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.

 

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.

 

 

My New Novel

Cover of my first novel. You can look at ralphlevinson.com for more

Note:

I edited this for format and minor changes in text on 6/11/18

I am getting ready to self publish this novel for older kids (and grown ups!). It is the second novel about Aidan who travels through time and space in his dreams to solve cosmic mysteries. I’m waiting for my friend who is working on the cover then there’s always this and that to do. Self publishing means each hard copy is a bit expensive, but it will be on kindle and nook and if you know someone who cant afford a copy let me know. I just like hard copies! Anyway heres the first five chapters just for fun.

In this novel he has to solve the mystery of the golden feather; he goes to Tang China, Nalanda the Buddhist university in ancient India, meets a naga, Taxila where Alexander’s troops are ready to invade the Indus Valley, an Ancient Greek island and finally faces a cosmic battle in the realm of the dead in Ancient Egypt.

Busy boy!

One of his mentors is Wise-and-Able, Red Pine’s translation of the name of the 6th ancestor of Zen in China, Hui Neng.

Enjoy (note the spaces are a feature of the website; ignore) :

 

Aidan and the Mummy girl Save the Universe

 

Dedicated to those who try not to be trapped by their stories

 

Chapter 1.          That Mummy Case

 

 

Aidan Alvarado put the large old-fashioned metal key into the lock of the door to his grandfather’s study.

Turn the key, he thought. It won’t turn by itself.

Or maybe it would. He wouldn’t put it past the study to give him a nudge if the time   was right.

Maybe the time wasn’t right. The key wasn’t turning by itself, and Aidan wasn’t turning the key either.

KoKo, his grandparents’ mostly black German shepherd, nuzzled Aidan’s arm.

“Don’t rush me, KoKo.”

Ever since Aidan finished his first case as a junior dream detective and saved the world, he followed his grandfather’s advice to just be a kid again for a while.

No traveling through time and space in his dreams. No dangerous people like the greedy ancient Chinese General Ling or the powerful renegade dream detective Diamante Petrus who tried to kidnap Lotus, a dragon princess, in order to force her father, the Dragon King of the East Ocean, to use his powers to help them rule the world.

No study that gives you clues. He hadn’t set foot in there for over three months.

Being a dream detective and saving the world was exhausting. Taking a break was a good idea.

Still, he missed it. Homework and studying and grades were boring after all he had been through, and that was a problem. He didn’t put any effort into his schoolwork, and he didn’t much care. It’s not like the fate of the world depended on it!

His grades tanked.

He promised to do better but never got around to it. He just got his report card and his broken promise was obvious. Cs and a couple of Ds. Ds! He had never gotten a D on a report card before in his whole life.

His poor performance at school was not going over well with his mother, not only because she was a teacher, Aidan decided, but also because she was a mother, always looking for things to worry about. His report card was going to be something for her to worry about.

Maybe a new dream detective case was what he needed. Excitement. A challenge. Something that mattered. On the other hand, it might be overwhelming, scary, tiring, and totally terrible for his grades.

The study could help him. It had a way of telling you what you needed to know. Or, it might suck him into a case before he was ready, like dream detective quicksand, complicating his life and making things worse.

He probably shouldn’t take the chance. It was too risky. He was on shaky ground as it was. Better to walk away, right?

Nah. He was going in.

Aidan turned the key and the door slowly swung open. The musty, dusty smell of old books swept over Aidan, and musty and dusty smelled like adventure and mystery.

Aidan’s grandfather, Emanuel Prosperowitz, greeted him when he stepped inside the study. “Aidan! Welcome. I was bored. Come keep me company.”

Aidan didn’t believe him for a minute. His grandfather was never bored.

Aidan’s grandfather was sitting in one of the two large ratty old over-stuffed chairs. His grandmother, Jane Prosperowitz, was sitting in the other one.

“Sleeping well?” his grandfather asked. “Any special dreams lately?”

“I thought you were bored and needed company?” Aidan challenged.

“I was kidding. Jane never lets me be bored,” his grandfather responded, laughing at his little joke as Aidan’s grandmother rolled her eyes. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

“No, Grandpa, no special dreams.” Aidan was pretty sure his grandparents already knew that.

“I had an interesting dream about the Emperor Wu,” his grandmother offered.

Aidan felt a rush of energy go up his spine. At the end of his first case Emperor Wu told Aidan that she’d need his help as a dream detective again.

“Does anything in the study grab you?” his grandmother asked.

Looking around his grandfather’s study was not simple. The shelves went up almost 30 feet and books and papers were piled up and scattered around everywhere. Aidan scanned the library quickly since thinking too much got in the way.

On top of the old wooden filing cabinet there was a large feather that he hadn’t noticed before. A feather wasn’t nearly as interesting as the fossil dinosaur skull or the samurai sword, but those were old news.

Aidan shrugged. “Not really.”

“We’re stuck. We’d like your help. Look again,” his grandfather said.

Aidan looked all the way up to the top shelves. Nothing glowed. Nothing shifted. Nothing did anything. He climbed a few rungs up the ladder by the shelves and reached out without looking. His hand touched a book. Aidan took the book off the shelf and climbed back down.

His grandparents were smiling.

“You’re really getting the hang of the study!” his grandmother said.

Aidan loved her smile. Few things in the world were that warm and sincere.

Aidan read the title of the book out loud. “‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead.’ Wow, that’s kind of creepy. But what does that have to do with Emperor Wu? She’s not from Egypt.”

“That’s right,” his grandfather agreed. “It’s very odd. Not only wasn’t she from Egypt, but Emperor Wu lived 1,300 years ago, and ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead’ was written 3,500 years ago.”

“It’s a book about dead people?” Aidan asked.

“‘It’s been ages since I’ve looked at it, but as I recall ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead’ has instructions on how to get through the trials the dead person faces in the afterlife,” his grandfather explained. “‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead’ wasn’t what the Egyptians called it. They called the book ‘Coming Forth by Day’—”

“You mean the dead came out in the day?” Aidan was getting interested. “Like zombies?”

Before his grandfather could answer, Aidan found himself looking at the mummy case standing in the corner.

That mummy case! When Aidan first met Diamante Petrus he almost convinced Aidan that there was a mummy in there. That was just mean. But it wasn’t the meanest thing Diamante Petrus did. He pulled a gun on Aidan and his friends (sure, it wasn’t loaded, but still!) and tried to kidnap Denise Hu and steal the piece of the vase with the dragon spirit so he could rule the world.

Aidan was notin the mood for anything to do with that mummy case.

Aidan looked away.

Then he looked back.

Then away.

But it was no good.

He knew it. Dream detective quicksand!

Aidan sighed. “This is gonna be about that mummy case and Mr. Petrus, isn’t it?”

His grandparents both nodded.

Aidan moaned. “This isn’t gonna be good for my grades, is it?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” his grandmother said.

