TCN, Episode 5 – Gas and China

Oct 27 – Violent protests in southern Nepal continue along with the blockade.  The border can only be policed at major road crossings so men are still bringing food in by bicycle the same way they always do, but fuel tankers and trucks with raw materials can and are being blocked.

Only about 10% of the usual gasoline is coming in.  Black market gasoline bought for 100 rupees per liter and brought in small containers from India sells for anywhere up to 1,000 in Kathmandu.

Occasional trucks come in with cooking gas.  People queue for days on rumors of a delivery. [photo: Nepal Mountain News]


But a neighbor of my friend Nagendra showed him how, if you are well connected,  you can drive to the back of the depot and get as many tanks as you want.

A few black market tanks brought in from India by bicycle are selling for 8,000 rupees or more versus the usual 1,450.  Everyone assumes the illustration below shows the source of all the others.

Nepal Cooking Gas

Industrial activity ceased almost three months ago.  Factory workers aren’t getting paid, customs revenue is down 27% this quarter, VAT is down 16% and bank lending has stopped.

Life is growing a lot harder for all but the wealthy or well-connected few.  Doma’s grandmother has no cooking gas left and must pay heavily for wood from the jungle.  Yubhan Tamang in the picture below in the kitchen at Bir Hospital, one of the busiest in Nepal, has been cooking with firewood for around 300 patients daily for a month and a half. [Photo: Gopen Rai]

Cooking with Wood

This is the time of Nepal’s great annual festival.  Visiting friends and family is a big part of the celebration but people are not doing it this year because they would have to be offered food and hot drinks.

The economy will be devastated if the blockade and strike continue.  Some private sector leaders are calling for the government to issue a White Paper at least saying what they propose to do.

China has made Nepal a gift of several tanker loads of gasoline, seeking to increase their already growing influence here.  They will stop at the border where Nepal’s political leaders insist the gasoline must be transferred into Nepalese tankers.  Only small tankers can be used because the roads on this side of the border are so poor.

Many Nepalis have fallen for the government’s claim that embracing China’s friendship will propel Nepal rapidly into great prosperity, the end of all problems.  Geography in the form of the Himalayas makes that unlikely.  70% of Nepal’s international trade is with India.  The US is its second biggest trade partner at 7% and China is 6th at 2%.  The explanation?  Transportation costs.

China will not make the investment to supply Nepal with large amounts of gasoline on a regular basis unless the cost of gasoline from India is raised to equal its cost from China.  If India’s gasoline is cheaper, China’s will have no market.

Nepal could equalize the costs by increasing  customs duties on gasoline from India.  That would have the side-effect of benefiting the politicians.  It would also seriously hurt the people.  I’m not betting against it because it’s impossible to overestimate the systemic corruption here.

TCN, Episode 4 – Momos and Missionaries

Oct 26 – I’m downstairs as usual this evening in the restaurant at Ti-Se Guest House, my Tibetan Buddhist home during my classes.   Tibetan butter tea is already purifying (hah!) my bloodstream and my veg momos have just arrived.

Momos alone at Ti-Se

The momos are perfect!  As I savor them, five young Nepalis come in with an elderly Korean man and two middle-aged Korean women.  The young Nepalis start talking enthusiastically about a Christian seminar they’ve been attending.  After listening to them with a smile for five or ten minutes, the kind-looking Korean man ceremoniously places a $100 bill in front of each of them.

The conversation continues.  I’m not really listening but I hear mention of David from South Carolina.   Maybe he is one of the three groups of Americans who were here for breakfast on different days last week. They were from the South.

The first group was obsessed with football results back home.  Very loudly obsessed.  I was distressed by their sense of entitlement about dominating the room.

It was only when one responded truculently to being asked what he would do after breakfast by saying he would go to his room and read his bible that their purpose became apparent.  Perhaps they were being careful?  Nepal’s new Constitution makes it illegal to attempt to convert anyone to another religion.

I was pleased they were not around the next day.  Breakfast was peaceful again.  But later that week there was a new group.  Their breakfast conversation was all about the logistics of their plan to spread the gospel here.  They spoke quite loudly making no effort to hide why they are here.

And at the end of the week a third group appeared.  I didn’t pay much attention to them because the presence of Christian missionaries no longer seemed surprising.  It did seem odd that they would all have chosen to stay in a Tibetan Buddhist guesthouse, though.

