buddhism there is karma, and even the Buddha had karma. Restraints and constraints, a life and a death in samsara. Granted there are Mahayana teachings that say the Buddha’s life and death, final illness and ageing, was just a game Buddha played, in essence, that we all play as we are part and parcel with Buddha Mind. Perhaps a similar teaching is found in other spiritual paths. I recall Yogananda saying something like God is having fun playing hide and seek (I paraphrase, and seem to remember it was couched in a female principle. The Mother was playing hide and seek. Someone can correct me)

It is Mind that has free will, liberation, and sets the constraints, not our limited perspective and ego. Or is that too dualistic? Where is the dividing line?

We certainly seem to have agency, will. We can change our body with exercise, break habits with effort, even change our brains with our brains, say in meditation, as is well demonstrated.

Who is it that makes these choices?

Are they real choices, or just a combination of genetic predisposition and conditioning, with the environment favoring one road over another road.

After all, Buddhism does teach that all composite things, all dharmas, all events and manifestations (which are ultimately events) are contingent. Dependent origination, cause and effect, cycles and karma.

Yet we still talk of enlightenment and practice and liberation, delusion and the idea that we can create new karma.

Maybe it just isn’t important how we frame it. Maybe this is too conceptual, getting trapped in words.

I’m with the Dalai Lama. Forget isms. Learn to give a shit. Can we do that?

While it is a common observation that people don’t often change in substantial, profound, foundational ways, some do.

My favorite example is not some Zen Master or the Dalai Lama or Yogananda. It is nitty gritty, street and here and now. It is Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles (look them up and get Father Gregory Boyle’s books; he walks the walk. Compassion at work. for decades. Donate. Please). Former gang bangers, some even murderers, baking bread with former mortal enemies. Raising families in a way they never experienced. Many fail. Some seem to thrive. Sure, maybe it is just another conditioning, but it sure doesn’t look like it or feel like it. But it is a demonstration of change despite the odds, despite the clear restraints. People don’t end up in gangs coming from mildly dysfunctional homes. These ae people who have been in hells most of us can’t imagine. And in Homeboy they find “radical kinship”, and some truly seem to thrive.

There are students who were brought up poor or even homeless, people trying to change their lives, who are now in college and professional schools. Organizations like Swipe Out Hunger founded by a former UCLA student, Rachel Sumekh, who needs to run for office (full disclosure I am on the board) help them eat. There are groups like Los Angeles Room and Board founded by a dynamic young man, Sam Prater. Or Students 4 Students, run by an engineer, Louis Tse who lived in his car while in grad school so he could start something to help homeless students. This are just a couple I know personally. These are people acting out of compassion, acting as if it mattered, that people have choice, can change, and aren’t totally constrained by how their lives have been and how their lives look. Introducing you to these three is arbitrary, just people I have some contact with. Of course. You likely have many examples. I just felt like showing them some love. My choice. My mandala. Of course there’s Doctors Without Borders, people who dedicate their lives to saving the world politically or with social or. environmental activism. Or who do their jobs helping people. Teachers like my daughter. Doctors like my former colleagues (I have retired). People who act as if.

Or just you and me, in this moment or that, when we make some effort, however small. When we chose to care about someone else, even a bit. Whether expected of us or not. But we do it.

OK maybe more delusion, more conditioning, but why put that set on limits on the universe? Is that just another story too?

So, I chose (!) to act as if. As if I have agency. As if compassion and responsibility and the precepts can make a difference in my life and the lives of those around me. As if there is delusion and clarity. As if when I fall, I can choose to pick myself up.

Maybe that’s just my conditioning, and certainly to a large degree it is. At least it is in part a function of the opportunities I have been afforded.

This is not to deny that free will, to the degree it might exist, is limited in our finite lives. For all of us. And that view can allow us to be more compassionate, as we are all in the same boat.

But the danger is that it becomes, as I have recently seen, an excuse for bad behavior, for poor effort. For not taking responsibility. For self-deception. For lethargy, inertia, not making the effort to make the world a kinder, safer, more livable place.

There is a rationale to that choice (!) of acting as if we have some modicum of agency, of choice, of what some call free will, besides a calculus of empirical usefulness. The way I see things, a core Zen teaching is that Mind is Buddha. Even philosophically, intellectually, non-dualistic idealism has an appeal to me (read Bernardo Kastrup). Mind is foundational, ultimately duality is an illusion if not delusion. Mind is making choices, the me/we are Mind doing that.

Is that not just a belief, another concept?

I suppose so. Let’s call it a working hypothesis.

But one I think, after all these years of exploring it, of whatever wee itsy bit of change, peace and insight this path has afforded me, still worth exploring.

That is, if you choose to!

 

 

 

Dancing

 

Change is life, and change is death.

No change is nihilism. No change is no information, no movement.

0’s and 1’s

000000 the nihilism early Buddhists (well, and later ones of course) argued against. Dismal.

111111 stagnation. Just as dismal.