“I’m gonna have to see that Petrus guy again,” Aidan grumbled.

His grandfather shrugged. “You can handle it. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy.”

“Not such a bad guy? The whole gun and rule the world thing seems bad guy enough for me.”

“He got carried away,” his grandmother said, “but we should give him a chance to make up for it. He was really sorry. Believe it or not, he had his reasons, and they weren’t all bad. He thought he could use the dragon’s power to make the world a better place. Sure, he went a bit crazy—”

Aidan exploded. “Sometimes you two drive mecrazy! I know he’s your friend, and you think he meant well and you like to be nice, but you can’t be thatblind, can you?”

His grandfather stood up. “Show your grandmother a little respect, young man. This is a big world and for dream detectives it’s vastlybigger than most people can imagine. You still have a lot to learn—”

“Really, both of you! What did I just say about not getting ahead of ourselves?” Aidan’s grandmother scolded.

“Sorry,” Aidan and his grandfather said at the same time.

Actually, Aidan was a bit surprised. He knew his grandmother was the top dream detective, but Aidan never saw his grandmother shut his grandfather down and take charge quite like that before.

“Back to business!” his grandmother ordered. “Aidan, I think you’re right, something is brewing and it likely has to do with that mummy case because the study clearly spoke to you just now.” She took the book from Aidan and put it aside. “But I’m also not sure what all this has to do with Emperor Wu.”

“Or Diamante Petrus?” Aidan asked.

“Or Diamante Petrus,” his grandmother agreed.

KoKo nudged Aidan. She had left while they were talking and returned with a rubber ball in her mouth.

“Are we done? Can I play with KoKo?” Aidan asked as he took the ball from the dog.

“Are you sure you haven’t had any special dreams?” his grandfather asked.

“Nope. No special dreams.”

His grandparents nodded again, but they didn’t say anything. They were lost in thought. Aidan took that as an opening to leave and play with KoKo.

Aidan kicked the ball in the back yard for KoKo to chase. Was there going to be a mystery with Emperor Wu? He’d probably see Lotus, the girl who used to be the dragon named Princess Peace. That would be awesome.

But first there was still the matter of his report card.

 

Aidan waited until after dinner to give his mother, Anna Prosperowitz Alvarado, his report card. She looked it over for all of five seconds, and then handed it back to him.

“There’s been some mistake,” she announced.

“No mistake,” he murmured.

“Oh, there’s been a mistake. My mistake. I believed you when you told me last month that you would bring your grades up. I thought I could trust you.”

Aidan started to protest but stopped himself. Not only would it make things worse if he seemed to be arguing with her, but also he had to admit she had a point.

“I’ll do better. Really.”

“Please, Aidan. It wouldn’t take much. Is there something wrong? Are you depressed? It’s not drugs, is it? A bully? You can tell me. We’ll get help.”

Aidan felt like he had been punched in the stomach. It was easier when he thought she would be mad at him. Now he wanted to be mad at her; how could she think that?

But he knew how she could think that. It’s what they tell parents. Look for the signs. And his grades being in the toilet was a sign of something. Just not the something she thought. It was only that school didn’t seem all that relevant after his dream detective adventures.

She looked so down, so defeated.

“No, mom, it’s alright. I just haven’t been interested.”

“What would get you more interested? I mean it. What do we have to do?”

Aidan hugged her. “Give me time. I’ll try, really I will.”

“Hey, I have an idea. How about no more soccer? Will that motivate you to try?”

Ouch. “Please don’t make me stop soccer. That would be really depressing!”

His mother stared him down. “Okay, one more chance. I want to see a B or better on every test. One C and no more soccer this spring.”

Aidan had to agree. He had no choice. If that’s what it took to keep playing soccer, he would make himself study.

Maybe the whole dream detective thing wouldn’t happen right away. Maybe his grandparents got what they needed from him. Maybe there wouldn’t be any special dreams for a while.

Though he was pretty sure that was notgoing to happen!

 

 

Chapter 2. The Girl With A Plan

 

 

When Aidan woke up the next morning he was relieved to find that as far as he could remember he had no dreams at all. He was well rested and ready for school…

Then it hit him. He had a history test! If only the test was about Emperor Wu he’d ace it, but no such luck. Aidan tried to talk himself down. Just calm down, he told himself. Was the test today? Oh, please, no, not today!

He bolted over his clothes on the floor, dove at his desk, and opened his notebook. Tomorrow! The test was tomorrow! What a lucky break.

Aidan instructed his heart to slow down. His heart didn’t listen right away, so he took a slow deep breath, counting to five in and five out, like his grandfather taught him to do (well, what his grandfather said was: “if things get weird, take a deep breath;” this wasn’t really weird, but close enough). His grandmother told him to breathe in slowly and imagine smelling soup, breathe out slowly and imagine cooling soup. Then repeat: smell the soup, cool the soup.

They were really into this breathing thing.

Whatever. Aidan wasn’t sure breathing like that helped all that much. Sometimes if he used the smell-the-soup trick, all it did was make him hungry thinking about soup, especially tomato soup, his favorite.

At least breathing slowly was something he could do when he didn’t know what else to do, so he did a couple of minutes of smelling-the-soup breathing and his heart did slow down.

He had a day to prepare for the test. Tonight, he would actually study. He used to study before the whole dream detective saving the world thing. He didn’t want to study, but he had to if he wanted to play soccer, and he really wanted to play soccer, so he had to study.

Wait a minute! This afternoon is soccer practice. Dang! That was twisted. He had to skip soccer to be able to play soccer. He didn’t like it, but that’s how it was.

The school day went by pretty quickly, mostly because Aidan doodled and daydreamed to pass the time. He really liked drawing the wild, long flowing beard of the Old Sage he met on his first adventure. When he was sure no one could see what he was doing he’d sketch butterflies. Aidan’s name was Butterfly in old China. That’s what the Teacher of the Way of Wisdom, Wise-and-Able, called him because in Aidan’s first dream as a dream detective the Old Sage told Aidan that he, the Old Sage, dreamt he was a butterfly, then when the Old Sage woke up he wondered if he was a butterfly dreaming he was the Old Sage!

Aidan still wondered about that. Was the Old Sage for real? It seemed so dumb to think butterflies could dream. Did he really think he was a dream in some tiny butterfly head?

How big could a butterfly brain be? Like, maybe as big as a grain or two of sand? Was that big enough to be able to dream about being the Old Sage? How big did a brain have to be to do that?

Still, given the crazy things Aidan had been through, it didn’t seem all that big a stretch to imagine that butterflies could dream, maybe even about being the Old Sage.

Thinking about this made paying attention to schoolwork tough.

After school, Aidan rushed off toward the soccer field, forgetting he was going to skip practice that afternoon so he could study. He wanted to get there early so he could work on the Okocha kick, named after the professional soccer player who made it his thing years ago.  He flick-kicked the soccer ball over his head from behind, and when it landed he could change direction or pass the ball. Aidan could do it pretty well, but he never used that move in a game, of course. It was too risky.

