Category Archives: random thoughts

Why Buddhism is True — a review

Disclaimer:  I am not a Buddhist.  And by admission, neither is the author.

The main title, Why Buddhism is True, is a bit misleading.  Throughout most of the book, the author threads interesting, up-to-date, and digestible logic as to the (potentially huge) benefits of practicing mindful meditation.  As a beginning meditator, Wright’s reasoning was compelling enough to have me hooked from the start.

If only we could all start young with this practice.

But you don’t need to be attracted to meditation to be captivated by the book.  In fairness, Wright does provide an abundance of thought-provoking (no pun) data not only from science, but also from modern psychology which seems to coincide with basic Buddhists concepts of not-self/emptiness, liberation from delusion (how we see ourselves is largely an illusion), and our thinking mind’s “default mode network.”

If anyone is, (shouldn’t we all be), interested in understanding the mechanics behind how feelings shape thoughts, behaviors, and perceptions, and how, through practice, we can become aware of “things in our environment that affect those feelings,” than the book is well worth the investment.  Some feelings, he says “are good guiding lights,” while others can “push us around.”  He provides first-hand examples of how we might successfully manipulate the feelings that may not be benefiting us.

Even Newark’s airport has a meditation room.

Wright speckles the book with his own experiences, mainly with dry, relatable, yet subtlely perky humor.  I found myself laughing out loud several times throughout the book.

The value of meditation, he says, is its use as a fundamental tool, one that enables us to see the stories we build and how we can more clearly separate illusion from truth.  In other words, he says, mindfulness meditation helps us change our perception of the world, even with potentially simple annoyances like crabgrass, the buzzsaw of construction noise, or the impulse to respond to a pricky email.  He also describes the benefit of continued meditation as an evolving capacity of “seeing things with higher resolution.”

The key, he says, through daily practices of mindful meditation, is becoming more aware of “what causes what,” (causality).  But, he explains, the fruits of meditation is more than just awareness.  It’s active learning how to change negative into positive.

The crux of the book and Wright’s principal argument for our feelings, he outlines, is the  “conditioning” of natural selection, which is built into our core from millions of years of evolution.  But many “natural tendencies” which served our species well over time may also be working against us (in our relatively recent, densely populated global community).  He describes, through meditation, how we can “subvert the programming of (the undesirable aspects of) natural selection,” to achieve a measurable, positive impact in our lives and of those around us.  In effect, he is saying that Darwin confirmed the truth behind Buddhism.

After listening to his book (twice) it’s hard not to believe him.

Where did that thought come from?

It popped in from nowhere to grab my attention.

Before I could offer a reasonable objection,
I was whisked in an unknown direction,
following a theory that forked left, then right,
out of control and out of sight.

I could barely glimpse it morph and cohort,
and raising cain.  Was it half insane?

I was lost in the musing’s erratic wake,
when it circled back without mistake,
damn faster than the speed of light,
blasting everything in sight,
yet making sure I was alright.

The reverie directed its own screenplay,
imbued in the rumination,
a polished edge of anticipation,
and an alluring button called replay.

The outlook’s mirage cloaked in subtle fury,
slyly presiding as judge and jury.

But the clever impression was ripe for dissension,
slight nagging suspicions clouding the senses,
creating a hunch and a new speculation,
of egoic wit, masked in deception.

Then in a blink the marbles scattered,
a whole new topic was all that mattered,
replaced by another, less irrelevant notion,
the dreamy aim the same,
a beguiling spell of perpetual motion.

Even if the premise seemed all but real,
the resulting chapter had a fictional feel.

Forming an opinion was not my intention,
not with such limited discretion,
but the conviction’s goal seemed clear,
to plant a seed of apprehension.

So when it returns as it surely will,
I’ll embrace the belief with eager thrill,
smothering it with goodness and zeal,
trusting it will lose its appeal.

After all, there are thousands, millions, more,
poised like a readily armed corps,
not offering the prospect to sift nor choose,
nor win, nor loose.

fs

An introspective life-changing question

That is, if you can remember to ask yourself — repeatedly.

The trick is keeping this short query-to-self in the frontal cortex and at the ready.

Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not?

I heard the suggestion listening to Mark Webber’s 15 recordings from his month-long Dharma retreat last year called “All About Karma.” (No I’m not a Buddhist, but the philosophy/religions’s most basic tenets “do no harm” is worthy embracing).  Webber says karma is causality, which is a different interpretation than most Asians or Westerners have.  Karma, he says, is the activity of doing, which is causation.  Karma is mental intent and the resultant activity.  The source is our thoughts.  To begin to see this, in his retreat Webber instructs his practitioners how to significantly slow down cognition.

To see, or recognize the causality of our thoughts, could make us healthier.