But together, combining, we get information, creativity, Mind at play.

To dance is to move and change. Constantly falling, with grace and awareness, maintaining the center we change costumes and dance some more.

Cosmic dance, body dance.

Me, you, black holes and quasars.

Same thought, same Mind.

Never ending, never beginning; those are just conceits born from our distorted view of our lives.

Mind, Non-Duality and What’s Up

 

The identity of the relative and absolute; from infinite circle to infinite waves

 

If you want to pursue and intellectual philosophical understanding of non-duality, consider reading Bernardo Kastrup. He posits One Mind, though his terminology is more technical. He asks tough questions of himself and all who consider Mind as foundational. This is Zen, Buddhism in general, Biocentrism, ancient Mahadyamika and other more recent non-dualistic philosophies.

Mind, consciousness, as foundational, brain as secondary, as a mode of Mind function, an expression of mind, how consciousness translates in our world, rather than the other way around.

If that is so, how come I can’t wiggle your toes? Why is there apparent self and other? What is death? If it is all Mind, what is all that stuff out there, galaxies, black holes, and so on, and how come we didn’t know about it all before if we have minds?

 

You can find out about this with a science/quantum bent reading Bob Lanza’s books on biocentrism

Robert Lanza speaking at Hazy Moon Zen Center a few years ago. Can find it on Hazy moon website.

Bernardo Kastrup also has very good, sophisticated answers. He just got his PhD in philosophy to go with his PhD in computer science. His philosophy PhD defense is on YouTube. I suggest if the intellectual philosophical, metaphysical aspects interest you in detail, look up his books, blog, or YouTube offerings.

Kastrup has used the metaphor of individuals with consciousness as eddies in a stream of One Mind (not exactly his term), especially a stream of a reflective material so we see our projections from within and think that’s how it is. Such metaphors are not new: eddies in a stream, waves in an ocean, currents in an ocean, broken flows in a waterfall, all have a fine and ancient pedigree. We are localized energy and momentum that is not separate from the medium, in fact totally one with it, interdependent, yet endowing it with contingent temporary local form and function.

Kastrup refers to us as “alters.” Those are different identities in people with multiple personalities. Alters may or may not be aware of the other alters, but in any case, alters are clearly in the minds of the afflicted, products of mind, yet have an apparent independent existence, a “life of their own.”

Mind and existence as psychopathology. Not bad, I think. After all, in Buddhism there is samsara, Maya, and it is a kind of projected mental illness! Or just, without what could be construed as implied value judgement, the great dance of illusion.

So, how do you know consciousness? Well, meditation accesses it directly, but in any case, you do know. After all, consciousness is the awareness of some way, an experience, it is to be something (some call that meta-consciousness, but I don’t care much about that debate. Bernardo Kastrup does, I’ll let him do the heavy lifting). You know at any moment, if you care to access it (that’s the meta-consciousness part), what it is like to be you. You are influenced by it even without meta-awareness of it. You react based on what it is like to be you, colored by conditioning (karma),to the degree you are not awake. Pretty obvious, there is nothing fancy there.

So, we go to the metaphors above to get to non-duality. They are weak, but of course they are just metaphors! As an alter, as a current, wave, broken up waterfall, or eddy in a stream, in the relative, in time and space, in the six senses, in samsara, I have my own sphere, my energy is finite, I can touch you indirectly, influence you, but not wiggle your toes. And death comes to all things in time and space. The wave crashes, current abates, the water falls, the alter loses juice.

Now, then what about all that stuff I never imagined?

Well, they become manifest to us out of the ocean, river, waterfall, when they enter our sphere of experience.

How about quantum? Sure, that’s how it works. Entanglement, non-locality

[Above is a schematic Interferometer, where a photon from lower left interferes with itself when out of phase in the two paths when it engages by half silvered mirrors as long we we don’t look at it in progress and “know” what path it takes. An indivisible photon on two paths here, but really many, or maybe infinite paths? Yep. And we have to be ignorant of the path? Yep. non-locality. Subatomic particles aren’t little pebbles flying around! Waves, energy, fields. It is deeper and way beyond what we ever imagined. See old posts or read up on it if you are interested.]

Another way to look at that: Maybe, to the degree I am aware, I know my experience, have access to my consciousness, but how do I know what Mind is up to? How do I see how that works? I experience my thoughts, but how does that work for Buddha Mind? For all that I can’t wiggle? What is all that?

Open your eyes. Engage. What you can’t wiggle is Mind outside of your “alter,” your self-reflective eddy in the stream, your current, your wave, your part of the waterfall. Same stuff as inside your eddy, your wave, your current, your waterfall, just a different pattern of energy. From beetles to black holes, from quarks to quasars, from so very way teeny to so awesomely way immense, that is Mind functioning. That is what Mind is up to. That is what the ultimate thought, Mind, Cosmic Consciousness, if you like, looks like, what it is, how it functions in time and space. It is time and space.