Aidan acted like he was dribbling an imaginary soccer ball as he hurried to make it to practice when he remembered that he had to study for the history test. He stopped short, turned around, and found himself face to face with Denise Hu.

“Hey Aidan, where are you going?”

Denise was a year younger than Aidan. Her brother, Jeremiah, was in Aidan’s class and had been Aidan’s number one enemy, a bully who only bullied Aidan. Aidan had to admit it was his own fault. He started the feud by calling Jeremiah “Jerry Berry Brain.” The bullying stopped when Denise, who was out of school because she was very sick, told her brother that she needed Aidan’s help to get better. It wasn’t a coincidence that Aidan needed their help in his first case as a dream detective. Denise and Jeremiah completed the mission by braving the waves in the Santa Monica Bay, releasing the dragon girl’s spirit from a piece of the vase that their parents brought with them when they immigrated from China.

The effort had almost killed Denise.

“Hey Denise. I was going to soccer practice, but I remembered I have to study,” Aidan said.

“That explains it.”

“Yeah. See you later.”

“Wait a minute,” Denise called out to Aidan as he started to walk past her. “I think Jeremiah’s not doing so well in school.”

“Uh, I guess.” Aidan shrugged. “I mean, I’m not sure. He’s always been quiet in class.”

Aidan started to walk off again, thinking the conversation was over, but Denise walked with him.

“Our parents sent me to my room last night and it didn’t sound like they were exactly celebrating with Jeremiah.”

“Bad report card?” Aidan asked. Welcome to my world, he thought.

“Me? No, mine was great,” Denise said. “I want to be a doctor or a scientist and cure disease, like my dad and your granddad.”

Aidan started to object.

“Oh, you mean Jeremiah’sreport card, not mine,” Denise said. “Oh yeah. Must’ve been really bad. My dad looked like he ate something rotten and needed to puke and my mom looked like she wanted to cry before they sent me to my room. I thought you guys were friends. How come you never hang out together? Jeremiah really liked the study.”

“We’re friends. But I got soccer—”

Denise tilted her head. “If soccer’s such a big deal, why aren’t you walking that way?” she asked, pointing over his shoulder toward the soccer field. “Your report card wasn’t good either, was it?”

Aidan shrugged. “No big deal.”

“What’s with you guys? You need to move on. Maybe you should take Jeremiah to the study again.”

“Does Jeremiah think so?”

Denise was quiet for a few steps. “I haven’t asked him. He doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“Bet you do.”

“Yes, I’d like to talk about it, but who would I tell? They’d think I’m totally nuts. I mean, it was nuts, but it was amazing. I felt her, you know. I felt Princess Peace, Lotus the dragon girl, all through me. I felt what it was like to be a water spirit. But that’s beside the point. You and Jeremiah should be friends. You both need the study.”

“How do you know I haven’t been back?”

“Have you?”

“Yesterday.”

“Good. It’s about time. Now bring Jeremiah. Like, form a club or something. Call it ‘The Club of The Secret Magic Study.’ No girls allowed, just a couple of boys or something. No, wait. Forget that! Bring me too!” Her face lit up, as if she never thought of that before and it was just the most fun thing she could ever imagine. “How about it? Me and you and Jeremiah, we all go.”

“Do you really want to?”

“Gee, I thought you’d never ask,” Denise answered with a huge smile.

“You’re playing with me, aren’t you? You wanted me to invite you!”

“I really would love to see the study. And meet KoKo,” Denise added.

“Okay, maybe this weekend.”

Denise pulled on his arm. She was almost as tall as Aidan, and now that she was healthy she was strong like her brother. Aidan thought she could easily beat him in a wrestling match. “I’m doing much better now. I almost never miss school anymore. You saved my life, Butterfly.”

“Aidan. In Los Angeles my name is Aidan. And I didn’t save your life. You did. And the medicine.”

“If that’s what you want to believe, go ahead. But you really are a hero,” Denise said.

Aidan rolled his eyes.

“You can roll your eyes and make all the faces you want, but I’m the smart one with the good report card, and you know I’m right. We’ll meet you after the soccer game on Saturday and go to the study. I’ll make sure Jeremiah comes.”

Denise spun around, saw some girls from her class and called out, “Hey, wait for me!” in what Aidan thought was a way too cheery voice, and then ran off to join them without even waiting for his reply or saying goodbye.

 

Once Aidan started studying it wasn’t so bad. When his mind drifted to dreaming butterflies or wondering how in the world his grandparents could even thinkof trusting Diamante Petrus, he would take some deep breaths and get back to studying.

After he finished studying, he went to bed and fell right to sleep.

And he fell right into a special dream.

 

Chapter 3. Do Alligators Smile?

 

 

Aidan knew right away that this was not an ordinary dream. He was in a long, wide hallway, dimly lit by Chinese paper lanterns. The hallway had red wooden ceiling beams with carved and painted dragons on them. Chinese scroll paintings hung on the walls.

Okaaaaay… maybe he was back in Emperor Wu’s China.

Would that mean Lotus was around? When he last saw Lotus she was living as a human girl in Emperor Wu’s palace, her dragon spirit safely hidden by the Old Sage in the small white vase. Aidan really wanted to see her again.

There was a large round shadow at the end of the hall. What, he wondered, could be casting that shadow? As his eyes adjusted to the flickering yellow light produced by the lanterns, Aidan was beginning to make out a shape in the shadow.

Just as it was coming into focus he heard Lotus’s voice behind him.

“Butterfly, don’t say anything. Don’t make a sound. Step away from that thing.”

She didn’t sound surprised to see him. Then again, she didn’t exactly sound happy to see him, either. She sounded very scared.

Aidan didn’t have to ask what thing she meant. The shape was huge. It took up a good part of the eight-foot height and ten-foot width of the hallway.

It looked like the butt of a hippopotamus with a little flicking tail and stubby hippo legs.

“Why is there a big hippo in your hallway, Lotus? And hi, great to see you, too.”

“I don’t have any idea why that beast is here. But it isn’t just a hippo. Please, just step back and be quiet.”

The butt down the hall shifted back and forth as the tail wagged faster and faster.

“I think it heard us,” Lotus whispered with increasing urgency.

“But it looks like such a happy butt.” Aidan started to laugh at his joke when the beast managed to turn itself around, and Aidan was not looking at a happy hippo butt anymore.

Aidan was now looking down the hall at a huge alligator face with snapping jaws surrounded by a thick, golden lion’s mane, a very powerful lion’s chest, and a lion’s strong front legs.

The alligator looked like it was smiling.

“Do alligators smile? Maybe it’s friendly—” Aidan whispered.

“That has to be one of the dumbest questions asked at the dumbest time to ask it ever. We need to get out of here right now,” Lotus said as she turned and tried to run.

