Finger Choppers

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 at 8:56 pm)

When I was a teen I read the story where a zen master who put up one finger when asked to describe buddha nature chopped off the finger of a boy who had imitated him. Reading that at the time soured me on Zen.”What pointless cruelty!”, I thought.

I have a different take on the story today. The boy had imitated the form without grasping the essence. The master put an abrupt end to that, compelling the boy to look at the essence.

Of course, imitating the form while failing to grasp the essence goes on today, and a stroll through the Wild West will produce no end of finger choppin’ good examples. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the finger choppers goes: “There’s nothing for you to strive for. You’re already enlightened. You just need to realize this.”

Some portion of this statement is true,  more or less, when looked at from an enlightened perspective. The catch here is that this is not a piece of advice directed at an enlightened individual: this is a piece of advice generally directed at John and Jane Doe, beginning meditators, or to Mandabuddhi Kadali (known as J. Doe before the name change), spiritual cowboy who has been spinning his/her wheels in the pursuit of the easiest possible way to Truth– or better yet, the furthest possible location from truth– for years.  And, used thusly, it could not be more wrong.

No one has ever become enlightened without plenty of hard core, daily, difficult, sometimes painful, effort, effort not necessarily recognized as “spiritual” at the time, but most certainly recognized as effort. The right advice to John and Jane Doe is not “don’t try so hard, you are already there”,  but “you are embarking on the most difficult task anyone can do. If you are serious about it, it will consume  your life. It may take you to the brink of insanity. It may lead to your death. The only way forward, and the only way out once in, is to fearlessly seek truth with every molecule in your body and with your every breath, ruthlessly dispatching every obstacle in your way. ”

Of course, that is the kind of message spiritual cowboys aren’t interested in hearing (or aren’t interested in understanding when they hear it: finger choppers can be recursive). Cowboys prefer to imagine that everything comes easy to them, now that the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, and all.

Another common finger chopper is physics abuse, most commonly quantum theory abuse. Now, I happen to have actually studied quantum theory, sweaty pencil in hand, slide rule on belt (I’m old) , Ph.D. physicist who helped to develop the theory at the blackboard, and more PDQs swimming around in my head than I ever want to experience again. At no time do I remember my instructor announcing “you see, this means objective reality does not exist”.  Indeed, when I measured, in lab, the speed of an electron to be about five times the speed of light, they didn’t say “wow, what a great subjective reality you have: you can see another plane of existence where one is free of the  conventional limitations of time, energy, and matter”. No, they said “do it over”.

Quantum theory is a rigorous description of objective reality, not a rejection of it.  That physical reality at the particle level doesn’t look much like our macroscopic ordinary daily experience is of little concern, either to modern physicists or to physical reality.  That we can’t precisely measure both a particle’s location and its velocity is not the same statement as “everything is subjective” or “everything is controlled by the mind”.  This isn’t simply my interpretation, equal in value to your interpretation:  the assertion “everything is subjective” looks, mathematically, nothing at all like Heisenberg’s equation.

Again cowboys drag a truth, kicking and screaming, from the comfort of its context, and use their hostage to deliver a ransom note demanding that they be exempted from personal discipline (which is what “everything is subjective” really means).  Where’s a good Zen monk with a sharp knife when you need one?

Of  course quantum abuse is just the latest in a long line of physics abuse. Before quantum abuse, it was relativity (yep, studied that too, and no, everything isn’t relative, butfield equation). Before that there was the magical healing properties of radiation (ooops) and electromagnetism proving all sorts of things it does not (yep, I know Maxwell’s equations, too, and no, none of that stuff is in them either), and before that there was the clockwork perfection of classical mechanics proving the existence of God (ooops again). Physics is a discipline which studies the physical world through the method of science. Physics, like any study of a facet of reality, can be inspiring, and conversely spiritual insights has sometimes helped move physics and mathematics forward. But it is not a vehicle for proving spiritual truths, especially made-up ones about not having to work at anything.