I asked my Nepali classmate about Christian missionaries.  A few used to come alone or in pairs but more come now, often in groups.  They give money, especially to the poorest who are happy to call themselves Christians to get money.  Nepali culture strongly encourages behaving respectfully to anyone who might give you something .

Then as I walked to my class yesterday morning I realized that Nepalis roaring down the narrow passageways on motorbikes honking at pedestrians also have that sense of entitlement.  My embarrassment about the behavior of my fellow Americans was misjudged.  Furthermore, I recognized the mote in my own eye — prejudice about missionaries.

Where does that prejudice come from?  There’s a story I tell myself.  It’s about people who tell others what to believe.  “This man seized on a concept about his own existence” I say to myself, “and now he’s trying to get others to believe it, too, to make himself feel more safe.”

It is wrong to use power over others.  It’s a form of violence.  But my story about “the kind of people who” means I see a concept of missionaries not real ones.  I make a judgment about them for which I have no evidence and which will in any case, simply because it is a judgment, cause me to act badly.

And last night I encountered my own sense of entitlement.  A mosquito was buzzing round my head as I lay in bed.  From lifelong habit, I felt entitled to kill it.  But I’m a Buddhist now.  I’ve vowed never to do violence even to insects.

I tried to think it through.  The mosquito had to bite me to get its food and that would cause me discomfort.  It would be impossible for me to drive it away and even if I could, it would go on to bite someone else.  My choice, then, was either to end the mosquito’s life or suffer short-lived discomfort.

What I should do was obvious, and I had anyway committed myself to that choice.  But even after I saw the decision clearly, I still kept having to arrest my lunging hand as it tried to end the annoyance.  At last I went to sleep.  Surprisingly, there was no sign of biting when I woke this morning.

Sad to say, I just ate the last momo and the Tibetan tea is finished.  The Korean man went to his room a while ago.  All the others just left with elaborate good byes.  I go to the front desk and ask the young woman if the missionary groups are associated with each other.  They’re not.  The Korean man was giving a week long training class to Christian Nepalis who will spread the gospel.  The loud Americans have gone on a trek.  She doesn’t know what the others are doing now but they all booked separately.

Why can’t we just all agree, I think to myself, to give up violence, stealing and lying?  Why do we have to have all this divisive extra stuff?  Then I remember what I’m struggling to learn in these classes, such complicated visualizations, chanting and whatnot.

It’s easy enough to know that killing and so forth is negative but it’s very hard to stop doing such things.  That’s why we need training programs.

TCN, Episode 3 – Metaphysics and Quantum Physics

Oct 20 – The cook is missing. “He come five or ten minutes.”  But in Nepal that’s an aspiration, not something to depend on.  I do need breakfast — I just had to make a new hole in my belt.  Less food, no meat or beer while I’m receiving teachings, it always surprises me how fast the result comes.

But results from classes come much more slowly.  Tibetan Buddhism is an enormous range of training programs among which we search for one that resonates.  Then we must do it, over and over and over again.  They all have the same purpose, to help us grow more kind.

We have so many ideas and habitual responses, and because we misunderstand the basic reality of existence, our ideas are misguided.  That’s why we keep creating suffering.  The only way to stop that is to recognize then discard our delusions and habits.

I can’t say what I’m learning in these classes because I don’t understand it well enough yet, but I will in another post say how ritual practices work, including the role of the dough statues (torma).

For now, I’ll just introduce our teachers, Lama Sherab, whose teaching is so clear, Ani Laura, whose translation makes them that way, and our so skillful and patient torma teacher.

My Teachers

The mental clouds parted for an instant just now.  Such a blessing!  I glimpsed reality not obscured by concepts but as it really is.  So hard to communicate such glimpses though, because no matter how skillfully words try to point toward reality, what they bring to mind is concepts.

I’ll try to show what I recognized.  Nothing we can observe has a fixed intrinsic nature.  Everything is composed of smaller parts that came together and everything we can observe is changing.  Each of us is changing in every instant but because we have what we think of as a personality, a unique face and so on, we imagine we have an unchangeable core that is not made up of parts.

I remember the scary suspicion in my late teens that my personality was fake, that I was fabricating it from no real base.  When suspicion turned to certainty, I told myself it was a good thing because I could choose what to become — a businessman, a good man, maybe both and more!

