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.