If inspiration from physics is needed, maybe it’s wise to find it in the First Law of Thermodynamics. Because, whether it’s work performed by an isolated system, or spiritual practice, you can’t get something from nothing.

More about self-examination

(This post was first published on the old blog on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 at 2:04 AM)

It has taken me a very long time to return to blogging. Apologies to the readers. I had my legs blow up on me, followed by a pet health crisis for my Christmas present. Given what happened, I won’t promise anything here anymore. Here is, with little modification, what I’ve had in the can all this time. I’ll follow up on this, and other topics, whenever

The purpose of self-examination is awareness of reality. Armed with awareness, one can do battle, and win, with one’s character issues.

How? It’s almost too simple: when you see yourself thinking up one of your personal failings, stop. Don’t indulge it. It’s harder than I put it , but not much harder,once one can see what one is doing and has resolved not to do it anymore.

This is very different from “not thinking negative thoughts”. Spiritual cowboys into various forms of “positive thinking” assert that lots of goodies (somehow, the goodies sought by spiritual cowboys always end up being material, not spiritual, goodies) will come your way if only you can be positive about the goodies materializing for you, which inevitably involves the denial of reality. Cowboys believe that you should throw out, for example, thoughts of being broke and in danger of having your car repossessed when in fact you are broke and repossession is a possibility.

It is well nigh impossible to completely exclude reality from one’s thoughts. Even schizophrenics and drug users can’t do that.

Self-examination, on the other hand demands immersion in reality. If you’re broke and can’t make payments, then that reality, and how you respond to it, is exactly what you look at. If this is what is happening, and your fear and stress is leading you to act badly towards others, then you spot the thinking leading to the bad action, stop it, and where appropriate, substitute a right action.

You don’t have to drive the evidence of your own senses from your mind. You don’t have to manhandle the Universe into dispensing shiny blobs of matter. All you have to do is look at what’s in front of you, and make a better decision. It’s low on the warm fuzzy feelings that come from denying reality, but it takes much less effort, and every step of the process is within the ordinary experience of a human.

It helps, a lot, to have other people to bounce your self-observations off. Other people, if they are conscientious and trustworthy, can sometimes alert you to your blind spots, or warn you when you are being too hard on yourself. It’s still possible to make progress without the input of others.

When you are stuck (i.e., can’t stop acting like the ass one doesn’t want to be), one of three things is true: you have not examined the matter thoroughly, and you’re not aware enough of your thoughts, feelings, and motives (most likely); you lack sufficient motive to stop (which usually means you haven’t examined the matter sufficiently to understand how the problem adversely affects you and others); or the problem isn’t really a character flaw (perhaps one is feeling guilty over reasonable behavior (which is itself a character flaw), or perhaps what you think is a character flaw is a hormonal disturbance or some kind of organic brain dysfunction).

And more apologies

(First posted on the old blog on December 23rd, 2009, at 8:55 PM)

I’ve had an “interesting” few months. First, I injured myself in a way that no one had ever done before, at least as far as my doctors could ascertain. Then, just as I appeared to be recovering from one “impossible” injury, I repeated the same “impossible” injury on my other side.

I am not exactly nimble at the moment, but I am A) home (a mixed blessing: when you don’t move well, having a call button is a handy thing), have a properly configured laptop in my bedroom/temporary prison, and C) have run out of every excuse not to get back to posting here (I hope).

I’m going to look over what I have written so far on part two of spiritual bungee jumping, and I’ll try to finish it tonight or tomorrow. Then I’ll post a review of a book by Barbara EhrenreichBright Sided.

Apologies for the extended absence

(First posted on the old blog on Friday, October 6th, 2009 at 3:54 AM)

You know you’re not having a good couple of months when the most active telephone numbers in your PDA belong to orthopedic surgeons and physical therapy departments.

