Monday, March 15, 2010

A Very Convenient Truth

For my friends who have asked how my road trip is going and whether I have found anything interesting, I would like to share something that I call a very convenient truth.

When I began the cross-country drive almost 3 months ago, I was expecting to learn something, to grow, to discover wisdom for the ages. I had hoped to figure out life, and perhaps return home as some kind of sage. Yes, it would have given me great pleasure to be the illuminated man who walks around and bestows wisdom upon the ignorant.

However, that was not to be.


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What was the point of this journey in the first place? It had something to do with my persistent curiosity about the nature of existence. Questions about life, death, God, morality, and compassion have driven and sometimes overwhelmed me since childhood, and it was only a matter of time before I felt compelled to seek answers through my own personal quest. I foolishly believed I could find those answers by hiking and driving around the country, living out of my car, sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots, and reading books.

As it happened, these experiences actually did lead me to profound insight into the very matters I sought to understand, yet they did not turn me into a sage, nor did they provide me with concrete ideas that I can express in language. Those expectations were born out of naivety, out of a fallacy that sage and fool are two different things, that ideas are separate from experience and must be found, recorded and shared. The insight is experience itself, which keeps happening and evolving, even now as I write this. If I tried to describe it, I would be describing a shallow memory of what it just was, not what it actually is.

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But don't assume that my inability to describe this experience means that it is too vague or abstract to mean anything real. I'm talking about reality itself. I'm talking about finding yourself right now in the middle of doing something, and seeing it clearly. That's all it is, but seeing it has changed my life for the better. Among other things, it's made my life more pleasant and the specter of mortality less terrifying, and for this reason alone I would share it with everyone I know, the same way you want to share a good movie or a good website. It also seems to be a pattern of nature to pass on what you receive.

However, it's impossible to share this insight using words alone. There really is nothing you can say to a person that will make them wiser, nor is there a good reason to make people wiser anyway. All you can do is invite people to seek wisdom for themselves and see if they give it a shot, and that seems to be the attitude of every book I've ever read about spirituality or religion that was worth reading.

So here I recommend a few of the most helpful books I've read for those on the path: "The Book" by Alan Watts, "The Case for God" by Karen Armstrong, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki, "Buddhism Is Not What You Think" by Steve Hagen, and "Freedom from the Known" by Jiddu Krishnamurti. In addition to these, there are the Bibles and teachings of the world's religions, which make much more sense after reading Karen Armstrong's book.

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I only mention these books because they do a better job than I could do of illuminating certain concepts, and those concepts might never cross your mind if you are left alone to your own devices. I don't think anyone should read these books just because they think they should read them. I just mention them, because sometimes you want to read a book like one of these and you don't know which one to pick off the shelf at Borders.

In a similar way, I don't recommend going on a road trip like I'm doing if it isn't something you've wanted to do your whole life. But if it is, or if there is something else that you deeply want to do, that you know you have to do in order to know yourself, then I say you must do that, not because you'll get something out of it, but because it's good to be yourself.

And there I go, trying to act like a sage.


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I often wonder what compels me to interfere with other people's religious beliefs or philosophies. And then I talk to someone, perhaps a stranger, perhaps a friend, and they are miserable or making someone else miserable, and I think, "if only they knew what's really going on..." But if I attempt to explain what's really going on, I always end up muttering incoherently about some tangential issue. The reason is I don't really know what's going on. I don't think anyone ever does. All that happens is, on a good day, I get out of my head and simply experience what's going on.

It's quite silly to try to explain experience to someone. So what is there to say? You can only talk about ideas. You can't create an experience with ideas, but you can create or destroy an idea with other ideas, and this might be useful if there is a particularly harmful idea floating around in people's heads.

Speaking to my friends, I might talk about one such idea. It is an idea that keeps people from experiencing things as they are, an idea that keeps people from sucking the marrow out of life. It is an idea which seems to pervade the lives of many young people I know, an idea that is like a disease of the mind, that causes people to live with constant feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and perhaps hopelessness. That idea is the concept of Something Else.


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It's my opinion that Something Else is a modern problem. At least, it exists in an insidious new form. To see it for what it is, one needs to know that before the problem of Something Else, there was the problem of Some Thing.

