Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Modest Proposal

A friend and I have been talking over the last few days about personal power. Specifically, the discussion was about that maddening feeling we get when faced with people who seem perfectly able to claim all lordly rights to exist in the world, when many of us are meek and subservient to the point near invisibility.

There’s a perfectly good case to be made that the meek of the earth can and should reclaim what is rightfully theirs—to stand up in the face of the egotistical energy hogs who seem to regard it as their place in the world to be served by others.

As a recovering doormat myself, I most certainly am part of this club. Surely this is responsible, after all, to stand up for oneself, to take no crap, to insist on being treated with equal respect. Psychologists, spiritual advisors, and intelligent people of all kinds tell us that this is the way to be.

Gradually, though, something has been whispering to me that this stance, defensible though it is, isn’t exactly the path to happiness.

Sure, there is a kind of relative happiness that occurs when you’ve earned the respect of family and peers, when you feel parity with others. I have known this happiness, have earned it through hard work. But this sometimes strikes me as a kind of hollow, runner up award.

I’m just slightly embarrassed to say this, but the fact of the matter is that at times of real, genuine, transcendental happiness…

I don’t feel powerful at all. I feel powerless.

I can feel the derision arising out there, but let me elaborate.

When I’m genuinely happy, I don’t feel that I’m in possession of personal power at all. Instead, I feel that I’m just a willing servant to some kind of natural energy, playing out in a natural plot. This energy really has no interest in the personal needs or wants of myself or anyone else, for that matter. It’s friendly to me only to the degree that I live in accord with it. It’s my delusion to imagine that such power can belong to me, to you, or to any individual at all. It is a delusion that makes me unhappy. I’m happy when I move myself into alignment with the cosmic plan; I’m always unhappy if I’m pleading with it to bend to my wishes.

I’m all too aware that this is utterly illogical, and that it places me at odds with modern humanism, which believes only in the god of Self.

But I just can’t ignore my own experience. There is enormous freedom in smallness, because being free of self can do nothing else but make you one with the universe. You can’t get any bigger than that, nor any freer.

Let the games begin.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Good Karma for Modern Folks

For modern Buddhists, karma isn’t so much a theory of multiple lifetimes over eons as it is a model explaining the psychological cycles we go through in daily life—the pattern of making the same decisions, having similar experiences, over and over again. On a practical level, this view of karma can give a model for understanding our perpetual cycle of bad habits and repeated thought processes. Karrma isn’t played out over multiple lifetimes, but many times a day, even from moment to moment.

In this modern view, the human experience of the work, the steps in the karmic cycle, go something like this:

Forms arise in our various human sensory faculties. Through eyes, vision arise. Through ears, sounds take form; through skin, touch sensations arise. Though the tongue, tastes; through the nose, smells; through the brain, thoughts.

This initial level of experience is purely abstract, preverbal. Immediately, though, these physical sensory forms enter a network of associations and memories, a process through which “meaning starts to become assigned.

Sitting at the bus stop, my eyes and ears become aware of a large, shiny black shape, from which a low, throaty sound emerges. Forms.

What I see and hear, the forms that arise, is now compared to millions of different memories and ideas and concepts stored away, including memory of language symbols.

This is Cadillac SUV with spinning silver hubcaps and loud music.

Sometimes immediately upon receiving sensory form, other times through the assignment of meaning and names to these sensory forms, some kind of feeling arises. This is not yet a judgment of any kind, but simply a very basic sense of pleasant feeling or unpleasant feeling. When the feeling is extreme, I might experience it as pleasure or pain. At this early stage, though, it is really nothing more than the recognition of pleasantness and unpleasantness; no judgment is really made regarding this experience of mine.

Memories of my political beliefs, my experiences with drivers of SUV’s, causes an unpleasant feeling to arise.

The next step happens so quickly and so automatically that we may well regard it as inevitable and incontrovertible. The sensation of pleasantness or unpleasantness is now immediately joined by some variation of either greed or hatred. In milder forms, we may think of it as longing or vague irritation, but whatever the name, this next step in the karmic chain involves either grasping to capture a pleasant feeling; or a revulsion and repulsion of an unpleasant feeling.

I dislike my unpleasant feeling, find myself with an opinion of derision regarding the driver of a gas-guzzling vehicle.

Wanting/hating leads immediately to volition, or intent: a decision to take action in order to accomplish the desireous or hateful goals.

I decide either to ignore the SUV, turning my attention elsewhere; or perhaps to say something confrontational and hostile to the driver, who happens to be playing loud music through open windows.

Volition initiates physical action: our muscles and joints literally create physical changes in the environment.

