No Escape

[Continuing with the theme No Hope, from the last entry]

In the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, and the presentations on those teachings that we have from his student Pema Chodron, one of the great themes is that an essential element in walking the ‘spiritual’ path, the path of radical compassion, radical acceptance, as it has come down to us through the centuries from those who have followed and interpreted the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, is that there is no escape.

The first noble truth of classical Buddhist teachings is “Life is suffering.” Though this idea is widely misunderstood by most of the Western translators and interpreters of the Buddha’s teachings – the sense of the original is better translated as “All clinging to life involves or creates suffering” – it is essentially just an observation about the reality of human experience: we can’t escape these feelings of dissatisfaction, this sense of lack that permeates our lives.

This is the “hopelessness” that Pema holds out as a positive thing, much to the dismay and confusion of most of us. The reactions I get to suggestions that hope is not something to cling to range from shock to outright anger:

What? Give up hope? Never! Hope is all we have! Never give up! Believe in the ultimate wonderfulness that we can achieve and never stop hoping for better, more, never abandon the quest for perfection.

That may be overstated, but it catches up much of what passes for wisdom in popular self-help psychology. And it sells. For some, it seems to work, at least temporarily. But it misses some really profound understandings of our human situation.

What we tend to do when things get tough, when things aren’t going the way we should like them to, is look for some escape from this unpleasantness. Much of what fills the world today, materiality, activity, religion, philosophy – any realm really – is nothing but some highly refined and developed effort to escape from reality, to fill that void with something.

We seek sensual and intellectual pleasures to escape that gnawing sense of dread, and we find all manner of sophisticated means to avoid the pain that comes from too much reality.

But in the end, there is no escape.

Whatever we do, it always ends. There’s always something happening that we wish would go away, or something we wish would happen that just won’t. And when we get something we want, we know that it could be lost in a heartbeat.

This is the truth of life that the Buddhist teachers speak of as “impermanence” or “emptiness”. The Buddhist path involves, at heart, being willing to bang into that truth over and over again until it comes clear to one that this is the nature of our life. “Sampajanna” is the Sanskrit term, which means something like ‘constant and thorough understanding of the truth of impermanence.’ Everything changes. It’s an obvious truth that we spend most of our energy denying.

It is this sense of no escape that is intended in the teachings of hopelessness, in the idea that our only salvation lies in giving up hope. Radical acceptance. Coming to terms with reality.

There’s nothing wrong with the hope that lets us undertake a new journey toward a goal that is clearly and simply a way to get beyond some thing in one’s life, or in society at large, that is problematic. When you see a problem, you address that problem in clear-eyed ways, and the ‘hope’ needed there is simply to see that yes, it is possible that I can do this. It’s not some unrealistic goal, and there aren’t insurmountable obstacles to realizing it. It’s possible. That’s a positive, human kind of hope.

It is when hope is used as an escape from the reality of our lives that it becomes a block to development of contentment and joy. It is when hope becomes an unrealistic quest for lasting, permanent security and grounding that it leads us down a dead end road.

Impermanence is a fact of life. It is as unavoidable as death itself. Finding any kind of contentment in this life necessarily involves acceptance of that truth, else we go from disappointment to disappointment, careening along leaving a trail of disasters, and never find peace.

No Hope, No Fear

Hope.

We all need hope.

Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.

But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.

Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.

Hope, however, is highly overrated.

I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.

I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.

First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.

It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.

The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction. Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.

As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”

For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.

So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’

No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.

A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.

Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.

So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.

In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:

To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

A little further on in the book, she says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.

[I will continue with a second installment on this theme in a couple of days — I hope! :)]

[And I have! Hope rewarded! Next]

Cedrus libani

A poem of sorts from August 16, 2016:

 

Here. Take this lash.

Whip it across my face. Draw blood.

I prefer that to these words which cut

deep into my heart

and bury themselves in my mind,

waking me in the night with their pain,

manifesting as a dream of the cedar

I found long ago at the corner of Orange and Wayne,

now gone,

mourned in my dreams alone.

Or in the quiet sleepless hours

I roam about in the house, in the cosmos,

once again feeling the loss of the old forests

as if it were my own.

My life and the cedar’s are not so far apart.

 

The nature of reality

Hmmm. Reality. Interesting concept, but do we have a clue as to what it really is?

Well, actually, no. All we have is this consensus. We all agree that things are pretty much as they seem. But, it could be, as George Musser says, that

The universe we see playing out in space may be just the surface level, where we float like little boats while leviathans stir in the deep. [from: Musser, George. Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (p. 182). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.]

Mosser says that many of the leading researchers and theorists in physics and the related fields of quantum mechanics and such question the very ground of assumptions that science has made for the past several centuries. “Localism” or the idea that things have a position in space – pretty basic assumption, right? — is no longer held to be a valid scientific idea.

Which is confirmed by recent, high-level experiments reported in this Atlantic article, and is increasingly becoming the consensus opinion of scientists in the field. Borrowing a very telling metaphor from physicist and philosopher Jenann Ismael, Musser says:

Today we know that the universe has more to it than things situated within space. Nonlocal phenomena leap out of space; they have no place in its confines. They hint at a level of reality deeper than space, where the concept of distance ceases to apply, where things that appear to lie far apart are actually nearby or perhaps are the same thing manifested in more than one place, like multiple images of a single shard of kaleidoscopic glass. When we think in terms of such a level, the connections between subatomic particles across a lab bench, between the inside and the outside of a black hole, and between opposite sides of the universe don’t seem so spooky anymore.