Several thousand years ago, a fellow called Buddha observed that people get attached to specific things and this attachment causes great suffering because things are transient. Things go away. They change. They fail. They break. They die. The greater the joy a thing brings you today, the greater the misery its change will bring you tomorrow, which means things are fundamentally inadequate for our deepest needs. When Buddha attained enlightenment, he comprehended the reality outside of things, and he found a source of ultimate freedom and joy. Disciples of Socrates, the early Christians, the mystic Jews, and the early Muslims also had similar insights.

But outside of these groups very few people shared this experience. For most people, there was Some Thing concrete and real, so important that it defined their lives. Its status was their status. In the Western world, that Thing might have been a fixed image of God, the Church, Reason, Art, Society, Family, Love, Sex or Money.

As the modern world progressed, people started to notice and criticize the inadequacy of these Things, the inability of these Things to solve the problems that they were supposed to solve or do the things that they were supposed to do. Traditions fell apart, pillars of thought were deconstructed, and in their place came uncertainty and anxiety. That's the story of modernity and postmodernity and post-postmodernity.

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In the cynicism of the present generation, many people have lost their connection to any particular Thing. We are bombarded with so many conflicting opinions that it's pretty hard to attach to anything without feeling stupid or guilty.

In other words, modern people have discovered the inadequacy of things, but instead of causing enlightenment, this fact causes misery. The reason, I think, is that we haven't broken our habit of attaching to things. Our minds are still grasping even though we can't find anything to grasp. And so, unable to reach for Some Thing because we are so disillusioned with particular things, we reach out for Something Else, and a destructive new habit creeps into our minds like a parasite.

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Grasping for Something Else isn't entirely new. Even in the old paradigm of Some Thing, it has a place in the cycle: You want some Thing to ease your suffering. You struggle for it. You get it. You discover you can't keep it forever. You suffer. So you look for Something Else to ease your suffering, and when you find Some new Thing to seek, the cycle repeats.

What's different about the new paradigm of Something Else is that there's no cycle. At least a cycle would be fun. But our new and improved quest for Something Else is a miserable pool of stagnation in which you are frozen in a state of grasping for something to grasp, but you never really grasp for any new things.

Your whole life is a series of half-assed gestures toward vague goals, goals you don't believe in and can't believe in because you you don't believe in anything specific. But because you vaguely believe in Something Else, you think there must be something out there for you to do, for you to enjoy, for you to have, for you to be. And that slow, sweet poison creeps into your life as you sit idle and rot waiting for that magic Thing to save you, or you desperately flail around in the world hoping to stir up some special attachment to Something that will give your life meaning. But all you manage to do is weave a web of obligations and growing responsibilities for things you never wanted, and the suffering never ends.


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At this point, things seem pretty depressing, especially if you recognize this feeling in your own life. But what's depressing is the fact that a person in this situation is constantly on the verge of enlightenment, but has no idea, and might go through their entire life without discovering the serenity that could be found in plain view at any time.

I say that a person in this situation is on the verge of enlightenment because they are already free from the attachment to specific things. They're almost over the mountain! But the next step is very difficult. The belief in Something Else amounts to an attachment to attachment. How do you give up your attachment to attachment?

Perhaps a better question is, why should you give up your attachment to attachment? You have to answer this question yourself. You have to be very honest with yourself. You have to look at your life, and consider your feelings, and ask yourself whether there is a problem with the way you have approached life, or whether your life is as good as it can be. In other words, are you getting a kick out of life or are you wallowing in cynicism or misery?


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Sometimes the best time to ask this question is the worst time. If you practice meditation, and you're sitting there, and the birds are chirping and it's a beautiful sunny day and you have plenty of time to sit and think about your feelings, it's unlikely that you'll be able to see your real problems. But when you're in the middle of a crisis, you're depressed, nothing seems to mean anything, and you're frantically searching for something to fill the time, stave off the boredom, ease the loneliness, or push away the fear, and you suddenly become aware that that's what you're doing, that can be the best time. That's when you see that the quality of your life is in your hands, not in the hands of Something Else. And what do you do then? How do you go cold turkey with Something Else?

You stop and you admit that there is Nothing Else, and you face that fact, even if it might scare you enough to kill you.