I follow through on my intent.

Upon action—perhaps nothing more dramatic than a change in position that brings a new view of the world—an entirely new set of sensory forms begin to take shape. Presto, chango, a new cycle of karma begins. On and on, again and again, forever and ever.

The description of this cycle makes common sense logic to many people, even those who don’t lean the Buddhist direction. It does seem to be a perfectly plausible model for how we experience the world.

It’s also a little disheartening and discouraging, really, because careful examination shows that there is not a lot of freedom here. With all actions and thoughts and feelings arising out of a reaction to conditions preceding, there is seemingly not much room for free choice in this model. Even those moments of apparent choice, when closely examined, arise out of previous beliefs and thoughts and in response to current situations.

But what Buddhism suggests is that this entirely karmic cycle is not a description of how things actually are, at all. It is really an illusion. This karmic cycle is, in fact, the artificial construction of ego.

Ego, in the Buddhist sense, can be likened to a still pond of water that suddenly receives a sharp smack on its surface, which temporarily causes ripples to create the illusion of a hard, firm plane upon which to stand. The action of ego, the Buddhists say, is like continuing to slap the water frantically, trying to perpetuate the illusion of a hard, solid surface, on and on, forever and ever, for fear that might might fall still and silent and deny us of our illusion.

Now, spiritual practice in the Buddhist sense is really a pretty simple affair. All we’re trying to do is introduce just a little natural spaciousness into the illusion of solidness that is created and fiercely defended by the ego. We’re letting the surface of the pond fall a little bit still in order to experience the waterness of it.

Introducing spaciousness (meditation is the primary tool for this, initially) does several things. First, it allows us to identify the various stages of the karmic cycle described above. Meditators, for example, may soon begin to see that the stages in this mental cycle occur with blindingly fast speed, and they may actually find themselves able to spot the moment where form transforms into language and naming, for example.

Secondly, the introduction of space lets us consider the possibility of stepping outside the chain of karma. Seeing the stages lets us consider what it might be like to choose something else, and we see the possibility of this through observing that there is a small gap, a natural space, between each stage of the karmic cycle. These gaps are what we look at with interest.

Thirdly, introducing spaciousness through meditation might allow us to experiment with non-karmic existence. Perhaps only for a few moments, or maybe a few minutes at a time, we might actually get a glimpse of what a non-conditioned, non-cause-and-effect existence might be like.

A finally, spaciousness, for those particularly dedicated and courageous, might lead to a permanent renounciation and escape from the dreariness of karmic existence.

Now, in modern Buddhist practice, the karmic, psychological stages can be divided into two types. First, there are resultant karmic stages. These are simply the natural result of conditions that have come prior, and for this reason they are viewed as completely, utterly, without moral implication. Form, perception/memory and feeling/emotion—the bare experience of pleasantness and unpleasantness—all these are regarded as resultant karmic stages. There is nothing that must be done in response to them; they are simply the completely natural result of experiences and memories and conditions that have come prior. This is in pretty sharp contrast to certain other spiritual traditions, in which thoughts and feelings are thought to be reflections of our moral character.

But then there are karmic stages which are said to be causal. These are stages that actually create new karmic outcome. These stages include wanting/hating, volition, and action. It’s here, the Buddhists say, where free will enters.

Buddhists focus considerable attention particularly on the stage between the feeling of pleasantness/unpleasantness, a stage which carries no moral overtones whatsoever, and the next step, when feeling/emotion becomes joined by wanting/hating of any kind.

For it’s here, the Buddhists say, that there is a pretty exciting opportunity for freedom. Here is the point, it’s suggested, where you can simply interrupt the cycle. It’s the point where you can simply choose to accept a pleasant and unpleasant experience, and not join it with wanting or hating. Rather than an event that demands response, this stage of experiencing pleasantness and unpleasantness is simply the logical outcome of previous conditions, and doesn’t demand a response at all.

To most of us, this seems utterly illogical and impossible. Of course we’re supposed to act when we feel pleasantness or unpleasantness. That’s what we do: seek pleasantness, reject unpleasantness.

But perhaps it seems this way simply because of our habits, our ego belief.

In sitting meditation, for example, it’s quite common for a skin itch, a slight muscle ache, or some other mild physical discomfort to arise. In group meditations, I’ve seem some meditators who twitch and fidget pretty much constantly in an effort to overcome the vaguest of unpleasant sensations.