Lotus almost fell over since the long silk dress she wore was not made for running. Princesses in China didn’t run! She lifted the dress above her knees and ran as fast as she could.

The hallway shook with the deep vibration of a voice that came from everywhere at once. Even though the alligator’s mouth was open, it obviously couldn’t be speaking, yet Aidan was sure the booming voice came from the freaky beast.

”I will eat your heart. I will eat your mind. You will cease to be now and forever. I know your names! You are Butterfly, you are Aidan Alvarado. I had you in my power and you cheated me!I have come here to find you, to stop you, and now you are MINE!”

The alligator face was laughing, Aidan was sure of it. That thing may have been laughing at him, but it was notfriendly!

The monster tried to lunge at Aidan, but its stubby hippo back legs couldn’t keep up with its long lion front legs, so it only lurched forward awkwardly.

Aidan turned and ran right into 20 of Emperor Wu’s Imperial Guards. They looked mad and scared. They clearly had no idea what that thing was or what they could do about it.

“Aidan, you know what to do!”

Aidan knew that voice coming from behind the Imperial Guards.

Diamante Petrus!

The tall, angular figure with long sandy hair lurking in the shadows sure looked like Diamante Petrus. The guards parted and there was no doubt about it when Mr. Petrus walked out of the darkness into the light of one of the lanterns.

“No, I don’tknow what to do. I don’t have a clue!” Aidan protested. He really was not in the mood to deal with Mr. Petrus. “You know, between you and the alligator-lion-hippo thing, maybe I’m better off with that beast!”

“Really?” Mr. Petrus asked, pointing past Aidan, “You might want to rethink that.”

The bizarre creature was moving faster and faster as it built up steam. It let out something between a roar and a hiss that shook the walls.

“It wants you, Aidan. Tell it you know its name. It’s Ammut. It doesn’t belong here. Tell it so!”

Aidan didn’t have a better idea. He knew that if he didn’t act soon they would all be alligator-lion-hippo food. He turned to the beast, now only two clumsy hippo-lion steps away.

It was so close that Aidan smelled its hot, wet, stinking rotten meat and dead fish breath.

“Ammut! I know your name. Go back where you came from. No hearts or minds for a snack for you tonight!”

The beast screeched and howled and tried to leap forward, but just as its six-foot-long, tooth-filled jaws were inches away from Aidan’s face it disappeared.

Gone. It was completely not there.

 

Aidan woke up.

I might as well kiss soccer goodbye, Aidan thought; this is going to cut wayinto my studying.

 

 

 

 

 

You Are Multitudes Unfolding

When I started writing this Zengut blog I thought I would share more of the “gee whiz” of science. I also thought I would join the ranks of popularizers of math and science and the intersection of science with Zen, spirituality, Mind and meditation. One of the blogs I enjoyed writing the most was my meditation on Circle, Triangle and Square, a Zen painting. It’s really good and deep and if you haven’t read it, check it out, especially the revised version (also on Hazymoon.com). But over the years since I have started writing and have pursued my practice and my life (same thing), I find for the most part I have less and less interest in doing so in a methodical fashion.

There are plenty of sources for science that aren’t geared to scientists: magazines such as Scientific American and Discover, websites such as sciencedaily.com, and I am sure many others.  There are great writers and thinkers who really want to make clear the implications of quantum mechanics for a Mind Only view of how it is (e.g. Lanza and Berman Biocentrism and Beyond Biocentrism) and the philosophical underpinnings of non-duality and  idealism (e.g. Bernardo Kastrup).

Robert Lanza talking at Hazy Moon Zen center; me listening for a change.

I am not a Zen teacher. I share as a student, a practitioner. Certainly there are qualified Zen teachers (e.g. many books of ancient masters, Hazymoon.com has selections of Nyogen Roshi’s dharma talks, Maezen sensei’s books and blogs and websites are also good to check out, and of course other sources of Zen and spiritual teachings by those who are spiritual leaders and teachers).

I have finished my second novel for older kids, and I think it is a more unique contribution, more reflective of my mandala. More on that later ( I will post some chapters soon; maybe even the whole thing if people want. I will also self publish for those like me who like hard copy or who don’t read this blog).

I haven’t pursued the Zengut blog as planned. Well, that’s how it goes. I still see life as the universe unfolding as I wrote in the first blog I posted. Evolution is at its core. Life is change, all is continuous change, a basic tenant of Buddhism and science (there, mission accomplished! Political irony intended). So maybe I will unfold back into so pursuing a theme of science and Zen, or more of the inspiration of math, or whatever. I have continued to write when something catches my attention, whether something I can share of my Zen practice and life (again, same thing) or, like now, in the scientific world.

I do want to share what blew me away this week. It is definitely a “gee whiz” thing. It isn’t any new information. I have seen images of that are a bit like this for 45 years, that is cells interacting with cells, and there have been movies of cells in motion for maybe 10 years, but this image just hit home like a thunderclap. It may not hit you the same way, but give it a try:

Cutting-edge microscope spies on living cells inside the body – Nature

https://www.nature.com › nature › news

You have the same types of cells, and many other similar cells. Watch this and think about how in your bone marrow you give birth thousands and thousands of times a day to these cells, these organisms, that are you yet not you. Independent, with lives you have no idea of and don’t consciously control. Can you watch this and not see sense intention? Intention, you may ask? Absolutely. They have purpose. They are sentinels, guardians, noble and selfless. They do a job, a very complex and important job.  Watch how they seek. How they feel their environment. How they have no sense of you or your world outside of their impulses and needs, their immediate mandalas, their lives unfolding. Given the right environment, they can be removed from the living body that gave rise to them and still be who they are.

Clearly mind.

I am not suggesting conscious thought. Not brain stuff.  These are not beings with concepts as we have, of course. Still, a kind of sentience independent of you and your concepts, your desires, your hopes and fears and intellect. Mind, life, at work and play.

Life in life. You are multitudes.

 

 

 

Experience

The more experience I get the more I respect experience.

Sometimes it hits me: what was I thinking when I thought I actually knew something?

In fact, when I first came to Hazy Moon, Nyogen Roshi to said to me that what he had to offer was just his over 40 years experience “on the cushion” (i.e. meditating, having a  Zen practice). I understood. That’s why I was there. There are plenty of books on Buddhism. I had read many. Still do. Nyogen does point out reading can be good in Zen practice if you go about it in the right spirit; intellect as servant, not master. He reads. After all, smart and wise people who are dead or you can’t or wont meet or know, share themselves in books.

In Tang China, the monks who went to India to bring back Buddhist texts were heroes (it was and arduous journey. In Chinese folklore Monkey, or Journey to the West, is a fantasy myth about such a trip. Such a monk and the karma form his journey is part of my soon to come out novel, if I feel like self publishing it, “Aidan and The Mummy Girl”). Emperor Wu built a huge pagoda for the translators!