Ismael says that like a kaleidoscope, where a single bead of glass is “redundantly represented” in different parts of the view screen of the device, what we are learning about the nature of reality means

…seeing space as we know it— everyday space in which we view measurement events located at different parts of space— as an emergent structure. Maybe when we’re looking at two parts, we’re seeing the same event. We’re interacting with the same bit of reality from different parts of space.

In other words, space – in fact, the so-called “space-time continuum” – doesn’t really ‘exist’ in the way we usually think of that term. We are seeing effects from some deeper level of whose nature we have no notion. Physicists are just beginning to suggest various ways of thinking about this, ideas for ideas, that may eventually lead to an understanding of at least a theory of what it actually is, even though it’s very unlikely we’ll ever have evidence or experience of that actuality itself. An emergent structure. A reality that is emerging from some other, unknown, level. Spacetime is an experience that we have, but that manifestation is coming from some other more basic reality.

Bogles the mind really. But that’s because we’re trying to think of these things in terms of space, in terms of locality, in terms of our experience. Because that’s the only way our mind works. So scientists engaging this question are looking for a completely new way of conceiving of reality. Pretty challenging.

As Musser says, “This thinking completely inverts physics. Nonlocality is no longer the mystery; it’s the way things really are, and locality becomes the puzzle. When we can no longer take space for granted, we have to explain what it is and how it arises, either on its own or in union with time.”

These building blocks of spacetime would have neither size nor location, much as a molecule of water is not “wet”. Only the combination of the molecules produces the phenomena we know as water, with all it’s attendant properties. Or like building a model of the Eiffle Tower with popsicle sticks.

In this approach, space is thought of as a notion that explains, or organizes in a convenient way, what we experience. That we might eventually develop a theory that explains that notion in a more causal, existential way is pretty exciting to me.

I intend to try to keep up with the progress in this area, and try to understand it. Which is what leads me to blog about it, creating a new category here, “Quantum Reality” to help me follow and develop my own understanding. Hope some of you find that interesting and will join me in this fascinating quest.

 

.

 

 

The next six months.

Very intense. He’s drawing the lines clearly – and it’s not pretty.

Yonatan Zunger –

His List. This guy is very good on all the political stuff going on. Just street level stuff. Not a lot of academic or political niceties – just, what the fuck is happening and what does it mean to us. Daily life. Street smarts for the coming year.

This essay, 23 min. read according to Medium, is a tough one, but one we probably all should at least consider, just to stay with the reality-based thinking that will become more and more critical for us all to ground ourselves in as the world gets increasingly phantasmagoric….

 

Relationship as spiritual practice – John Welwood

A few excerpts from a good, but difficult, article published on Lion’s Roar. My wife and I have been reading this, on recommendation of her sister, but I can’t say that we’ve understood it’s application to us personally yet. Perhaps others may find insight into this and be of assistance.

The intro says:

Living with someone we love, with all the joys and challenges, is one of the best ways to grow spiritually. But real awakening only happens, says renowned psychologist John Welwood, in the charnel ground where we acknowledge and work with our wounds, fears, and illusions.

Welwood:

..the ego acts as a survival mechanism for getting needs met while fending off the threat of being hurt, manipulated, controlled, rejected, or abandoned in ways we were as a child. This is normal and totally understandable. Yet if it’s the main tenor of a relationship, it keeps us locked in complex strategies of defensiveness and control that undermine the possibility of deeper connection.

The charnel ground is an ideal place to practice because it is right at the crossroads of life, where one cannot help but feel the rawness of human existence.

The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that if we can work with the “raw and rugged situation” of the charnel ground, “then some spark or sympathy or compassion, some giving in or opening can begin to take place. The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.” This last sentence is a powerful one, for it suggests that awakening happens only through facing the chaos of our neurotic patterns. Yet this is often the last thing we want to deal with in relationships.

Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that our neurosis is built on the fact that:

…large areas of our life have been devoted to trying to avoid discovering our own experience. Now [in the charnel ground, in our relationships] we have a chance to explore that large area which exists in our being, which we’ve been trying to avoid. That seems to be the first message, which may be very grim, but also very exciting. We’re not trying to get away from the charnel ground, we don’t want to build a Hilton hotel in the middle of it. Building the mandala of awakening actually happens on the charnel ground. What is happening on the charnel ground is constant personal exploration, and beyond that, just giving, opening, extending yourself completely to the situation that’s available to you. Being fantastically exposed, and the sense that you could give birth to another world.

 

Fleeing the raw, wounded places in ourselves because we don’t think we can handle them is a form of self-rejection and self-abandonment that turns our feeling body into an abandoned, haunted house.

Intimate personal connecting cannot evolve unless the old love wounds that block it are faced, acknowledged, and freed up.

The only way to be free of our conditioned patterns is through a full, conscious experience of them. ==  …allows you to digest unresolved, undigested elements of your emotional experience from the past that are still affecting you: how you were hurt or overwhelmed, how you defended yourself against that by shutting down, how you constructed walls to keep people out.

As they become willing to face and embrace whatever stands between them—old relational wounds from the past, personal pathologies, difficulties hearing and understanding each other, different values and sensitivities—all in the name of loving and letting be, they are invited to “enter into reality.” Then it becomes possible to start encountering each other nakedly, in the open field of nowness, fresh and unfabricated, the field of love forever vibrating with unimagined possibilities.