I am working on the next post, but it needs several more revisions to be presentable. I’ll get it up as soon as I can.

Spiritual Bungee Jumping

(This was first posted on the old blog on Friday, August 7th, 2009, at 8:32 AM. It has been lightly edited in the reposting to more clearly credit my 12 step friend for the methodology described here.)

Yee haw pardners! Put on your spurs, ’cause ol’ Hardcore here is about to go a-cowboyin’ on ye’!

Well not exactly. The wild ride I’m about to talk about is the quintessential  bit of wildness no spiritual cowboy would ever attempt. It’s the perfect practice for adrenaline junkies. I call it ‘spiritual bungee jumping”. Other people call it “taking inventory”, or “confession”, or “self examination”. Once you get over the fear and throw yourself over the edge, you’ll want to spiritual bungee jump again and again.

No really. Sum up the courage, make the leap into hard core self examination, poke into the dark and dirty corners of your mind and strip yourself bare of your deep dark secrets. and you’ll have discovered  one of the most liberating experiences short of liberation. Toss in a bit of mental discipline, and woo! you might just find yourself on the edge of that, too.

Spiritual bungee jumping is not therapy. A lot of therapy wastes its time figuring out why the subject feels as they do. Spiritual bungee jumping doesn’t look for reasons (which are tantamount to excuses), nor is its purpose to make one feel better. The object is to ferret out the ego, and when appropriate, identify incidents in one’s past that need to be cleaned up. Like everything else about hard core spirituality, it’s not about easing the pain of the ego. It’s about tearing it down.

It is almost impossible to do an adequate job, the first time at least, without at minimum taking detailed notes. Anything less will be quickly shoved into it’s own dark corner of the mind, and no progress will have come of it. After one has done it and lived, built up a habit, and become a true self-examination adrenaline junkie, it’s possible much of the time to do it on the fly in one’s head.

How can one identify raging ego? Write down everything that you dig up that makes you feel bad, and look very closely at anything that makes you feel good. If the positive feelings are anything less than the most exalted of feelings (for example, anything less than unconditional love), write those down too. Take a hard look at each instance, describe the role played by your ego, and if applicable note anyone you’ve hurt as a consequence.

“Okay, Hardcore”, I imagine some brave (or gullible) reader saying, “I’m a wreck, I haven’t been able to eat for a week, I’ve got this notebook I can’t even bring myself to look at full of things I never intended to say to myself, let alone to anyone else.  What now?”

The best possible next step is to find someone trustworthy to unburden your secrets with. The obvious candidate is usually a best friend who is able to listen to you without being judgmental, but who won’t hesitate to call you out if instead of honest self-examination you produce a pile of steaming poop on a platter. If you have a friend in a twelve step program, you have a perfect candidate. Twelve step programs are masters of “taking inventory”. Your friend has almost certainly done “moral inventories”, and may well have heard the inventories of others. The first time I took the leap, I shared the aftermath with a friend in a twelve step program who had heard many an inventory. Not only did I relieve myself of the burden of  a lifetime’s worth of secrets, It was from her that I learned the nuts and bolts of self examination.

If you don’t have a friend you can trust with this, it is possible to “borrow” a clergy person. Clergy people are obligated to keep your secrets. Christians, of the Catholic, Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant sort, are a good choice, because Christianity places a high value on confession , though any clergy you feel you can trust is fine.  Contact the clergy member, explain that you aren’t a member of a church, but you’ve felt a spiritual need to take a look at your past, and you want to talk about it. It’s good form to make a donation for their time.

If among your deep dark secrets are things like “I’m attracted to my same-sex coworker”, absolutely positively make sure you’ve chosen a clergy person who does not feel theologically obligated to panic at the mere mention of homosexual feelings (and if that is among your deep dark secrets, you’re among the majority of the human race who’ve experienced such feelings).