But, self-centered as I was, it never occurred to me that nobody else had an intrinsic nature either.  I wasn’t ready for Buddhism fifty years ago.  I was for Physics but it was not taught well at my school.  I knew e=mc2 but had no sense of the implications.

Energy and matter are different manifestations of the same thing.  That’s the step I didn’t take to see the true nature of the world.

Our sensory apparatus and brain provide us with the experience of matter.  It’s only if we change focus that we can recognize the other view, that there is nothing other than the flow of energy that manifests to us primarily as matter, things we can see and touch.  What is this galaxy; matter or energy?


Our body, the vehicle for our life journey, is the manifestation of a highly complex and ever changing flow of energy.  It is nothing but energy flowing within a gargantuan ever changing energy field.

What I think of as “me” is a locus of awareness in an energy field like the weather system.  The air is still where I am now but there was a breeze at the monastery.  Further north it’s snowing but it never snows here because the conditions are different.  The weather is changing in every instant everywhere, but within limits created by conditions that change more slowly.  Changes in the world in which the weather changes trigger more changes.  The interplay of flowing forces shapes their flow.

That’s how it is with you, me, with everything that appears to be a thing.  The appearances are real, but they appear as they do only because our mind works that way.  They have no intrinsic nature.  It’s just our concept that they do, and that they are separate from each other.

When we reach that understanding, we feel compassion for all the suffering that results from misunderstanding.  We want to bring it to an end.  That’s not a response from logic, it’s just what happens.   Interacting with people who do a lot of this training, I’ve seen it to be inevitable.  People who train diligently just do grow more happy and kind.  That’s why I know it’s worth persisting.

Brain Scan

Look at the energy flowing in that brain!  It is part of the universal energy field and somehow cognizing the flow.  Like the butterfly whose flapping wings spark a tornado, its every action is shaping the future.

Ah, breakfast has arrived. The cook never did, so others took over.  He’s probably celebrating Dashain, the big annual festival.

Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 1

I was going to call these posts “Chaos in Nepal” but that implies chaos is unusual here.

Oct 2 – Doma’s mom meets me at the airport in a taxi and we speed off to where I’ll stay until classes start.  There’s so little traffic!  That’s because almost no gasoline is coming from India.

What damage was done by the earthquakes?  I see no damaged buildings on the way from the airport.  Most buildings in Kathmandu are relatively new reinforced concrete post and beam construction with three floors or less and most of them survived with at worst a few cracks in the single layer brick walls or the ground floor.  This undamaged one is getting an additional story.

Post and Beam

But it’s very different in the villages higher up.  Most houses there have traditional wood frames and mud walls.  Almost every building in Doma’s grandmother’s village was destroyed.

I check in to the Tibetan-operated Ti-Se Guest House then walk over to the great stupa.  The top must be rebuilt but the buildings around all seem OK.  People are walking reverently round the stupa as usual, and the pigeons are being fed.

Boudha 1

Boudha 3

A blind Sherpa with his Tibetan style guitar in one of the side roads is singing that all of us are in the light while he is in darkness.  He seems accepting.

Sherpa Singer

Oct 7 –  The kitchen is dark when I come downstairs for my dinner of steamed veg. momos (similar to Chinese dumplings) and Tibetan butter tea — it’s not a conscious decision: I just don’t eat meat while I’m here for Buddhist teachings.

I assume it’s dark because hydro plants that accounted for 12% of Nepal’s theoretical capacity were knocked out by the earthquakes and will not be repaired soon.  The rainy season only just ended and there’s already no electricity 8 hours a day. There’ll be none for 16 hours a day when the rivers run low a few months from now.

The young woman at the front desk says the generator will be started soon and takes my order, then we chat.  She recently got a psychology degree in India and very much wants to help women and children here.  Mental illness is very stigmatized in Nepal, though, so how to start?  She will try offering counseling to schoolchildren without pay for a few months to demonstrate the value.

She says Nepal is a mess that’s growing rapidly worse, which makes it all the more urgent to help.   She is especially troubled that people now identify themselves by their religion and regard followers of other religions as enemies.

There has been no progress on the blockade. Private citizens can’t buy gas at all now, taxis get 10 liters per week, microbuses 15 liters every other day.  The politicians are doing nothing but jostle for position in the next government.  They say they can’t do anything because there isn’t yet a government, they were only elected to develop the Constitution.  Meanwhile, the shortage of daily essentials is fast growing worse.  I’d be worried about rioting but Nepalis are all too used to suffering.