But what becomes very clearly evident, though, is that joining the sensation of unpleasantness with desire or aversion, wanting or hating, does nothing whatsoever to prevent the unpleasantness from arising. In fact, the people who twitch and scratch seem to be far more prone to more itching, more aching. Nor does itching and shifting really do all that much to even relieve the present discomfort. Left all on it’s own, a skin itch naturally evaporates of its own accord, almost as fast, and usually more permanently, than if you react with irritation by scratching it.

The suggestion meditators are given, to sit quietly and be present with physical discomfort is not about demonstrating some kind of impressive emotional restraint. It’s not the Eastern version of wearing a hair shirt. What we’re seeking to do is examine the small gap between the experience of unpleasantness/pleasantness and the leap to wanting/hating. We’re just examining the spacious gap, playing with it, even.

The fact is that nothing very disastrous happens if we don’t jump to wanting/hating. The unpleasantness naturally evaporates anyway, and pleasantness can never be permanently captured, despite the Herculean efforts of our wanting. Both conditions come and go of their own accord, not because of the wishes of our ego.

What we find is that the ego’s wanting/hating was not driving the world at all, as we thought was true. The world was, and always has been, driving itself.

This doesn’t mean that we go through life symbolically refusing to scratch the things that itch. Our memories of poison ivy rashes and hornet bites is probably going to cause us to automatically respond with a scratch to most itches.

But it may well be possible to respond to the world intelligently without bringing wanting and hating into the equation at all. We can scratch without resenting the itch. We can recycle our trash without hating litterers; we can walk to work without disliking SUV drivers; we can answer truthfully without feeling morally superior to liars. We can appreciate this good meal without wanting a better one or worrying about where the next one will come from.

Wanting/hating isn’t what drives the world; the driver seems to be simple, natural intelligence.

It’s that moment in the mind just before wanting/hating begins where things get interesting, where new possibilities arise.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Saturday, Here in the Park

Saturday, unexpectedly, I found myself resurrected.

My work week had been brutal, and had ended with a dozen unresolved problems. Though pretty desperately in need of a full weekend's rest, I had committed to working at a yearly civic festival up at our Wisconsin book warehouse all day Saturday. It was a duty I was not looking forward to. I would have paid money just to hole up in the dark and nurse the headache that had been with me all week.

It helped not at all that it was a beautiful fall day, and that the hour drive took me up through some tremendous scenery along the St. Croix river valley into a quaint little small town in western Wisconsin. When you seriously don't want to do something, great energy goes into holding onto that unhappiness. The fact was that I was giving up a Saturday to work, and I wasn't resentful of this fact so much as just weary deep down to the soul. I was too tired to be angry, too tired for depression, really

The festival was a full city event, of which our little book selling festival and classic car show was just one part. I was surprised to find that there were literally thousands of people milling about the warehouse and affiliated car show. For the first hour, I worked indoors, trying, and largely failing, to help customers find a book on classic 57 chevies, or 1930s Piper Cub aircraft. I really couldn't have been more useless, since I didn't know the warehouse layout at all, and asking colleagues for instructions only took them away from the real work they were doing.

I've never been very good at being incompetent, and it wasn't good for my spirit to be largely in the way of everybody else. A day that started poorly was taking a turn for the worse.

Then one of the organizers handed me the keys to one of the golf carts--one of our services was offering rides to help book buyers get back to their cars at remote parking lots about 3/4 of a mile from the warehouse.

It took only a few minutes, really, for the world to change entirely. For the next four hours, I ferried pedestrians carrying backs of books back to their car, and I'm not sure I've ever been happier in my life. Older people were gracious and thankful for the rides; kids were delighted to ride in the golf cart, and consistently asked me to go as fast as possible. It was warm in the sun, but high, fast moving clouds blocked the sun every few moments, introducing delightful little shivery moments that tell you it is September rather than August.

A man from Indiana said that he came to the town every year at this time to vacation, so much did he like the annual festival. One small group of motorcylists picnicking alongside the road stopped me at one point after seeing me pass a dozen, two dozen times, and offered me a beer. I declined, with professionalism.

One of the traffic directors called on the walkie-talkie and asked for somebody to bring cold water; I delivered.

I always do better outdoors than in, but as they day wrapped up, I realized that my rebirth was the result of something even simpler than that. For the entire afternoon, my only responsibility had been to serve others in the most simple way imaginable. There was nothing at all complicated about the solutions I was being asked to deliver. There wasn't any kind of production workflow to troubleshoot and improve; I had no personality clashes to reconcile, no emotional upheavals to tend, no deadlines to meet.

For four hours, my entire being was simply focused on giving rides to people who were invariably happy to receive them.

These small acts of service were events of utter freedom for me, for there was nothing that needed planning, nothing else to think or worry about, other than simply delivering people to a place they wanted to go.