Why is it that way? Wrong question. That tries to bring it down to human terms. Too self-centered and self-important. A deflection, an infinite regress that will lead nowhere. In Zen we talk about the identity of relative and absolute; this is not a newly recognized conundrum. For most of us most of the time, those are just words and concepts. Distractions. Maybe that’s got to be okay. Maybe it’s how we function, not worth worrying about. That just makes for more noise, more distractions.

Better, perhaps, to be aware, awake, intimate with what is True, with Mind.

Shut up and see what’s up.

 

 

Ego and Interconnectedness

One in everything, everything in one. Tee shirt from Nara temple.

 

I haven’t been fond of the term “ego,” as popularly used, from way back. Always seemed what someone spat that out when they were justifying their own behavior, which was almost invariably self-serving, and meant to stop the conversation. Ego was bad. End of story. I called it on you first, and with more aggressive belief I am right, so I win.

I have come around a bit. Not about using it in that way, as a word to bludgeon others into seeing things one’s way. Ego is useful to consider as a process of reifying ourselves as a solid entity that can be protected and preserved. Not very Buddhist, and often quite uncompassionate and even frankly toxic.

Well, it is easy to see ego write large in our president, isn’t it? Self interest uber alles. No lie, no harm to truth, justice and the American way, that isn’t on the table if it furthers his personal agenda.

In Buddhism we have the 3 poisons, anger, greed and ignorance (usually taken to be ignorance writ large, about the nature of Truth, not say, lacking knowledge of calculus. Of course, ignorance of things you need to know to function compassionately could be included, see my previous post/rant).

These poisons usually arise because you are trying to protect yourself, your projected image of who you are, in order to “feel” that the stories you tell yourself are true. Because the alternative is that you have to face impermanence and death, or at least the fact that you aren’t all you hoped you would be, life isn’t what you want and expected. You lose control, the bottom can fall out (is that all bad? Well, it can be scary to our propped-up model of who we are that we carry in our heads, our egos).

Nyogen Roshi suggested reading books Anthony De Mello this last Summer. There are two in particular, with Awareness and Awakening in the titles. A clue to where he is at. Like Zen, like all mindfulness and spiritual practice, wake up, pay attention, see what is there past your conditioning. Your ego, a term he favors, so I reassessed for myself.

De Mello was born in India, a Catholic, became a therapist and Jesuit, got kicked out of the church for his teachings. He taught that religion as practiced is usually at best a waste of time, a diversion (I paraphrase). He believed most of his patients as a psychologist didn’t really want to get better. I am agnostic about the latter point, as I never did such a practice, but he has a point. I certainly see myself skirt issues and the hard work of facing my bullshit from time to time.

And I have found his advice very helpful in my practice, that is, in my daily life. If you are disappointed, hurt and angry, fearful, jealous or whining, ask how your ego is involved. What is your conditioning? What are you protecting? What are you afraid of? What is your anger and hurt masking?

Sure, people will do you wrong. How do you experience it? After all, De Mello points out, are you surprised if you are hurt by people? Didn’t you know what assholes we all are much of the time?  Did you think it was only you and your parents? If people are very toxic and you can’t handle them, then disengage, he suggests. Move on. Don’t get dragged into their delusions any more than you have to or than is helpful. Don’t let them gaslight you, condition you.

Okay, some people do criminal or very deeply egregious things, and you may need help dealing with that. Your emotions and intellect can be guides, that’s why they evolved, just understand that they will outlive their usefulness fairly quickly, but that doesn’t mean they won’t hang around.

But Post-traumatic stress is real, and there are treatments. If it is that bad, and meditation and practice and chanting or yoga or relaxation exercises or talking to friends, whatever positive activities that you normally do when things go south, isn’t enough, get help. Cognitive therapy, ketamine, neurolinguistic programming (is that still a thing? I knew a therapist who swore by it being effective for PTSD), whatever you need. I am not expert on that, so I am just throwing out things I have heard might help. Get help if you need it. Right away.

Some people are dangerous and if you are unlucky enough to be victimized you may need help from the authorities. They will likely hurt others, so it is compassionate to stop them. Maybe you will be doing them a favor, as in the gangbangers I meet who are trying to live without crime and deal with their anger, their horrible past history of being victims of abuse that led them to where they are, in constructive ways.

I would add, again referring to my last post, if it is a matter of protecting others, you are one victim among many, or it barely touches you but touches others painfully, as in social, political or environmental big picture issues, disengage from taking it personally, see how much of your attitude is your ego, but engage on a principled level of defending others, especially those who may not be able to defend themselves.

(oh, and by the way, if you are fortunate have money, be generous and help those who are doing the hard, frontline work. If nothing else motivates you, it is a good selfish investment. Let it prop up your ego, heck, I don’t care. Maybe you deserve it. I won’t be Zen purist for you. Just, do the right thing.).

