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.