Happy Birthday Every Day

I was both born and met my death on April 20, 1970.  It also happened on March 25, 1944 when I separated from my mother’s body.  It is happening again in this very moment.

Our universe is energy, in no way fixed, an endless, glorious play of energy.

None of the universe’s energy is created or destroyed.  It simply changes.   That is the first law of thermodynamics.  All energy is conserved.

Physicists have measured the conservation of energy.  It is absolutely consistent across all space and time.

So, along with everything else, what I think of as “me” disappears and is reborn in every instant.  The waves of energy that appeared as “me” when I typed “in every instant” have already changed shape and direction.

Mostly, we notice only the dramatic changes.  Perhaps for a moment we feel the beauty of a flower.  But we do not recognize that our mind-body is always changing.

All the energy that manifested as “me” when I landed in New York forty five years ago remains in this world even though much of it is no longer part of “me”.  Every wave of energy that encountered “me” changed “me”.  The path of every wave that met “me” was changed by the encounter.

How to sense this fundamental truth?  I think of the weather.

The entire weather system is interconnected.  It has no fixed borders yet it is different everywhere and always changing.  The sun is rising in a clear sky above Brunswick Maine this morning.   Yesterday at this time it was gray, windy and raining.  Rain is falling in other places right now.

Tiny actions like the flap of a butterfly’s wing engage with powerful winds that arise seasonally as the positions of the Earth and Sun change.  So many factors change the flow of energy that we experience as weather.

We humans manifest in the same way as weather, all different, all part of the same system, not remaining exactly the same even for a moment.  And, like the butterfly drying its wings, our every action changes the entire energy flow.

Perhaps some of the energy that now creates the appearance of “me” will later join other waves of energy in a summer monsoon to nourish rice in India.  Perhaps a grandchild of a child waking up now in Brunswick, Maine will enjoy some of that rice.  The play of energy makes anything and everything possible.

Our intellect can’t quite understand how our “self” can be imaginary yet cognizant, imaginary but able to choose how it nudges the energy in which it appears.  I’ve learned not to worry about that.

Intellect is what gives us the opportunity to deploy our kindness intelligently.  Becoming better able to do that is my birthday wish.

The Practice of Generosity

Could I do a good enough job asking for donations for Doma’s college education?  I’d never done anything like it before.  I knew she would get some of what she needs because I have such good-hearted friends, but how much?

Doma is amazed that fully four fifths of the total has already been given!  She needs only $5,000 more for her first year at Hampshire College.

But what’s left now is the hard part.

We get so many appeals and we can’t give to them all.  Worse, we’re usually too busy when an appeal arrives to figure out if it’s worthy of support.  Will this appeal really make a difference?

Yes!  Doma, an amazing young low-caste Nepali woman, is transforming her own future.   All she needs from us is 50 more supporters to donate $100.

Most of us could do that very easily.  Five $20 bills don’t buy much any more.  Many of us buy $100 items online without hesitation.

So the fact that Doma still needs those donations means I must do a better job.

Maybe it’s time for crowd-funding, aiming to reach people I don’t know?  Certainly, when Doma is here, she can give traditional Nepali dance performances at fund-raisers.

But how much more powerful for Doma if her education sponsor’s friends support her completely even before they’ve met her.  Let’s raise the rest of what she needs for her first year right now.

I never asked you for anything like this before so you know it’s important even if you don’t have time to read what makes it so.   Is there a $100 meal or some other luxury you could forgo?

If you are blessed in this way, help Doma transform her future by clicking here to donate that $100 now.  It takes only a moment.  Ask your friends to do it, too.

Thank you and bless you!




Chaos Theory and What we Do

We’re raised to believe chaos is a bad thing, a state of disorder.  “Your room is a mess, it’s in chaos, clothes everywhere, everything filthy!”   But recent scientific discoveries shed new light on chaos.  We now know how deterministic systems like the weather can produce unpredictable behavior, a situation we think of as chaotic.

This discovery re-frames causality, the old debate about free will or determinism.  A deterministic system is one where the result of every cause is inevitable.  That seems to imply the system can only develop in one way so we could forecast its state perfectly at any future time.  Why, then, can we not predict the weather two weeks, two months or two years out?  Because very small changes can have very big results.