Yes, you can do all this over the internet, if you have a trustworthy internet friend or you feel you can trust a clergy person you’ve met online. Just be sure that the person in question is who you believe them to be. I advocate revealing your secrets, but not in the form of a Facebook page dedicated to a blow-by-blow mockery of your self-examination.

I personally would not choose a therapist, because in my experience therapy tends to work at cross-purposes to spirituality. That said, therapists are not fungible. If you feel most comfortable speaking to a therapist you know, talk on.

If all else fails — you have no friends you can trust or who are willing to sit down with you, never in a million years would you trust any of the local clergy, the mere possibility of a Facebook page dedicated to your failings causes you to weigh the merits of various suicide methods, and you are sure any shrink that got past the first page with you would lock you up  –  you can go it alone. In whatever manner has meaning to you, confess to That Which Already Knows And Doesn’t Care. Ask for help overcoming these failings. Then destroy your notes.

With the exception of the time I borrowed and learned from a 12 step person, I’ve gone it alone.

I call this process “spiritual bungee jumping” because the first time it is pure terror, non-stop adrenaline all the way  to the bottom.  Next time around it’s still frightening, but it’s also exciting . Do it enough — really, I’m not lying to you — and it becomes pure  adrenaline rush followed by freedom from something that otherwise would have gnawed at you indefinitely. It becomes fun.

So now that you’ve made yourself intimately acquainted with all the crap in your head and seen just how your crap has hurt the people around you (Hardcore admittedly has strange ideas about fun), what can you  do about it? That’s the topic of my next post.

Waiting for Nirvana and other nonsense

(first posted on the old blog on Friday, July 1st, 2009 at 1:31 AM)

Sorry for disappearing for a while: life has a way of demanding one’s attention at times.

Something I’ve read more than enough of lately has been claims that this or that planetary combination or eclipse or planet traipsing across a new sign or zodiac is the harbinger of a new age. All we need to do is sit here and soak in the magnificent energy of Charon stellia or transiting fill-in-the-blanks. Alternately, for those not as astrologically inclined, 2012 isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new era of peace, love, and understanding.

I hate to break it to the true believers in nirvana as a kind of pizza waiting to be delivered (what would we have to tip the delivery boy?). But neither spiritual advancement nor world peace is yours for the waiting.

This mistaken attitude reminds me exactly why I gave up my short-lived career as an astrologer. Yes I do think there’s “something” to astrology — but that something is not to be found in forecasting the future. Astrology is a language of symbols and concepts which pervade much of Western esoteric thought. Without being able to speak the language, much of what has been written over the millennia would be incomprehensible to me. I’m glad I drifted into the study of astrology many years ago.

What I was not glad about then, nor can I abide today, is the notion that this language describes outside forces which act upon us and shape our future. Thinking in those terms, even when those terms are softened by concepts like “probabilities” and “tendencies”, was not good for my thinking, and not at all good for the few people who offered me money so that I could describe the world to them in those terms. Even if astrology’s predictive powers were accurate beyond any credible disputation, looking at it as predictive would be destructive. The same goes for any other non-trivial form of forecasting, including  the 2012 Mayan calendar insanity.

We are not members of the audience watching a movie, waiting for the scene to unfold. This isn’t a movie, this is the real deal, and we are the actors, as in one-who-acts. No scene unfolds without our active participation, no scene even exists without our having collectively willed our roles in it into existence.

There is no nirvana, no pure land, no heaven, no moksa, no Summerland, and no new age, for those who wait, however expectantly. Wanting and waiting for world peace, for an end to hunger and want, for the very best hopes of one’s heart, will end with more war, more want, and more desolation, because the sociopaths who set the world ablaze for their own amusement do not wait and hope. Only action wins the day.

Today, right now, do what you need to do at this moment to bring about what you want. You will then have something much more valuable than knowing the future: you will have made the future.

Spiritual Narcissism

Perusing Internet spirituality, one would get the sense that it was all about getting high without needing to pay the bartender or your dealer. Or about healing whatever emotional or physical ailments one might have (or think one might have). Or about manifesting an upper middle class lifestyle.