If you watch nature shows, you know about the power of experience for mammals. The knowledge of the elephant family matriarch saving her family in a drought because she’s been there before and knows the signs and what to do, comes to mind. Orca matriarchs teaching hunting. Animals transmitting tool use to the young. Life and death stuff.

Now, some creatures learn on the fly and don’t teach or learn like the octopus. Love them. But then, they live a year or two for the most part…

Of course, experience and experiment have the same roots. The difference is, well, maybe there is little difference if both are approached in the right way. The difference is organization and often math in experiment. In experiments you try to control the set up. Even in thought experiments and observational experiments. Hmm, we often try that in life and practice as well, don’t we?

Good luck with that.

First thing in experience/experiment if it is to be useful, is Maezumi Roshi’s admonition: no self deception.

Very difficult. The more I watch doctors and scientists, the more I practice Zen, the more I get how subtle and deep and layered self deception and delusion are. Turtles all the way down.

Experience in my life experience has recently hit home for me as I think about retirement and what I want to teach the residents learning about ocular inflammatory disease when the rotate in my clinic. It also hit home being on the boards of two non-profit groups, a new experience for me.

In medical school it seemed like if I could just cram enough facts about diseases into my head I’d be a good doctor. I studied hard, top f my class, 99th percentile on medical boards. Not a bad first step, a foundation, but not enough.

As a doctor who is involved with people who have rare diseases, I know the books just aren’t enough. After all, people like me write the books, and we often know less than we want to. Research is hard and expensive and in rare diseases great research is hard to do. Randomizing patients is often not ethical, and there aren’t enough patients/subjects to get a large enough group to see differences, to evaluate any differences, to understand the range of manifestations or to get a statistically reliable result.

We have a saying in medicine: “the disease didn’t read the book!” It may take a course, have manifestations, respond in ways not exactly how it is “supposed” to “by the book.”

Ambiguity is part of a doctor’s practice, and part of a patient’s life. Not always easy. Not cookbook.

The longer I teach medicine, the more I see how just reading the books is not enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient, as we say in medical science.

Experience wont necessarily bring great judgment and success, but it is necessary if not always sufficient, to have someone around who has been there, seen that, has the wherewithal to say something insightful and useful about it.

And that’s one reason the siliconization of medicine will hurt a lot of people. Others include mind numbing algorithms and extra work to make things cosmetically acceptable to the beaurocrats and lawyers and the push to a homogenous, one size fits all, way of being.

Fine, I’m an old guy justifying old people’s existence. You may say I just have a self-aggrandizing agenda.

You know, please don’t put me on an ice flow just yet…!

But the value of experience it isn’t just about medicine, that’s just one of the worlds I inhabit. Nor is it about being old, just being in the fray long enough to know your way around. To know what really is an exception, where the algorithm breaks down.

Every disease’s diagnostic criteria has an escape clause: nothing else found to explain what’s going on. Every treatment is statistically determined in clinical studies, with variables we don’t even know to look for yet.

Less ambiguous but more mysterious to me is the world of the non-profit board. A year ago I joined the board of “Swipe Out Hunger,” a non-profit to help feed hungry college students. Think about it. Someone poor gets into college. It may be a waste of their time, college can be, or the ticket to self-respect, dignity, freedom, a better financial future, but they are hungry and distracted. Not the biggest problem facing society, but a problem that is tractable and real and effects thousands of hard working, smart young people. I got involved because the university, UCLA, where Swipes started, is where I have worked for 19 years. This is one of my communities, a sangha.

On the Swipe board there are amazing people. Look on the Swipes website (swipehunger.org) at their bios. I met them, got the brief rundown, last year, but first read their bios a few weeks ago. I was floored, awed. I understood why at board meetings I have so little to add. These people have walked the walk and know the ins and outs of this do-gooder non-profit world. I don’t. And they aren’t old at all (well, one other guy and me), just they have done this or related things (e.g. consulting) as their life’s work. In fact, Swipe was started several years ago by college kids, including the woman who runs it now (she is no longer in college but still young. Dynamic. Talented. Caring. She needs to run for office one day).

They are smart, talented, and they made the effort, putting in the hours. It isn’t about grey hair and wrinkles and arthritis.

I also recently joined the board at Hazy Moon. What do I know about running a Zen Center? I show up, meditate, vacuum and dust or clean the yard on work days or when I take part in sesshin (or, more often, a part of one, anyway). Some on the board built the place and have been making it happen for decades!

So I decided, like in medical school, to get a foundation of knowledge. Got a few books. Started reading. The books are fine, but in fact I’d have to also read up on accounting and management, etc., etc. No book looked like it answered even most of  the questions I had. What should we budget for this and that? What is the right managerial mix when hiring? Fortunately the other board members have travelled those roads.

On the plus side of reading, a book is presumably a distillation of the author’s knowledge and, yes, experience. Books are great resources. How else can dozens, hundreds, even thousands or millions of people access what the author knows and thinks?

Reading of course I just one way to access knowledge. There are many great resources. But I just happen to love books. Hard to scan a recorded lecture for what you want. Holding and smelling my computer just isn’t the same as with a book. But some things really do lend themselves to other media.

But then, can we truly transmit experience in a book? Certainly a bit. We can sometimes almost do better in fiction and poetry (hence why I took a stab at fiction with “Aidan and The Dragon Girl,” and have another one I wrote and am finishing up I mentioned earlier, “Aidan and the Mummy girl,” to express my personal experience and journey in a meaningful way, hopefully only moderately didactic). Will an author be honest enough, have the space for enough to give attention to the outliers, to individual circumstances? Can an author know in advance what it is that you as a particular reader needs to know? Will the author have the courage to step outside received wisdom and write what is really on his or her mind?

Sure, I’ve spent a bit of time with the books and will do some more reading when I feel like it.

Or better than rely on books, I decided, I will hang around.

After all, they didn’t invite me on the board because of what I could read up on.

So I will soak up the knowledge and wisdom of my fellow board members.

In the mean time, use my intelligence and wit to try to add a bit here and there to the conversation and decision making.

You know, get some experience.

Learn.

Old school style.

It’s a spiritual practice.

 

Merry Christmas from a Non-Materialist Atheist (really, no irony intended! )

 

Being into Zen doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a materialist in the metaphysical sense. Zen does suggest being a materialist in the sense of being greedy and wanting things, with the hope that having stuff (including just the right ideas and rituals) will assuage anxieties and delusions and make up for ignorance and fear, is a bad idea, though with enough rationalization anybody can be a materialist, even a Zen practitioner. It is modern science that makes it difficult to be a metaphysical materialist. After all, what is “material”? What is matter? What makes things “thingy”? All that seems solid dissolves into a state of energy differences that follow rules and constraints (quantum mechanics and relativity, for example). Material, matter, exists only as those energy states are put together into being “something” by our senses and colored our hopes and fears, our conditioning and our scale of biological existence, themselves just energy states determined by energy states:

turtles all the way down.