Anyway, as I wrote above, I have found De Mello’s advice very helpful. If I am brooding, hurt, angry, what is the issue? Not only the facts of the matter as I see them. Certainly, I may have to point out what is up, that someone was careless or had an agenda that was serving their ego and I was collateral damage, but what about my attitude? Is it just self-image protection? Is my “ego” bruised? My comfortable lifestyle threatened? To the degree that is the case, my efforts will often make matters worse, my life will suck just a bit more, if I don’t recognize that and let it “self-liberate.” And that has been useful, it can work, at least for the usual daily personal life slings and arrows.

I mean, it won’t help pass the deepest koan, but it helps me get through somewhat tough personal barriers. And in fact, that is not separate, I suspect, from the deepest koan. Not only because almost all separations are imagined or flimsy, as it is all One, interconnected, but also it seems it would be hard to see into the heart of the matter, life and death and Being, touch Mind directly, to see the true nature of Oneness and “interbeing” ( as Thich Nat Han likes to say) if you are in your head, licking your ego wounds. Heck, it is hard to even really pay attention to what is in front of you, to wake up on any level, if you are so distracted. Again, I’m not an expert, just my suspicion.

Now, regarding science, I may put up some suggested readings later, but for now since I just  brought up the interconnectedness and last post implied it by talking about ecology, let me suggest a popular science book that came out several years ago that I just got around to reading (yay retirement): “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong. Fantastic book. It is deep biology, story after story of interconnectedness. It makes no promise to reveal deep mysteries of Cosmic Truth, but it kind of does, as all honest things do, if you follow the threads and read between the lines. It is about the microbiome, sure, a current and recent buzzword, our internal (well, counting skin, also external) body’s ecology, and there are other books and articles about the microbiome and human health. But this goes into much more than that. It isn’t just human centric, and I love that. We are so full of ourselves, even though we are looking to be such a failed evolutionary experiment! Anyway, you needn’t have any science background to read it even though it blew my mind and I know a lot about biology.

Retirement and What Practice and Compassion Are For Me Now.

I have taken a break from writing on this blog for some time, mostly because my retirement was on the front burner.

First there was the process of retiring. Not just the nuts and bolts stuff. As a physician I had months of saying goodbye to patients, some of whom I have known most of their lives, from childhood through teen years to adulthood, with careers and family, some as long as 20 years. Others I have seen go from young adults to middle aged, or middle aged to elderly (like me!). Even those I have known for less time, the bonds often grow thick and fast. Some serious diseases, adventures, trials, we shared.

Saying goodbye. Many, many tears.

Of course, with most patients it wasn’t so intense, but for some it was a major deal for both them and me.

Now I have been retired for 3 months, and in that time it has been about seeing what my new life is. That process is ongoing.

And no, while I miss my patients and colleagues, I do not miss the identity of physician. Others will step into that role, the world goes on. I never believed that defined me. It was right livelihood, and I love that I did that. Now I don’t do that. Letting go of people and relationships was difficult, of my role of being a physician was easy.

So now:

I do a bit more at the Zen center.

I have arranged volunteering, for example canvasing and phone banking with the Democrats (this is a critical time, obviously), and with groups like Homeboy Industries (the world’s largest gang reintroduction program for those seeking a life after crime). I am on the board of Swipe Out Hunger (swipehunger.org) that is involved in food insecurity in colleges, a major problem for those trying to improve their lives though education. Even conservative republicans should want to help out with that! Bootstraps and all.

I have always had concerns about the environment as a high priority; it was part of what led me to the commune I lived on when I dropped out 45 years ago, and I am currently getting more educated and active.

I mean, you do know 16 year old Greta Thunberg is right, don’t you? We are on fire. Ecosystems are collapsing. I don’t buy that all life on earth is at risk from the increased CO2 and warming. Life bounced back from much worse climate change. We have already started a mass extinction, and many species, perhaps most, wont survive, of course. Including some that have lasted hundreds of millions of years. But that doesn’t mean life on earth wont survive. It has survived mass extinctions before. But on the other hand, the toxins we are releasing (including plastics) are more of a global long-term threat to life that we can barely even guess about, let alone quantify. that could be a real game changer, in the worse way, much more than climate change.

For us humans climate change is a different matter. We are set up so precariously, our civilization is so fragile, our population so large, that climate changes our ancestors would have barely noticed (they did go through all sorts of climate changes, ice ages, then warming and sea level changes, etc) can wipe us out in a few decades.

Don’t you just want to cry? I do.

Speaking of Greta, at first, I wasn’t such a fan, but then I realized it was the rhetoric around her that put me off. The whole “from the mouths of babes thing.” I thought that if it took Greta to wake you up, you weren’t paying attention for the last several decades! That’s of course true, but that’s not her fault, I realized. No, she just started doing her thing, and somehow it started getting attention. Good for her. She is fantastic. I believe that she is sincere, she doesn’t want fame, she wants the dumb shits who aren’t doing what they should be doing to stop being dumb shits and listen, not to her but to scientists, and for all responsible people in any position of power and influence to do what they should be doing. And for the rest of us to push them (and ourselves!) to do the right thing, to do more. Not find excuses for inaction: it’s too big, too tough, this or that wont do enough, some say. It wont matter. Well duh, probably not, but doing nothing is even worse. That certainly guarantees failure. Doing anything, even a tiny bit, helps set the tone of the discussion, shows you care, and can seed bigger action, as long as it doesn’t become an excuse not to do even more if and when you can.