Above all, it’s about “me” –about “my happiness”, about “my health”, about “my dietary preferences”, about “my pain”, about “my relationship”, about “my spiritual development”, “my meditation practice”, “my automobile” and “my stock portfolio”.

Except no, it’s not. It’s not about “me”. It never was about “me”, ever. Meditation taken up artificially (i.e., before one turns to it naturally) and made the exclusive, or nearly so, practice makes for a lopsided, narcissistic spiritual life. Missing is the unfashionable practice of continuous self-examination (yes, looking at one’s failings and trying to correct them is a spiritual practice, and an essential one). Absent is genuine service to others (by genuine I mean for-real, not for something to put on “my” resume that gives “me” warm fuzzy feelings).

It’s not just lopsided– it’s doomed to failure. I guarantee you that anyone who gloms onto a largely mental practice and with it intends to pry open the doors of truth will find their path blocked, and the more they try to force past the bouncer at the door, the worse things will be for them. There is no substitute for character work, regardless of how unfashionable it may be, and there is no substitute for that equally unfashionable word, sacrifice. The surest path to enlightenment is to forget altogether about enlightenment, and let it tap you on the shoulder while you’re caring about others.

Spirituality may ease emotional pain, but spirituality is not therapy. The concepts and vocabulary of therapy make absolutely no sense in a genuine spiritual context. In fact many of the aims of spirituality are directly opposed to those of therapy.  It’s not about healing the child within or expressing one’s feelings. It’s about the Divine, period, end of statement.

Wanting to manifest more stuff for oneself is just not spiritual. Well okay, it is, if you count the left hand path as spiritual– they do think the object of everything is to use the invisible world for self-aggrandizement. Simply tacking on something stating it only counts if it doesn’t harm anyone can’t nullify the underlying intention, that a very imperfect ego be made more comfortable.

I’m not a materialist. I certainly think one can use one’s will to manifest things, and that it works, at least some of the time. I also think that employing the will to make ego more comfortable is a mistake, even without the unintended consequences that almost always come with it. About the only good thing I can say for the half-assed covert magickal schools that describe themselves as working with the “Law of Attraction” is that most of the people who attempt to follow their guidance will be unable to manifest anything (you can’t make things manifest unless you truly understand will, and you can’t understand will short of a lot of very serious inner work of the sort that is not and never will be trendy). Unfortunately even though these programs are largely impotent they still spread the evil nonsense that is the Just World Fallacy.

If magick is what you want, learn the real thing the right way, caveats and all. Or better yet, recognize the power for what it is, a glittery attractive and potentially destructive thing that is not to be sought and that, if acquired, is to be used sparingly, and with great caution.

The cowboys of the world keep on thinking they can have spirituality and egotism too. They can’t. They can feign spirituality, occasionally at a profit, but they can’t have it and use it in the service of “me”, because spirituality is all about the systematic, often disruptive, destruction of “me”.Allabout it.

Wincing at “Enlightenment”

I always feel embarrassed for persons who pontificate about enlightenment without the foggiest notion of what they are speaking. Someday they’re going to know enough to know how foolish they’ve looked, and they will feel like they do when they dream of going to work naked, only this time the alarm clock won’t save them. I wish I didn’t see such things. Witnesses only exacerbate later shame.

I’ve just read another pontification on the net (I know its blogging protocol to link to those one cites or criticizes, but I am omitting this link out of courtesy to the future embarrassee). Apparently the author has had the misfortune to have published his or her pontifications in a book. I’ve not read the book, but what’s out there on the net is certainly no enticement to do so. It reads less like inspiration and more like the inside of a Hallmark card.

Enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with “wholeness” or “oneness”. Wholeness is the polar opposite of fragmented, and both poles are the product of a confused mind. Enlightenment is neither whole nor fragmented. Enlightenment is not a “journey”. There’s not even nowhere to go. Enlightenment has nothing to do with “listening” or “feelings”or “self-expression” or “relationships” or “healing”. Those are more “good” ideas which try to ameliorate or respond to “bad” ideas, but both the “good” ideas and the “bad” ideas emerge from confusion. “Goodness” is to enlightenment what a chicken sandwich is to a tuba: it’s unrelated, in a funny absurdist sort of way.

Enlightenment isn’t fostered by buying nutritional supplements. Here I break my unofficial policy and link (outrageous website is now down) to this atrocity because the persons responsible for the site should feel embarrassed.

In fact enlightenment has absolutely nothing to do with any idea you can describe, theorize about or believe in. Not even “love” or “truth” (which is separate and distinct from the importance of love and truth, which gets into another topic I may or may not post on in the future). The wisdom writings of the world (the real, time-tested, ones, not the babble of the net) usually avoid directly describing enlightenment (or whatever their tradition calls it) . It may be better to use words to trace enlightenment’s outline, without straying into direct description.

If the reader wishes not to listen to lil’ ol’ anonymous me on why thinking up “good” words to say about enlightenment will lead to embarrassment, maybe the reader would rather listen to the world’s wisdom literature. There are illustrations throughout the world’s wisdom literature, but my personal favorite on the topic, is the Sutra of Hui Neng. Hui Neng was a layperson and a lowly kitchen worker in a Buddhist temple in Guangzhou when the Fifth Patriarch of the Zen school of Buddhism announced a poetry competition, to see which of his students he would choose as his successor. The lead monk of the temple penned the stanza:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

Hui Neng, the lowly kitchen employee, being illiterate, dictated the following stanza in response:

There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

And thus the kitchen help became the Sixth Patriarch.

A few thoughts on purity versus freedom

(First posted at the old blog on Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 at 3:49 am)

I don’t have the luxury of staying awake to greet the dawn today, yet here I am, awake at 4 AM, with a few thoughts that want very badly to be a blog entry. So I’ll try to keep it short.

The news that churchgoers are strong supporters of torture bothers me, even though it’s no more a surprise to me than it is, or should be, to anyone else that  average churchgoers  (and for that matter, a considerable number of priests/ministers/rabbis) haven’t the foggiest idea of what their religion is supposed to stand for.

The first impulse, upon seeing something as awful as torturers in God’s name, is to want more purity, more lines that divide “the good/wise/sincere people” from “the confused/ignorant/bad people”.  Can’t there be a firmer grasp on the membership by the leadership, stricter standards for the leadership, a government-issued flashing LED badge people like me can wear that says “I’m a mystic, but I don’t torture”? Something??

The answer is no, there can’t be.

Virtually every group of people who, with greater and lesser accuracy, believed they were in possession of the truth (or something close to it), have tried to preserve the transmission of the truth by creating hierarchies and designating authorities to guard that truth. And as far as I can tell every such attempt has failed. Hierarchy and authority have an attraction for those least qualified for them. It doesn’t take many transmissions among even those of the best intentions for strong, brave, wise leadership to be replaced by weak, cautious, sort of middling leadership. And success is almost certain to kill any organization with an influx of members with agendas other than the ones intended by its founders.

But I’m not saying that every organization is worthless, or that it is hopeless to think that a spark of wisdom can be preserved and transmitted. In fact, I think the opposite. Those organizations which, despite the odds, despite their own mediocre or power hungry authorities and the confusion (to put it politely) of their membership, preserve and carry on a faint spark of wisdom are those which have failed at purity, and having failed at keeping themselves under control, become a haven for the few who do understand the original vision.If the structure intended to maintain purity hadn’t broken down, the mediocre to bad leadership and the confused membership would have identified and driven away the visionaries.

It’s a fools errand to try to prohibit spiritual error. Far better to carve out a small, safe spot for what is right.