"What do you do, when you're not driving ladies around in a golf cart?" one woman asked me as I dropped her off at her station wagon. "Are you one of the big shots?"

I grinned to myself. "Today, this is as important as it gets," I said to her.

Perhaps in the end, genuine freedom is mostly a matter of freedom from self.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Bit of Quiet Outrage

My Minneapolis office is located just around the blog from the downtown precinct station, and yesterday when I left work at 5:30, about 80 swat team members were gearing up for the night's activities in this RNC-plagued twin cities.

Rage Against the Machine was playing at the Target Center, and there was an assumption right from the get-go that this might get ugly.  At a stoplight, I paused for a moment to chat with a young policeman pulling his riot helmet from the back of a black SUV.  "Bet you're ready for all this to be over, eh?" I said to him.

"Nah. They haven't yet assigned me to St. Paul, so this might be the only chance I get to mix it up. About time," he said.

And sure enough, some hours later, when a couple of hundred concert goers lingered around downtown Minneapolis after the concert, there came a moment when the cops ordered them to go home. When the concert-goers got a bit indignant (after all, the parties for the official delegates don't even get started in downtown Minneapolis until 2:00 am), the cops reacted instantly by hosing them with pepper-spray and arresting 100 of them.  

Other than verbal shouts, there was no physical provocation visible in any of the footage. 

I"m not sure how many of these anti-riot squad members have come in from out of town, but I can tell you that my opinion of local law enforcement is dropping by the day.  At the moment, there's no effort to "keep the peace," but rather a distinct wish to provoke confrontation. 

Republicans partying at the Aqua club downstairs from my office littered the sidewalk outside with vomit, beer cans and wine bottles last night from 2:00 to 4:00 am.  I don't think any of them were maced or clubbed for the offense. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Republicans, Be Gone!

The Republicans are in town for their convention.  Or, rather, they're supposed to be across the river in St. Paul. I had hoped that the silliness would be confined to St. Paul, which is always so desperate for attention, but alas, the entire Twin Cities has been pretty well consumed by lots of white people with regional accents and American flag buttons and patent leather shoes.

A Republican convention, I've learned, most closely resembles a parade at Disneyland. About as vanilla white as you can get. This, folks, ain't America by a long shot. 

On Sunday, we were briefly in downtown Minneapolis, where against all logic there were hundreds of cops in riot gear patrolling the streets—on horseback, on bicycles, on Segways, in patrol cars.  This made little sense to us, since civilized Minneapolis is a full 8 miles from where the real action is in downtown St. Paul. Maybe the cops were practicing in Minneapolis for the fun that was about to start in St. Paul the following day. 

Early on Saturday we had received our first whiff of things to come. There were four or five surprise raids on the local homes of suspected "anarchists". The busts turned up lots of incriminating evidence, including slingshots and buckets of urine and feces.  Oh yeah, and conveniently there were also the makings of molotov cocktails.  As though folks whose weapons of choice are piss and shit really have the moxie to use real explosives.

The real message was apparent to everybody: cops had grabbed glass bottles in the homes, and found gas cans for lawn mower gasoline in the garages, and presto, chango—probable cause for violating their civil rights. The most egregious raid occurred at a home visited by a group of civil libertarians devoted to nothing more than videotaping the activities of police during public demonstrations. These weren't anarchists at all, yet the proclamation was that these dangerous folks had also been harboring weapons of some sort. This is MInnesota, after all, and most every home has an ancient shotgun once used to hunt pheasants. 

Silly nonsense, really, but indicative of how much civil rights have dwindled in this time of homeland security.

In reality, things were a little dicier here in the Twin Cities than the carefully restricted media has let on. The silly "anarchists" with their bandana masks are getting most of the press and video airing—this is by intent, since it makes the entire protest movement look silly.  In reality, fully 15,000 people marched from the capital to the convention center on Monday, the vast majority of them responsible middle-classed folks,  and things were quite a bit scarier than is being seen on CNN and Fox. Many dozens of people with no intention of violence or confrontation of any kind received their first ever dose of tear-gas, something that really hasn't been used here in the Twin Cities since a University of MInnesota demonstration in 1972. 

The presence of large squads of riot police in black swat gear is becoming a bit unnerving, and is starting to remind many of us old timers of images of Chicago in 1968. Thus far, I've been a good middle-aged citizen and have been mostly polite to the Republicans clogging the streets. However, there is another march scheduled for Thursday, and I'm giving some pretty serious thought to taking a step back to the early 1970s. 

If I have to step around one more drunken Republican with a southern accent, all bets are off.