Chaos theory is known as the butterfly effect after a 1972 paper by Edward Lorenz: Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”  What Lorenz showed is that a flapping wing, a tiny change in a big system, can trigger a chain of events that lead to large-scale phenomena.  If the butterfly had not flapped its wings in Brazil, the system could have developed in a vastly different way.

Chaos theory does not say if we can or can not choose what we do, it does show that a tiny good act could nudge the system of behaviors and results in which we live toward an immensely happier state.  Or the reverse.  Our tiniest actions, a little bit bad, uncaring, or a little bit good could lead to results of unimaginable scope and power.  We don’t have to know whether humankind has free will, we do now know it matters very much what we do.

What should we do then?  I’m beginning to realize I completely misunderstood Eastern thinking about what to do.  They teach acceptance.  What do they mean by that?  Raised in the West, I  understood acceptance to imply an uncaring, uninvolved, inactive stance.  After quite a bit of study and reflection I realize Buddhists understand acceptance very differently; seeing things as they really are and taking action that really is helpful.

What does it mean to “see things as they really are”?  What we “see” is our interpretation of phenomena via concepts we trust.  That’s essential in many situations.  When we’re driving and we see a red traffic light, that small red signal triggers the appropriate response.  The triggered response can also be useful even when a signal is falsely interpreted.   If the tree stump that quick-matched my concept really had been a robber, my response would have been appropriate.

But there can be great harm when we “see” people behave in ways that we interpret via concepts.  Nothing like the tree stump will appear to reveal our mistake.  The wealthy-looking man will continue to look industrious and trustworthy, the raggedy one unambitious and maybe a free-loader or dangerous.  We will act toward them based on our concept and the harm will increase because we will keep “seeing” what we expect to see and reinforcing it by acting as we always do when that’s what we “see”.

I’m also realizing the definition I grew up with is fundamentally different from the Buddhist understanding of “perfect” and how Buddhist “perfect” relates to “acceptance”.   To a Buddhist, “perfect” is not a value judgment just acknowledgment that the situation at any instant is complete.  “Acceptance” means we don’t waste time and energy wishing it was some other way.  It can at this instant be no other way, it has been “perfected”.

“Seeing” is also related to “Acceptance”.  It requires training (or sudden insight) so, with undistorted awareness and acceptance of the situation, we know what really is most beneficial to do.    As chaos theory explains, we might at any moment take some small action that would nudge our fellow beings toward enormously greater happiness.

“Identity” is also related to “chaos”, “causality” and “seeing”.  What we “see” as a tornado is phenomena solidified into a concept.  It has no fixed identity.  It’s more a force than what we see and hear of dust, broken fragments of houses, and maybe Dorothy and her dog.  They’re just bits and pieces, not the essence of a thing.  What we seem to hear and feel are not an object but the manifestation of a collection of forces.  The collection would be better named by a verb, not a noun.  It’s an ever-changing aggregate of forces picking up an ever-changing collection of objects composed, if we look closely, of tinier and tinier particles.

A tornado is a different thing in the next moment, and a tiny change in what led it to appear here and now could have led to something utterly different.  It’s the same with beings.  If any one of so many small things had gone a different way, I would not exist, and any tiny change later could have led me to do entirely things with very different effects.

It is more accurate to consider tornadoes and people as processes than things, ever-changing aggregates that manifest in ways only chaos theory illuminates.

“If You Really Want to End Suffering,

it’s very simple,” Shugen Sensei told us at the start of our week of Zen Buddhist meditation: “Stop creating it.”  I’ll come back to that in a moment.  Just notice he did not say it’s easy.

Thinking why I blog reminded me of what Steve Jobs said is the secret to product development “Start somewhere”.  Just starting has always been my path.  Only later, sometimes much later, if what I started still feels worth doing, do I try to understand why.  The urge to figure out the why of Himalayan exploration, Buddhist practice, economic and governance research and blogging has now arrived.   To my surprise, it centers on ending suffering.

It all started ten years ago in the Himalayan mountains.  It wasn’t my idea to go there and I had no specific objective.  What happened was I found myself among people who appeared to be living with dignity, not aggressively, not hurriedly, and happily without the nice things we take for granted.  Could it be true?  Did they have a recipe my society might learn from?  So I kept going back.

I began to wonder if Buddhism was part of the recipe.   When we visited Buddhist temples our crew always lit lamps and prostrated.  But later, when we visited Hindu temples and the dwelling places of animist spirits, they showed reverence there, too.  I’d done some Buddhist reading by that time and was trying to meditate.  That’s why I went to the Zen monastery.