Peel the onion until there is nothing.

In this cartoon each circle defines a square, which defines a circle. It is an iteration much like how magnetic fields change, defining a changing electric field, creating a propagating magnetic field, etc. This is electromagnetism, the first unified theory, developed in the mid-19th century by Maxwell based on work by an autodidact, Faraday. But where does that first circle come from?

 

Science confirms that these energy states are not the same as the stories our senses project to create our world. Sure, those senses evolved in the context of the rules of energy transformations, and so must relate to them in some way. In Zen there is the foundational poem called (in the translation I know) “The Identity of the Relative and Absolute “(the Sandokai). Zen accepts the challenge.

 

 

Science has a hard time with this. How does my life, my mind, relate to phenomena like quantum entanglement and quantum fields? Very indirectly, it seems, and only with big leaps of faith going from one level of scientific inquiry to another.

 

We may be energy fields, but we are also information, information of a certain contingent form, congealed on one level as DNA, as other levels as chemical  metabolism, interacting, communicating cells and organs and bodies, honed by energy states (our environment), in an iterative way similar to the circle and squares.

 

Scientists tells us science won’t be able to answer some basic questions in our lifetimes, and other questions not likely ever, (is the universe infinite or only 90 billion light years across? Is there one universe or “multiverses”? What is time? Can we verify strings or supersymmetric particles or quantum loop gravity experimentally?), but scientists do tell us that the universe is not what our limited senses describe.

 

 

That is fine with me, because while I can appreciate great beauty and love I have so often in my life, my senses also reveal a pretty dim picture of lies, delusion, death and suffering a lot of the time, not a world where some omniscient creator god just adores its creation…

Cue in Buddhism.

 

One guy came up to Buddha and said I will follow you if you’ll answer my big questions, like is the universe eternal?

Buddha told him he was wasting his time. It’s like being shot by a poison arrow and asking what wood the shaft of the arrow is made of, and similar irrelevant questions, rather than taking out the arrow. In some places Buddha said he came to end suffering. Others he said hey, your heads on fire, man, stop asking dumb questions.

So peel back the stories, and, as the Tang dynasty Zen master Huang Po suggested, watch out for concepts you project on to your life. What are you left with?

 

 

Now, since this is Christmas and I am not going to leave it there. I am not going to allow the arrogance of some scientists and professional atheists make it difficult to hear and appreciate the marvelous absurdity of manifest reality at its deepest scientific description. On the other hand, I am not going to be the atheist who just dishes on a dualistic creator god outside his creation of adoring puppets, that so loves the sparrow in the field, you know, the sparrow that is going to be eaten by the hawk leaving its chicks squawking in desperation, if they are lucky attracting a predator (the same hawk?) to end their misery quickly, rather than dying slowly by dehydration and starvation, without a clue as to what happened.

I am going to get into the Christmas spirit instead! Yay!

My Christmas present is sharing that my favorite book right now is “Barking to the Choir” by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who walks the walk Jesus had in mind.

Father Boyle is the founder of Homeboys industries, a job program for ex-gangbangers, but so much more.

“Barking to the Choir” is a spiritual tome abput the here and now reality of suffering and redemption. As an aside, it is respectful of Buddhism, but more to the point it is real, it is spiritual in the deepest sense, in a way I can respect and admire, and brought me to tears several times. The book is challenging in its radial compassion, vision of no separation, and belief in redemption. I am glad that this priest found in his religion something of value. And there are others, intelligent, thinking, caring people I know who have found deep meaning in religion as well. But I equally love that the values in this book do not need religion to inform them. Atheists I know (and I include myself in the technical sense of not believing in a dualistic creator god with separate mind and intention from its creation) share the core values that Father Boyle expresses in his life and work as a vision of natural ethics, an expression of who we are at our best, not as a command from on high.

The Dali Lama, who Father Doyle has met and quotes in his book (among other Buddhists), said that we need more compassionate people, not more Buddhists. I agree. I don’t care if anybody goes to a Zen center or not. Father Boyle also is not trying to convert people to his religion. He does want to share his vision, and I love that vision; it is deep and sincere.

Father Gregory’s religion isn’t exactly Zen, but in buddhism all teachings are a raft to be let go of when true understanding is experienced. And Father Boyle offers one magnificent raft for so many.

So, as I sit here on call on Christmas (I volunteer to let the goyim have their day with their families; I have for a quarter of a century) I am not looking to science for ultimate truth or religion for redemption. I do not appreciate my arrogant co-scientists who belittle those who find their materialistic metaphysics and philosophic stances (some deny they indulge in metaphysics and philosophy, itself a metaphysical, philosophical stance) to be limited and caustic, unable to answer deep questions, any more than I appreciate my spiritual brethren who use their religion to shore up their delusions and create more distance and suffering.

Too bad about all the haters.

 

 

I appreciate both science and Zen for the depth of seeing and peace, however shallow and tentative, however diminished by my own limitations, that they have brought me. My dreams come true!

And to the extent that science and religion brings their practitioners, and those they reach out to, into a state of wonder and inspires them to compassion and to make the world a better place, I am thrilled.

There is, after all, Father Boyle, walking the walk. And dedicated scientists and physicians and atheists and agnostics and artists and religious people and others I know trying to heal the world and make us all a bit smarter as well.

Mazel tov. A mitzvah.

Have a merry Christmas and happy whatever.

And don’t forget to keep dancing.

 

 

Why I Have Been Posting Less Recently

I have been writing less on this blog of late for several reasons.

I am finishing up a second novel about Aidan Alvarado, dream detective. It’s an adventure about life death and redemption, compassion and courage, for 9-12 year olds (of all ages! This age range is just because that’s what they want even when you self publish. What is the target audience? People love classifications. I agree guidance is helpful in some ways; it sometimes saves time. I actually think of it as just fiction; however, fiction that is appropriate for kids if they want to read it.).

It is time and energy consuming to pay attention and try to understand how to make a difference given the destructive horror show that is occurring in our government. And no, contrary to what I seem to hear from some Buddhists, you don’t need Buddhist insights to grasp this. I am not too enamored with socially engaged religious activities, though of course they could have a place. Mostly it seems to me to be more like advertising and self-aggrandizement. I agree with the Dalai Lama: we need more compassionate people, not more Buddhists (or Jews, or Christians, or Moslems, or Hindus or whatever). You want to do something with your sangha, church, synagogue, mosque, etc., fine, but don’t crow about it or stamp your beliefs on it, like that makes it special. I know fine people who are atheists, materialists, agnostics, deists, theists, religious, spiritual but non-religious etc. who care and band together to help or get involved with organizations and give to those who can make a difference without branding the help they are giving, or for that matter, themselves.