Kids should speak up and yes, we should listen out of compassion; they are looking at severe devastation in their lifetime if Trump and other outlandishly greedy willfully ignorant people have their way, and if the rest of us just go about our lives as if it will take care of itself and there’s little we can do.

Being rich wont prevent anyone from being crushed by this as it gets worse. The rich think it will, but they will be in prisons of their own making. They can’t escape for long. The social disruptions in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, central and South America, and so in the US and Europe, the demagoguery and populism, the difficulties this will bring, will eventually be impossible to escape no matter how rich you are. Climate change is  already causing significant disruptions and problems politically and socially. The rich and willfully ignorant are just too greedy and so too stupid to see it. They hope they can run out the clock, or buy their way out, blinded by their desires and delusions. It won’t work forever. This is too big. You can’t print money or bitcoin to buy your way out of it. (aside: do you know how much energy bitcoin uses? A travesty). Hungry ghosts, no satiating them, even if it hurts them and others.

As for my interests and practice, I find it is not enough to think about Cosmic Truths and philosophy, quantum coolness, entanglement, and non-dualism. And even meditation can be just a waste of time, IF we don’t use any wisdom and sanity and energy we generate to put compassion into action to the best of our abilities and resources.

I am not saying you shouldn’t read and think about all that, certainly I am a big fan of practice and meditation, which over all I do now more than before, I am just saying right now, the interface of science and Zen, and philosophic insights about non-dualism, is not the heart of my practice. That is all foundational, but I find I have enough to go on and it is time to realize it, to make it real. Yes, I look forward to reading the next book on Biocentrism by Robert Lanza when it comes out. But for me now, to express my practice in my life is what matters. I am not waiting for anutara samyak sambodhi, ultimate enlightenment, or the next great book or scientific-spritual-philosophical insight.

Don’t let practice be an excuse, a prop for your ego. A reason to disengage.

At least, that’s how I see it for myself right now.

Certainly, we can’t all be scientists, policy makers, or Greta. But we can do whatever we can do. Practice without compassion is limited at best, and compassion without expression is conceptual nonsense, an oxymoron, or perhaps just simple self-indulgence. Mental masturbation.

If you are too hurt by your life, so destroyed by the world, sure, take some time and get it together. But in the meantime, how about, if you at all can, acting “as if.” As if you had compassion and some ability to function. It needn’t be big stuff. It can be very little stuff. Baby steps. But we need all hands on deck, doing whatever little you can.

Even just offering a bit of encouragement to those who can do more and are trying, maybe just showing gratitude and respect, is something, is enough, if that’s all you got.

Oh, and please no hand wringing about the Trump impeachment proceedings. If it loses us the election, then we would have lost anyway. If our country is that ethically and morally bereft, and there is evidence unfortunately that it is, then worrying and plotting and strategy wont help.

We have to do this impeachment proceeding. It is clearly the right thing to do. It is at the foundation of any fair system, especially a democracy, that no one is above the law and that getting a foreign power, or for that matter any power, person or any institution, to help you crush your enemies outside of the law and due process, is an abuse of power.

So, we already won! The truth is out there. That is sufficient.

You think it has to be more? It has to be that the senate, miracle of miracles, finally comes around and sets Trump packing?  Republicans get sane and fair? Puhleeeese! Okay, maybe there will be such a miracle. But do you think we will be better off if we have Handmaid’s Tale Pence in the white house with his theocracy? You think he’s a closet environmentalist (well, he may be in the closet… just not that one) who will save the day?  I want Trump out, sure, our future depends on it, but if it means by the election so be it. In fact, putting Pence in the office might make it harder to elect a Democrat (some moderate republicans and independents will use it as an excuse not to vote Democrat) and prevent doing something about climate change.

Yes, the Dems did little about the environment, and did some bad things, let some stuff get by on their watch, but they did some good things. They at least tried. Now we are driving headlong toward the abyss, republican foot heavy on the pedal…

And again, if we lose the election, let’s lose it by doing what is right, not by over thinking it or cringing in fear.

Okay, you know all this. Sorry. Had to get it out there in case there was any hesitation or lack of clarity. This is our lives now.

If you need it in spiritual terms: think of it as our karma, a quest, a spiritual challenge, a cosmic battle, a spiritual test of who you are in your heart, your gut, deep, deep down. You know, like the stories where the beggar turns out to be a saint or god testing you. Whatever inspires you. Whatever story gets you out of your head into action, real compassion.

We need to be on this.

And I likely will get back to more spiritual themes and maybe math and science and maybe some more cosmic vision, sharing some of my fiction, etc. Lighten up a bit! We’ll see.