By the end of the first day I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake.  It was so hard to do nothing, sit completely still, just notice my thoughts, make no judgments, not reject or follow them.   By the end of the day I was exhausted although I’d “done” nothing.  I fell instantly asleep.  In the morning I thought, “I’ll see how it goes until breakfast”.   After breakfast I thought, “I’ll see if I can hang on ’til lunch”.  At day’s end I thought, “Maybe day three will be better“.   It was worse.  Day four was a little better, though, and so it went.  I’d suffered a lot by the end of the week but I’d also had glimpses of the truth of what Shugen Sensei told us at the start.  I was bringing my suffering onto myself.  That felt worth knowing.

Before I could go to the Himalayas I’d forced myself to retire.  It was hard because from then on, investments would have to support us.  With more time to worry, I realized my ignorance of how the economy works meant I had little confidence we’d made good investments.  So, when I wasn’t in the Himalayas I studied investment and economic theory.  The Great Recession arrived just as I was starting to feel I had the theories sufficiently clear.

Now I had to understand why our economy collapsed.  I studied governance and saw some parallels with the paralysis of government in Nepal.  That’s when I started blogging.  The US economy is embedded in the global economy.  There are so many moving parts in the system.  I had to start recording facts and analyses to get a holistic picture.  Charts and writing are my best tools for thinking and I hoped for critical feedback.

It’s only recently that I began to sense all these activities are related and they all start where Shugen Sensei was pointing.  They’re all aimed at happiness and stopping the creation of suffering.

The historical Buddha taught that we will only become truly happy when we work to end the suffering of others.  It must be so because we are not separate from others.  If they are unhappy we will also be made unhappy.  Communities were small two and a half thousand years ago.  People made each other happier or not with face to face interactions.   Today we also interact via nation-state and global systems that impact both us and future generations.  That’s why I care about governance.

A Semi-Wrathful Frog

Frogs are not cuddly but each could be a prince.  Today, the transformation is triggered by a princess’s kiss.  In Grimm’s version it’s when the princess disgustedly throws the frog against a wall.  In other cases the frog had only to spend a night on the princess’s pillow.

Setting fable aside, a sad fact about frogs is that one sitting in a pan of water will not notice the gradual change if the water is heated.  It will remain unaware until it dies.

A frog that touches hot water, however, will immediately jump away from the danger.  I say this because although no form of attention from a princess will transform me into a prince, I do try to notice and point out water that’s getting hotter.

A couple of days ago, someone I greatly respect asked: “Your posts seem a bit angry; do you feel that way?”  I was surprised.   “I don’t think so…  I hope not…  Hmmm, I do see what you mean.  Maybe they do sound that way.  It’s true that I very much want some things to change.”

My posts are on disparate topics but most are sparked when I notice something and feel like a frog sensing hot water.  Wanting to alert my neighbors to the danger, I probably would be semi-wrathful.

What does semi-wrathful mean?  Tibetan Buddhists use images of deities with peaceful, wrathful and semi-wrathful appearance.  Meditating on them helps practitioners see the origin of their emotional habits and misguided concepts as they work to slowly gain control of their mind.

These deities do not experience emotion as we do.  They do not feel attracted, repelled or indifferent.  They simply recognize what is good and not good behavior, speech and thoughts.

Peaceful deities help calm the crazy spinning of the mind.  Wrathful deities help destroy its passions, anger, desire and indifference.  Semi-wrathful deities help those of us who sometimes need gentle calming and sometimes more urgency to do better.

Aspiring to be a semi-wrathful frog is better than the goal many of us are given, to be lion king of the jungle.  That has three defects — lions do not live in the jungle, it is not possible to control the jungle, and above all, it’s selfish.

Selfishness makes everyone unhappy.

Mr. Ego and I Went Into a Bar

Actually not.  What happened is I woke up as always in a 5-star hotel with my eyes able to see such beautiful things, my nose sensing such wonderful fragrances and my fingers able to do oh, so many things.  But I’d forgotten where I was, and who I was.  Also, I had a roommate, Mr. Ego, who was anxious about that and in response had so many ideas for things we could do.