As much as I love science, I am reading less of it except for some of the fun stuff, mostly nature and biology (also there are great nature shows), or for what I do at work. I do appreciate the fact that physics can and should slap you upside the head saying no matter how you see the world, this cosmos, with your senses, the deeper you look the less “understandable” and solid it is. You can describe quantum physics and conceive some picture of what is going on, but it won’t be quite right. Can’t be. Words and concepts don’t cut it, even if they can approach it. You can come up with some idea of what might be going on: it is all energy fields (at best), ever changing with no inherently clear beginning or end, as it may be multi dimensional with multi universes. Entanglement suggests time and space is an illusion, or at least the way we experience space-time clearly is (as does relativity in a less fundamental way). The world of phenomena seems smooth and continuous and yet what seem like individual particles are described by waves, but come in discreet quanta. See my previous blogs on quantum mechanics (and now there are loads of good YouTube videos; I just watched a couple on 3Blue1Brown I liked about math and science, for example). I love that math designed and conceived abstractly as an intellectual endeavor sometimes comes to be the best way to describe the most subtle natural phenomena (like quantum mechanics).

I believe science, where it runs into the utter overwhelming fact of existence, the mind-boggling manifestations of life, of the universe itself, the nature of observation in quantum mechanics, the deep mystery of consciousness (mystery, that is, from an intellectual perspective), implies Mind is primary, is not a random epiphenomenon (though consciousness in terms of specific evolved brain functions may be so considered from a certain limited perspective. I do believe in evolution). There are great books by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman (Biocentrism and Beyond biocentrism) that explore that (see Honmei’s review of the latter book on the HazyMoon.com website) and there are several by Bernardo Kastrup. Bernardo has been writing a lot of academic articles; if you want academic arguments for what in Buddhism is called Mind Only, what he calls idealism, look him up.

So I don’t feel like writing about science and spirituality as much anymore. Others are doing just fine.

In my original post on this blog I wrote what I had heard from others that I considered the best description of what is true and that is what I still see:

 

You are the universe unfolding

No separation

No beginning no end.

 

I might add:

Mind is primary

The natural working of mind is compassion when not reacting from ignorance (ignorance: the sense of separation, thinking that ego and the words that pop into our head, our brain as it has evolved for us apes to survive, is mind, that our stories are real rather than short hand for what can’t be said)

Greed and anger are manifestations of our ignorance and cause pain, both for others and ourselves.

 

The best advice I have run into:

Don’t wish for a better past (or present or future, for that matter; it doesn’t help and is guaranteed to make you crazy; this is an abbreviation of Lily Tomlin’s statement that forgiveness is not wishing for a better past)

No self-deception

Pay attention

Don’t put a head on your head

 

I do my Zen practice. I try to act in the world with responsibility and whatever compassion as I can muster. I am lucky to have some great karma, though I see pain all around me, sometimes very close, sometimes big, sometimes small. I write fiction for adults that can be read by kids that I hope will provide a fun way to pass the time while being insightful and helpful. Writing fiction is a way to tell truths that non-fiction and didactic approaches can’t. It is an expression of my Zen practice.

I may write more about math and science and spirituality in the future. I’ll let you know more about my new fiction soon. So far this is the summary I am working on for the back of the book; it’s still rough (I have information about the first book on ralphlevinson.com and will put more about this one there and maybe here in a few weeks or so):

Eleven-year-old Aidan Alvarado had enough of saving the world; all he wanted to do was play soccer. That wasn’t going to happen! Aidan embarks on his second case as a dream detective when Emperor Wu (China’s only woman emperor who lived 1300 years ago) needs his help again. There is a war going on in the realm of the water spirit dragons and the balance of the universe is upset, threatening disaster for Wu’s empire and even the universe itself. The key is a golden feather. To solve the mystery Aidan has to travel in his dreams to ancient China, India, and Egypt. Along the way Aidan meets a few monsters and ancient deities, a boy who can morph into a cobra, a girl who talks to elephants, a poet philosopher who accompanied Alexander the Great, a beekeeper in Ancient Egypt and a mummy girl’s spirit.

 

Maat with her feather. She embodies Truth, the Way, the Balance of the Cosmos, the Dharma. You heart (like in China, in Ancient Egypt heart and mind are the same) is measured against her feather in what we know as the Egyptian book of the Dead (really the Book of Coming Forth by Day)

We Cant Wish Ourselves Out of Any of This (wish we could!)

Hakuin Zenji the great 18th century Japanese master, pipe dreams himself as an old woman former prostitute poet.

 

It is incumbent on us not to be married to the stories we tell ourselves.

That is not an excuse to think that nothing you think matters.

Of course, “matters” is relative and subjective, a product of mind.

But then, so is existence.

I have of late been concerned, as I bet you have, about the state of our nation and world. It is awesome in the sense of being overwhelming. Stunning in the sense of of being hit in the gut and having your breath knocked out.

What level of greed and delusion is our species capable of?

Look around.

A wall in Berlin

 

I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a professor of history. We don’t only learn from history in the sense of studying events that have occurred long enough ago to somehow be at a sufficient distance that they are described in summary form in textbooks and can be “processed,” that is, to have developed a coherent story about the events that relates to our world view (the big stories we tell ourselves). Events aren’t made into history after some respectable time has elapsed. Everything you experience is history. The “now” is too fleeting to grasp. Science teaches us that energy must reach us, cause changes in energy states in our sense organs, change the membrane states in the nerves that feed our brain, then our brains must sort the data about these energy transformations and decide how it relates to your stories and experience; all in time and space.

So, your “now” is a result of transformations that happened in the past.

It’s all history.

In my personal life I have sought liberation by pursuing my practice. More and more I appreciate the wisdom of Lily Tomlin’s statement that forgiveness is not wishing for a better past. That is true when seeking to forgive others and to forgive your self. That is especially true when you consider that to the extent you perceive, think, feel, and conclude anything about anything, you are experiencing the past.

I admit it. I find that I often wish for a better past. A past where delusion, ideology, racism and greed didn’t run our country and many other countries around the world. Personally, there are times I wish I zigged instead of zagged in my life. There are times I wish those near and dear to me zigged when I hoped they would, when it would have fit my image of the way things should be, when my ego would have been more supported, but they found zagging to be what they needed to do.

But wishing is delusion, it ends up causing more pain and suffering. It is an attempt to reify our stories, what we think we need instead of want, our conditioning, our egos.

We get disappointed when reality doesn’t fit our model of it, our stories, our wishes for a better past. As Stephen Gaskin said over 45 years ago, you have to appoint to be disappointed.

Of course, this can devolve into just more concepts, an excuse to give up, to not care. In Zen we say don’t pick or choose. Well, be careful about how you parse words and concepts. Compassion is at the base of Buddhism, of any religion or philosophy or world-view that isn’t just a way to rationalize greed and delusion. We may not want to be slave to our egotistical, conditioned picking and choosing, but we discriminate a rock from a potato, a kitten from a cobra, compassion from greed.