But for now, this is where my practice, where Zen and Science, has led me, and I promised from the beginning I would be honest with you, that I’d share my journey. Otherwise what’s the point? I am not after likes or followers.

 

DNA

21719379-dna

From Scientific American June 2019:

“All The World’s Data Could Fit In An Egg”

A strand of DNA is about 0.00001 meters thick. That is 1/100,000 of a meter. The DNA is so tightly packed in your cells that the DNA in each cell each cell can be stretched to 2 meters (about 6 feet). If all the DNA in all of your cells was placed end to end it would be 100 trillion meters long. That is 100 million kilometers, or over 62 million miles. Your DNA would stretch 2/3 of the way to the sun, though the strand would be too thin for you to see.

An ounce of DNA has the storage density of almost thirty million hard drives.

How lucky that life stumbled on that little trick. Useful for evolution.

There isn’t a selfish gene. There is nothing selfish about it. Information, always changing, always morphing into contingent forms.

The buddha turns the dharma wheel and reality is shown in all of its many forms, we chant in a Zen service where I meditate.

30 Kushan Buddha

Information made manifest.

Mind made manifest.

Slide3

New Aidan Novel, Stories and Life

 

I have published my second novel, “Aidan and The Mummy Girl Save the Universe.”  It s, like my first book “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the world” about Aidan Alvarado, 11 year old dream detective. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this one. The books have history, mystery, mythology, Zen and adventure. If you are interested in knowing more, look at my other website ralphlevinson.com. it is available of course on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and other sites, as print or eBook, but the coolest thing is that a friend ordered it from a bookstore in Amsterdam. I love bookstores!

The theme of the new book is in the dedication: to those who try not to be trapped by their stories.

How you frame your world in your mind is how you experience it in a recursive delusional trap if you aren’t awake and present (and very careful). The narrative we run is often a product and symptom of our fears and greed and ignorance, although we dress them up to be much more palatable.

The Lankavatara and other sutras, and Nyogen Roshi, point out how we spend our lives reacting to our projected idea of the world.

I am amazed at the depth of my conditioning, the degree to which I am trapped by the past, re-telling my life to myself as some sort of talisman. I wrote about this previously; to paraphrase Lily Tomlin: to wish for a better past is crazy.

This is at the core of my practice now: Not being trapped by my idea of the world, by my conditioning, by my stories.

This practice isn’t about not remembering things, not thinking, or not loving stories. That’s what brains are for. The operant wording: not to be trapped by stories. Stories are powerful. They are “skillful means,” upaya, in Buddhist jargon. Stories can reveal truths that we can’t weigh or measure, that we don’t have a clear quantitative metric for. Myth and stories have a place in communicating how we experience the world before measurement, for exploring values and truths that rely on judgment and perspective.

 

In the one everything, in everything the one. Tee shirt I bought at Nara Temple in Japan. It’s from a sutra.

 

I haven’t written on this website for a while. I don’t have much more to say about science and Zen, All is change.  Particles are localized waves. The currency is energy, the substance is energy. Nothing solid, nothing fixed, all is contingent. The relative (all things and events, particle and wave) is embedded in and inseparable from the absolute (which science cannot name. Energy? Quantum and gravitational fields? Strings? Quantum loops? These aren’t the absolute, but the most basic expression of what arises from the absolute, as close as science can get). That’s what science tells us that might inspire a Zen practitioner in the quest to not be limited by and attached to our senses and how our brains put together the world (biologic conditioning), while at the same time not rejecting our brains, our karma.

Then there are a lot of cool details in science. I have been enjoying the science channel’s “How the Universe Works” about cosmology and astrophysics. Gets pretty trippy.

The science that most interests me most now is life science, and more of a global life perspective. That means plants, invertebrates, and microbes. Most “biomass”: plants. Most number of organisms: viruses. Vertebrate species are few compared to insects and bacteria. JBS Haldane, a scientist (genetics) in the first half of the 20thcentury, wrote, “God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” (Wikiquote.org goes through the variations of this)

As an aside, Haldane also wrote: my suspicion is not only that the universe is queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.

The limits of concepts, well known to Zen.

We can even make it about us: Photosynthetic plankton create about half the oxygen we breathe. If we lose bees and we lose a big chunk of our food supply. But in fact, we are dwarfed as an expression of living potential.  Ecology. What we are doing to our environment (climate change. May be the topic of my next novel, Aidan and the Dragon Girl, Princess Peace, whose father is Dragon King of the East Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, are pissed about what us stupid monkeys are doing to the ocean.)

So, yes, I love studying life. It does allow a humbling and yet exhilarating perspective on our lives: the deep and abiding dance of carbon we are part of. The cycling of energy in a kaleidoscope of form and function. As Darwin wrote at the end of “Origin of Species”: endless forms most beautiful. Savor the phrase, savor life. Kind of Buddhist in a way.

