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.

The Power of Place

I keep meeting people whose life was transformed in Nepal.  What is it about this place?   What triggers change here?

I’m now in the Boudha region of Kathmandu at the stupa, a beautiful mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics.  I’m trying to understand the benefit as I circumambulate this greatly revered stupa with a throng of Tibetans of all ages, many in traditional dress.  We walk clockwise, emulating the movement of the sun across the sky.  It’s a very distracting environment.  Maybe that’s part of the point.  It’s training in being vividly present in the moment, not remembering the past or anticipating the future?  Embracing the moment, not being irritated by folks around?

This morning at breakfast an American at the next table who spends a big part of every day doing prostrations was complaining to an English monk that someone removed the stones from under the plank where he does his prostrations.  There’s a wall round the stupa with many wooden planks between it and the stupa.  People use them for prostrations.  “Why would anyone remove the stones from under my plank?   I’d got it angled perfectly.  And why do all those Tibetans just sit on the planks and chat?  It’s so distracting, so disrespectful.”  I’m pretty sure he’s missing the point.  Maybe it will come to him, though.

Hey, there’s Jampa, one of my classmates last year!  He came here years ago from his home in New Zealand to go mountain biking.  Now he’s a Tibetan Buddhist monk who no longer has a home.   Last year he’d just come from a long stay at a monastery in Colorado.  I wonder where he’s been this year?  I speed up and join him.  “Hi Jampa.  Great to see you.  Are you coming to this year’s class?”  “No, I don’t know yet what I’m going to be doing.”  I almost ask why he’s here but that’s probably a bigger question than he can answer.  I ask instead what is the benefit of circumambulating the stupa?  “It has great power,” he says. “We get benefit just by being here.”  “Even if we’re just chatting while we walk?”  “Yes.  But there’s more benefit depending on our intention.  Also, it helps to chant mantras.”  “Most people doing that are doing it silently.”  “That’s OK.”

We walk on with everyone else circling the stupa.  It’s still quite early so there are not many tourists.  Some of the Tibetans are chatting animatedly, many are walking silently.  In both cases they’re counting their chants on a string of beads in their left hand.  A few are twirling a prayer wheel, an ornate cylinder that turns on a stick.  Inside the cylinder is a scroll filled with the mantra Om Mani Madme Hum, the aspiration for compassion.  It’s said that each revolution has the same effect as saying the words aloud as many times as they’re written on the scroll, so the more mantras are inside a prayer wheel, the greater the benefit.  The effect is enhanced by simultaneously chanting the mantra with the profound aspiration to attain perfect wisdom in order to free every sentient being permanently from suffering.  It’s a means of training the mind.

Rene, my Mexican classmate  this year who dresses entirely in black and has long black hair and a bushy black beard was instructed by his Tibetan guru to memorize a mantra created especially for his benefit and circumambulate the stupa chanting it as loudly as he could.  He was puzzled by the reaction.  At last a young Tibetan asked if he knew what he was saying.  “No, I don’t know Tibetan.  My guru taught it to me.”  “I think I should tell you what you are saying.”  “Thank you.”  “You are shouting, ‘I am a black man with a very big dick’.”  I’ve met Rene’s guru.  I don’t understand his trick on Rene soon after he arrived but his deep insight and caring are unmistakable.  Rene came to Kathmandu for a month before college and stayed two years.  What he met here led him to other places then he came back.  Now it looks like he’s here for good.

I don’t know what to make of the power of place.  It’s very significant to animists.  Dhiren, our Nepali trek crew boss, is always respectful of places where devis live, the spirits that protect villages but are wrathful if disturbed.  He knows the kinds of places they tend to be and always makes sure we also behave respectfully.  Temples are considered by all religions to have powerful effects.  Feng Shui has spread to the West.  The power of place is recognized in all cultures.  I’d never really thought about it though.  I dismissed it as an obvious delusion.  What would be the origin and nature of such power?

I’m still skeptical about the power of place but I do know we can train our mind.  If we expect training to work better in a particular place, presumably it will.    But change happens to many people who come to Nepal with no expectation.  It just seems to happen.  Maybe geography and cumulative past behaviors form a feedback loop here?

The Massacre and the Ball-hitch

The media is hyperventilating about a not very interesting massacre in Colorado.  Here’s a more interesting story about a ball-hitch in Maine.

Of course the massacre is horrifying.  It’s terrible for everyone involved.  I wish there would never be another one.  But it’s not very interesting because massacres do occur every so often.  Perhaps they would happen less often if our weapons laws and enforcement were changed.  But whether or no, they are rare events that happen not only in the USA and that reveal little or nothing about our culture.  My experience with the ball-hitch, however, is symptomatic of a profound cultural difference between Maine where I live now and southwest Connecticut where I came from.

Here’s the story: I went to a huge hardware store to rent a log-splitter.  We did the paperwork, then the man asked if I had a 2-inch ball on my van.  I didn’t remember its size so we went to look.  “One and seven-eighths,” he said.  As I started thinking if I had a wrench in the van or would I need to buy one as well as a 2-inch ball, the man went into the warehouse saying, “I think I’ve got one here somewhere.”   He didn’t see one immediately.  “I’ve got one on my truck,” he said, walked off, replaced mine with his and gave me mine.  He’d already gone home when I brought the splitter back the next day.  He hadn’t told the guy who took over from him to get his ball-hitch.  He assumed I would give it back because that’s what folks do here.  I won’t say something like this would never happen where I lived before but it would be a big surprise.  It would have been more likely when I moved there in 1970 but still surprising.

It would not be very interesting if this was an unusual event but in fact, it’s so commonplace that only a newcomer would notice.  There’s a letter from another recent immigrant to Maine in today’s newspaper.  She misjudged the turn into a fish shop shortly before it closed, hit the curb and blew out her tire.  Shaken by the blast of adrenaline, she went into the shop to get her fish before calling a tow-truck.  “I’ll have to stop and serve any customers who come in,” said the young man behind the counter who had heard the tire burst, “but I could change your wheel if you’d like.”   The shop owner came while he was doing that and told the fellow to go back in the shop.  The woman knew she was now on her own but no, the owner took off his jacket and finished the job.  Neither of them would take any money.

It’s fascinating to consider what may contribute to this distinctive aspect of Maine’s culture.  It would make a big difference if we could establish it everywhere.