You let every defensive mechanism you've created since childhood pop into your mind and fall apart. It might happen instantly, or it might happen incrementally over years, but eventually that whole network, that whole fortress, will fall down, leaving you standing there as your true self to realize one thing: This Is It. What you're experiencing right now in this moment is all there is for you right now and nothing more, yet it's all you ever need. And you will probably chuckle.

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When that happens, you might feel so elated, and so free that you float around dancing and counting your fingers for the first time since childhood. In all likelihood you could experience a mania like you've never experienced before, and you will have insights of such beauty that they blow your mind and make you cry. You will be certain that you have attained enlightenment.

After a few days, you will lose this feeling, and the ideas will seem hopelessly inadequate. You will spiral into a deep depression, and you will cling to that old feeling and the meaning of those ideas as if your desire could bring them back.

Then, if you stick it out, you will realize that you must give up your attachment to these feelings and these ideas and even enlightenment itself. You will have to start from scratch, climbing out of the hole of attachment, until you once again find the tranquility of Being Here.

Then you'll do it again. And again. Each time you think you've gotten it, that you've grasped the secret, and it comes crashing down, you learn. You learn that understanding the Truth is much harder than understanding an idea, or a thousand ideas. It's unlike any way you've been taught to understand, because it's an understanding you live by then throw away and rediscover, not an understanding you memorize and attach to.

Through trial and error you see what happens when you attach, until finally you are certain that there is nothing lasting to attach to, and you view your own tendency to attach to things the same way you view a river or a butterfly, perhaps with a sense of curiosity, perhaps with a sense of humor, but always with detachment. Then you keep going, because you have true faith. This is not faith in any thing, but faith in the Way.

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It takes this faith to tackle the impossible goal of breaking the final attachment: attachment to the self. I didn't even mention the self before because it's fruitless to try to overcome the self without having made progress over attachment. Attempts to be selfless without understanding the Way lead to greater egoism.

From childhood we've heard people telling us to not be selfish. The result is that we have learned to put on such a convincing charade of selflessness that we sometimes even fool ourselves, but all the while we are reinforcing our notion of self. Being selfish, first and foremost, has nothing to do with sharing or manners or charity. It is a belief. It is the belief that you really exist, that you really are a thing separated from the world, burdened with the responsibility of free will.

In this frame of mind, when you make an effort to act unselfishly, you grow keenly aware that it is you making that effort. When you help someone because you feel guilty, you feel all the more like an isolated individual self in opposition to the world. When you worship God because you fear the fires of hell, you are praying as a paranoid ego.

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Wouldn't it be better to help people just by being yourself and doing the things you naturally do? Wouldn't it be better to worship God out of simple love and appreciation? Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone could just tell you how to do these things naturally?

I'm afraid that at this point, I can't say any more. How a person lets go of cynicism and discovers the way to truly live is a personal journey. But I can say that the path is not a radical one. It doesn't need to be different from the way you live your life now in any major way. The greatest changes are in one's understanding, attitude, and reaction to the little things. All the nuances of who you are -- all of your strengths and weaknesses, all the things that embarrass you and all the things that make you arrogant, all your good and bad relationships and all your emotional baggage -- these things are no longer dead weight that you drag around. These are the raw materials from which you create your life, moment by moment, day after day.

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In this frame of mind, you inevitably discover how interesting, how fresh, how magical it is to be alive. Yes, even being you, boring-ugly-dumb-insecure you, is amazing. At the very least, it is quite nice. I don't want to oversell the Path. It isn't about being happy all the time, or having spiritual orgasms all day long, or turning into a being of pure energy, or using 100% of your brain, or waking up in a pod full of fluid outside of The Matrix. It is about waking up to your ordinary life and seeing the goodness that's always present, but easy to ignore. It might not be glamorous, but it is nice.

You might actually discover yourself -- and I don't mean the lonely, isolated ego that has to defend itself from the world with a cunning plan and a crafted personality, but the being that is so much a part of this world that the boundary between self and world is forgotten and all words and deeds come naturally.

In a nutshell, this is The Very Convenient Truth: there is a deeper understanding of existence, this understanding makes life better no matter who you are, and there is a path to attain this understanding.

So join me!

Join me! Join me on the Path, all ye Way Seekers! Let's find us some wisdom to live by! Let's find us some wisdom for the ages! Come on! Let's go! We can do it!