 

Conditioning, Courage and Waking Up

“Rising Out of Hatred” by Eli Saslow is  book about waking up.

Derek Black, an intelligent, sensitive, even compassionate kid, was brought up as a white nationalist in the belly of the beast. He was articulate in his defense of white nationalism, and had a powerful and compelling (to some) voice even as a child and teenager.  His ability to “whitewash” the rhetoric of hate, making it more palatable to a larger audience, was part of the recent trend in that movement to gain legitimacy for their delusions and power.

Derek wasn’t himself hateful. He treated people who were different with respect. But he couldn’t see, his narrative didn’t allow him to grasp, how much he was hurting others. So it was easy enough for him to hold in his head the idea that white nationalism was not about hate. And this played into the hands of those who both loved and exploited him.

This strategy of downplaying hate and selling white nationalism as a viewpoint, a logical analysis of history and biology (which takes a lot of ignoring actual history and biology), is one that the racists have been using to gain followers. They aren’t merely frightened and hate ridden and evil, they are realistically facing the truth, they would maintain. It allows for a lot of wiggle room rationalizing bigotry and causing pain. It helps racists feel better about acting (including voting) out of fear and anger and greed and ignorance.

It is one of the ways Trump got elected, appealing to hate, greed and fear but making it palatable, leading to the horror show of the Trump administration and the white power movement Trump empowers.

After all , there are good people on both sides, Trump famously said about American Nazis. So reasonable! So inclusive! How generous (please read that as sarcastic…)

Derek managed to work his way out of white nationalism while in college. He opened his heart, and his intellect, holding to the compassion he felt and the truth he could understand when he allowed himself to explore and research his received beliefs deeply, eventually transforming himself, and, by going public, hoping to ameliorate some of the grave harm he has done.

Redemption doesn’t come easily.

This is my first post in a while. I have not had much more to say about science and Zen. Not that there’s not a lot to say, just that I have already said a lot and I haven’t felt inspired to pursue it in writing of late. I hope to self-publish my second novel soon and that says more about how I see things than blogging about science and Zen at this point for me.

So why am I back, bringing a book about a reformed white nationalist to your attention?

Because it is about conditioning, how we can be distorted by the views we imbibe, and how much harm we can do to ourselves and to others if we don’t wake up form the slumber of our delusions and see clearly.

Derek’s story shows that we can wake up. Derek did.

Even if imperfectly, even if it seems too little too late.

I bet in some way, big or small, you have woken up to Truth, even if just a bit.

This is what Zen practice is about for me at this stage of my life: not being trapped by conditioning, by the stories I have absorbed as my own. Or for that matter, the stories I have made up to assuage myself.

To not be trapped by my dreams, good or bad.

Nothing necessarily wrong with stories and dreams, if you know them for what they are. They can be useful, inspiring, a way to access truths otherwise difficult to articulate. Just like the intellect: a good servant, bad master.

I do not have the Zen chops to be a Zen teacher. I can’t tell you about enlightenment. Still, we can all understand how subtle and yet overpowering our assumptions, our conditioning, can be. How, being wrapped up in our hopes and fears and desires we tell ourselves stories to justify it all and ease the pain of a challenging existence that doesn’t obey our commands, doesn’t evolve in the ways we would like it to.

How authentic am I? How much of what I think is true, whether interpreting science, Zen/spirituality, politics, relationships, career choices and goals, are stories I have absorbed, roles I have taken on?

What does it take to wake up, to live authentically?

Most of us don’t have to do the 180 degree turn around Derek Black did, or have done the damage he had, but many have had to disappoint and disturb family, friends, ourselves, when we see how distorted our lives have become trying to make our minds, our lives, fit expectations and the desires.

I hope I have the courage to look at what is True, tough as it is.

After all, Derek Black seems to have had. And he was brought up by world renowned, hard core racists!

And politically, maybe, just maybe, others will also see the errors of their ways. The midterms suggested some will. I can dream, can’t I?

Merry Christmas

 

Distortions, Blind Spots and Practice

It is the task of our brain to make models. For humans, and some other mammals, this likely evolved because of complex social interactions.

Or brains/bodies also have emotional states that serve a purpose (to alert us that things are amiss). I few are emotionally uncomfortable we might think: wow, things are amiss. How did that happen? Can I fix this?

An unfortunate tendency is to be attached to these models and try and fit the world to our models and then think that is what the world is, how reality is, Truth with a capital T.

We create models out of our experiences to organize them, to have something we can grasp. It gives us the illusion of being able to know what is up, to predict what will happen, because that make us feel safe, in a world isn’t safe for embodied beings. Bodies are things that get hurt and don’t last.

But if the model is wrong, maybe we’re not as safe as we thought we were, and that kind of sucks.

All models are made with limited data and are subject to our hopes and fears. Some models are pretty good, they work most of the time, but all models are in some way wrong.