Harold, John and Kristin wrote fascinating comments on “We Are Not Alone”, my post about the sense of self.   Harold’s begins: “When I meditate I realize that the thoughts that flow through my head are simply thoughts. Who notices those thoughts? The part of me (I call it my core) that notices those thoughts I feel is the real me.”  That reminded me of Anam Thubten’s metaphor above where Mr. Ego keeps distracting “me” from reality.  Harold goes on to explain how reflecting on the difference between his core and his thoughts enabled him to: “make perhaps the most profound and fundamental change in my life”.  It’s an inspiring example of the benefit of this kind of practice.

What Harold experiences as his core seems to be what Buddhists term cognizant awareness.  Its existence can be pointed out with words but it can’t be adequately described or explained.  We can recognize the experience, however, because it is our fundamental nature.  I’ve met enough extraordinarily happy and kind people who trained themselves to recognize that awareness so I’m sure it’s true.  I need to do as they did because my cognizant awareness is still obscured by the relentless activity of my thought-making heap, Mr. Ego.

What I imagine to be “me” feels like an ever-changing heap of habitual responses that in varying combinations keep being re-enacted in response to new experiences.  I have a sense of continuity, that there is a “me” at the center, because repetition causes the individual habitual thoughts to gain or lose strength slowly and new habits get added at a relatively low rate. What happens from time to time, though, is like what happens to sand piles.  Some habits get aligned, so to say, along fault lines.  When an experience that would usually have little effect hits the fault line and triggers an avalanche, “me” does seem to change.

John describes: “a thought experiment where I gradually eliminate all elements of what forms my awareness of “me” […] sight doesn’t exist. No hearing or concept of hearing. […] no memory […] What is left? […] the me that used all my bodily functions to perceive “the world”, still seems to “be”, but in a timeless awareness.”

Maybe, John says: “there is really only one “us”, but many entities animated by the one “us”” and: “if there were a being who created us […] for a purpose, […] these perceived multiple individualities might be to help us to develop a personal awareness of the effects of Evil since we would be experiencing both the performance of evil actions and the effects we perpetrate on our “selves”.  Perhaps it’s part of a long term education in how to be a truly rational and compassionate being.”

I do not sense the existence of a causal being but I have come to see our situation as a long term training program in compassion.  The existence or not of a Creator feels unimportant for two big reasons.  One is that it doesn’t help with the fundamental mystery.  If the universe was created by a Supreme Being, what created that Being?  Much more importantly, followers of all traditions, including Tibetan Buddhism in which there is no Creator, agree that by training to see things as they really are, we inevitably become more happy and more kind.  If all paths lead toward that goal it isn’t important which one we take, only that we take one.

The more I examine it the more it looks like my heap of habitual responses is not separate but part of the heaps of everyone I’ve ever interacted with and those with whom they interacted.    We are in separate bodies but we operate as a unity.  Like John, I’m concerned that may sound: “strange and mystical and off-putting” because my supreme trust is in logic.  The thing is, it’s logical that our suffering results from our awareness being obscured by our habitual thoughts and emotional responses and how they interact among us.

My academic training was in physics and English literature.  I was at the time also fascinated by philosophy and theater but pretty much abandoned them soon after because it seemed they could have no practical result.  I always retained my interest in how things work physically and how we communicate.  What John terms “the oneness or not of us”  and Harold is aware of as his “core” will likely remain a mystery to me because they seem beyond the reach of intellect.  But not beyond the reach of experience.  I’ll keep working on experiencing cognizant awareness.

I don’t know enough to respond to John’s comments about Hinduism or the Abrahamic or other religions.  I will at some point write about size, structure and longevity of religious, secular and government organizations.  In every case, they have enormous impact on the results organizations achieve.

Kristin recasts my dad’s words, writing:  “What if “Be like THAT, then” were a call to be with (or like) whatever we are experiencing in the moment?  Be like that bowl slipping down and spilling over, be like that bird in the tree chirping, be like that rock sitting on the beach.  A call to “be here now” as opposed to a humorously paranoid “the world’s out to get me.”

That’s a great example of how we can reprogram ourselves.  Noticing our habitual thoughts is the first step but what next?  Bringing them into the light cuts their power but not instantly.  Often-repeated ones build up a lot of power.  Mental judo, rethinking them with a positive message, is a good way to wear them down.  They will in the end fade away now you notice them but in the meantime their power will be less harmful.

I highly recommend reading Harold, John and Kristin’s comments and ask you to add your own.