Hakuin Zenji not deceiving himself and occupying the ground he sits on

In Zen we say start where you are. Occupy the ground you stand on. Maezumi Roshi stressed no self-deception. Easy to agree with; what else would make any sense? Actually doing it, I find, is not so easy. How often do we like where we find ourselves? It isn’t always pretty, is it? But what else is there? Where else can you start, and what other strategy but no self-deception would possibly matter (see above)?

In the past few months I haven’t been too interested in math and science, other than as a professional medical scientist. Seemed a distraction. I have enjoyed taking a bit of a philosophical/metaphysical turn (in the sense of philosophizing about the implications of science) reading, for example, Bernardo Kastrup. Then last week I was talking about the coolness of quantum mechanics talking to a friend at the Zen center who has a strong math background, and I found myself fired up, going back to review some math and science and loving it; so pure, so elegant, so inherently not greedy, insane and devious.

Dogen said to study Buddhism is to forget the self. At least when delving into how an abstract logical construct like linear algebra ends up being a way to describe quantum phenomenon, I can, for a bit, forget myself. OK, that’s not totally true, and it certainly isn’t what Dogen was really saying. He said body and mind fall away, and mine hasn’t, not even when absorbed in new material. But still, it seems to at least give me a little break from all of the noise.

I like that you can’t cheat it without, well, cheating, and what’s the point of that? And it can get deeper as you return to it. You might have a certain understanding of a mathematical operation, but seeing how it works in another context, say linear algebra in quantum mechanics, brings you deeper; very cool.

Myths and stories can do that too, and I do like creative writing and have been doing some of that as well. I read somewhere you might as well do art; worse that can happen is it sucks, then you toss it. I like that. Nice if it doesn’t suck though, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

 

Of course, the ultimate art, the great performance piece, is our lives and our deaths.

Keep on dancing!

 

 

Straw Men and Gaps

In my last post about evolution I may have not been quite on target on a couple of things.

First, I don’t want to set up natural selection as a straw man. If you look at a modern textbook on evolution you will find many much more subtle mechanisms for evolution in which natural selection may play a small or even no role at all (genetic drift, for example). Selection is still generally thought to be a final arbiter in most scenarios, but that is a given. If some change, no matter the mechanism, doesn’t allow for successful multigenerational reproduction at higher rate than what is already in play, of course it won’t result in change, and change, movement, transmuting energy into new form and function, is what evolution, is what life in the realm of the six senses, is all about. It’s such a given, so inherent in its formulation, that I referred to it as a tautology, out of respect, not as a criticism.

Second, I may have opened up a sense of awe and wonder of the “Gaps.” Like a God of the gaps, it is weak to the point of meaninglessness. Wonder and awe, deep inspiration, spiritual insight, samadhi, are not made more or less authentic and part of your life by gaps in some other view or metaphysical stance, including current scientific data or dogma. It is not a matter of using the gaps in science to create openings for anything else or to justify your practice or beliefs. Of course you can fit whatever fantasy or delusion you care for in those gaps, and fundamentalists do, but hopefully your world view is more coherent and doesn’t rely on gaps.

Science will never have no gaps. A gap is important in directing where scientists need to look to learn more. However, our approach to measuring the universe through extensions of our six senses is finite, internal to what we are measuring, and so has limits.  The limits of science will likely include our finite monkey brain with a certain number of synapses that evolved to survive in a given time and space or our technology which doesn’t have the oomph to explore the realms we dream up with our math and the implications of current scientific understanding of basic, fundamental physics. Many gaps, of course, will be filled IF our species survives and thrives. Science has a really good track record of surprising gap filling!

I watched a wonderful lecture series on particle physics from the Great Courses called “The Theory of Everything” given by Don Lincoln. If you want to know what is current thinking in physics, including where the gaps are, this is the series for you. But that isn’t its real strength. If you want to see how a working experimental physicist approaches the matter of matter and energy, this is the best out there. Now, it doesn’t go as much as you might like into the gee whiz stuff of quantum (a bit of course; has to!) and makes no real effort at “deeper meaning,” but that’s what I loved about it. Just what scientists think they know and what they think they don’t know about particles and forces.

One thing he points out: we can already describe the transformations of energy in all the realm of the six senses by a series of equations that would fit on a tee shirt. Problem is they are disconnected and don’t fit well together and require constants, numbers empirically derived, that we have no theoretical basis for. Lanza and Berman also discuss this in “Biocentrism”. A real gap in physics that these are experimentally derived, often approximated, and not derived from some single number and first principles. A very recent book that goes into that in detail about this is Lewis and Barnes “A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned universe.” While I liked their detailed exposition of the situation, I wasn’t as enthralled by the philosophical discussion at the end; too dualistic.

There are gaps that I think will remain in science. One is any ultimate “explanation,” mostly because explanation past a mechanistic story or mathematical description will always be an attempt to take observations and fit them into a more sophisticated story that works on our human scale and perspective. Why should that work? We are primates! Why should the Universe, Truth, be primate friendly, understandable and graspable in its entirety by primate intellectual constructions?

Buddha famously warned against speculative metaphysics. He seems to have said something like: yeah I know a bunch of stuff, and so can you, but don’t get distracted. Take care of your world on fire. There will be understanding, but don’t get greedy, first things first.

Another gap I believe will be a scientific theory of consciousness. Lets say scientists can show exactly the neurologic correlates of consciousness to an exquisite and intellectually satisfying level of detail, way beyond what is known now. That will happen to one degree or another and is happening now in neuroscience. I am not as enthralled with neuroscience as an adjunct to my practice as some seem to be in the Buddhist community. I am currently enjoying “Behave” by a primatologist Robert Sapolsky. But, while I’m not through yet, this is not a metaphysical book, it explores how we function as human primates, as the subtitle says “the biology of humans at our best and worst.” Interesting stuff, so far a great read, but not about consciousness per se, but about our contingent biologic programming. Anyway, even if our scientific understanding of consciousness goes deep, deep, deep into quantum effects on the mind and in neurology  and  complex brain level activity, and grasps the role in our consciousness of inputs from the endocrine system, the immune system and the gut etc., and shows how it all fits together, will that be any different from describing the science of light (energy, electromagnetic waves, photons and quantum field theory) and perception (eyes, optic nerve, brain pathways) to a blind person and expect them to experience the color yellow? Heck, we sighted people with the usual kinds of photoreceptors (i.e. not color blind) don’t have yellow receptors in our eyes, yet we see yellow, as a story, a projection.

The universe is energy transformations. That changes in, and perhaps defines, our experience of time and space. That is what evolution is and it is of the nature of movement. The question is: what is the basis of these transformations, and whether consciousness, Mind, is fundamental, foundational? The most given of givens. The irreducible.

So, let there be no straw men or spirituality, awe or consciousness of the gaps. We don’t need no stinkin’ gaps or straw men to bolster our practice, to be compassionate, for samadhi, to be.