These models, our projections of our needs, fears, hopes and desires, gets very subtle, layer upon layer. At some point we forget they are models. We mistake them for Truth. We are conditioned. It’s the foundation of delusion, and it results in distorted views that cause pain and suffering.

These are part of us, our nature as embodied complex apes on a specific planet at a specific time and place, contingent, not of essence (or in the jargon, karma). I am not suggesting we try to ignore them or get away from them. Running and hiding is another delusion, another trick of the ego.

I have heard it said that the intellect is a good servant but poor master. So it is with ego, with our perspective. You can’t escape having a perspective when you are using perceptions and thinking thoughts. That’s what the words perceptions and perspective mean! But that doesn’t mean they are anything more than a temporary expedient to help you organize your reactions, your energy, to the energies you interact with.

Look straight at the O below with your left eye. Go back and forth slowly. If you are careful you will find a distance where the X disappears. Or if you don’t see well with your left eye, or seem to be right eye dominant, look at the X with your right eye and the O disappears. (To people middle aged and older: it may be hard with some progressive/bifocals!)

 

 

X                                                                                   O

 

 

 

It is your blind spot. You have one in each eye. Every human does. It’s where the optic nerve leaves your eye to go to the brain. There’s no light receptors (photoreceptors), no rods or cones, there to see anything.

Everywhere you look that blind spot is there, but your brain fills it in and projects a complete scene “out there” based on what it thinks it should see. You don’t have to think about it. It isn’t an intellectual choice. It evolved as a practical solution so we aren’t bothered by missing parts of our vision. But it’s a trick, a gimmick. That’s also ego, and it works. A fine servant.

But some blind spots are a bit more hurtful than this, deeper and more impactful on our lives, yet we also don’t even know that they are there, that we still fill them in with our stories. We are upset when the world doesn’t cooperate by not sharing our blind spots or by sneaking up on us in our blind spots!

Early Mahayana/Zen sutras discuss perception and projection and consciousness, in particular in the Lankavatara sutra, probably written about 2,000 years ago. It was the main text of early Chinese Chan (Zen) masters as long as 1,500 years ago, who were sometimes called the masters of the Lanka in the early Tang Dynasty.

Meditation and practice is geared toward getting a more and more subtle look at the models you project, the ways you deflect reality because it threatens your self image as an individual being that is safe and abiding in a world of blind spots, contingency, disappointed expectations, entropy, sickness, birth and death.

Suffering, in the Buddhist jargon.

I wrote years ago the difference between how I see the world and other scientists who are committed materialists see the world is  whether consciousness is primary.

 

I have a proposition that brings me to meditation practice: Brain processes do not create consciousness. Consciousness at its core is not this model making, projecting, and responding to friction between our models, our projections, and Truth. It’s not the words in our brain. Rather, consciousness is manifest through all of this. It is the water taking the color and shape of the container.

Yes that is dualistic, but it is only a metaphor, not meant to be literal. It expresses what can’t be expressed in limited words since words are based on our scale as four dimensional contingent beings, the scale that perceptions and emotions and intellect exist at.

We chant something at the Zen Center: reading words you should grasp the great reality. Don’t make war on your tools. That’s just more ego, another story.

In Zen there is a mistrust of having goals as they tend to be just more distortions, unreal expectations, distractions. Yet in Zen we do speak of aspirations. This is my aspiration, something I consider a valid quest worthy of my time and attention:

Is there a foundational consciousness, not limited by the idiosyncratic perceptions generated by our particular set of sense organs and brains? Can we experience this directly? Is there some way of being that is not contingent on our programming and conditioning?

Does Truth make us free, and is this indeed safe and abiding?

Does it walk us out of suffering?

This is my practice.

And I am very grateful for it.

 

 

Some Thoughts/Fun Facts on Light

 

In one, all; in all, one.

From a Buddhist Sutra (and a tee-shirt from Nara temple in Japan)

 

In white, all colors. In all colors, white.

All it takes is some heated sand and water (that is, a glass prism) to show that!

 

You have no receptor in your eye for yellow.

 

Rainbows aren’t things. They are contingent processes of light, water, quantum electrodynamics and an eye and brain

 

Having no mass and traveling through a vacuum at light speed a photons’ universe is one of time dilation such that the next tick of the clock never happens, so no time, and space contraction so there is here, so no space. So, see that star thousands of light years away here and now?

The Pleiades in the night sky

 

Photons pop in and out of electrons. That’s what a “quantum jump” is: an electron absorbs a photon (only some energies are allowed for a given orbit in a given atom. That’s quantum electrodynamics) and gets the right amount of energy to be in (jump to) a different (higher energy) orbit around the nucleus of the atom (or spits out a photon and goes to a lower energy orbit).  So atoms are constantly creating and absorbing light. 

Not atomic orbitals, but a cool picture that reminds me of atomic orbitals

 

You can pile up photons in the same place, but not electrons and protons and neutrons. That’s why you experience things as solid, but not light. Light has energy though, and so it can cut through things and burn you up and give you cancer. However, it helps if you want to read a book at night.