Apparently, what certain enlightened individuals in the metaphysical realm have realized thousands of years ago, and what our scientific community is recently discovering is that;

  1. Thoughts are chemical impulses with real consequences. Although thoughts are mostly stories (illusions), they are not innocent.  The chemical impulses, no matter how slight, create a cause and effect.
  2. Everything, meaning every human, animal, bug, plant, or thing on this earth is connected.

Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not? is a question one could ask of every thought, no matter how seemingly benign. Thoughts either spark a positive charge or one that is negative.  They either construct or destruct.  And while we may deem some to be neutral, every thought still produces a resulting consequence.

Of course, the topic is quite a bit deeper than a meager blog post could justify.  Listening to the retreat, more than 25 hours worth, left me realizing what an underdeveloped human I am.  Short of having the question on post-a-notes everywhere, most of us would need a lifetime of meditation to see causality as part of our stream of consciousness.

Except for a few individuals, most humans live with a busy thought voice every waking hour. The voice is usually too occupied to be interrupted for a self-evaluation.  But like the beauty of compounded interest, many tiny (positive) thought adjustments accumulate to much larger (positive) effects.  If, for example, just a couple of key times each day, especially those moments when someone does something we don’t like, or we must do something we don’t fancy, or when we are annoyed for whatever reason, we were to invoke this question-to-self and make small perspective adjustments from negative to positive, we could, without sounding dramatically gushy, contribute, in no small way, to changing our lives, and those around us, for the better.

Free-range Humans

At one time we were.  And in some way, we’ve circled back, except that we’ve spiraled around and landed on a different prairie.

Our new free range is an amplified ability and willingness to stretch and distort definitions to suit a wide variety of purposes.  The hijacking of words and dilution of their authenticity has become commonplace.

Not long ago, a US president demonstrated our new grazing land when he said, under oath, “it depends on what the definition of the word is, is.”  The economic meltdown of 2008 occurred, in part, because financial institutions went as far as roaming off the range by packaging garbage, then labeling and selling that junk as triple-A solid, pixie-dust lined, investments.

Our free-ranging technique of twisting the truth is especially blatant in food marketing.  Two, of many, recent examples: 1) In 2009 Kellogs Rice Krispies claimed the cereal would “support your child’s immunity.”  2) Nutella ads stated that their hazelnut spread “is a nutritious part of a kids breakfast.”

With our penchant for free-ranging food claims, what could natural flavors mean as a food ingredient? Bull testicles and sheep lips are natural, so is arsenic and formaldehyde.  Our legal definition of natural flavors is wide open according to the US Code of Federal Regulations and could include the aforementioned items.

Exaggeration and hyperbole have been used since there was language.  But when accuracy is elongated to harmfully fool others, then those doing the bending are better off put out to pasture.

The marketing campaigns labeling chicken and eggs as free-ranging and cage-free is a more literal example.  We’ve grown a sizeable appetite for chicken.  A few short generations ago, chicken consumption in the USA per person was, at best, a poultry few per year.  Today we gobble down, on average, more than 27 bloated, steroid & antibiotic-infused, mega fowl per person annually.  That’s not counting eggs (w/added synthetic yolk colorants).

The same dynamic chicken euphoria is happening around the world.  Travel anywhere, to any airport, any major city, and there is no shortage of chicken anything.

Chicken is the cheapest, most efficient form of meat to produce.  Chicken producers want us to feel good about eating more fowl because production has turned intensive.  It’s estimated that the planet is pumping out at least 50 billion chickens annually.  But where are they all?  Hmm,…there must be a reason they are hidden, tucked away, and out of sight.

World population is growing strong, and so is our appetite for more chicken.  China is the chicken heavyweight.  Stats show they produce more chickens than the next four chicken producing countries combined (USA, Indonesia, Brazil, India).  The KFC outlets, saturated throughout most China cities, stay more jampacked with hungry chicken customers than overcrowded industrial henhouses.   The Chinese also produce a mind-boggling 500 billion eggs annually.  And those hens are not free ranging.

Not enough of us care yet about the quality of what we stick in our mouths.  Just keep the buckets of nuggets coming.

But in fairness, some do care, a tiny bit, which is why demand for free-range is on the rise.  But in fairness to fairness, this is just free-range marketing.  The image of chickens running around, foraging and pecking the ground as is their nature, living part of their life in the sun, makes (some of) us feel a little better about eating them and their eggs.  No problem, we are free-range humans.  We simply expanded the definition of free-range to include the addition of a popup window to a giant, industrial overpacked chicken coup, containing thousands of birds. As long as the window is open for a few minutes per day, even if only a hand-full lucky enough to be near the window have a glimpse of the outside, voila, we have free range chickens — and free range eggs, and a warm & fuzzy image as a bonus.

But soon, thanks to,

  • a growing movement to improve the environmental impact of industrial chicken production,
  • an eagerness to significantly upgrade food quality, and
  • a new, determined focus to raise the standards for the humane treatment of animals,

a good portion of the world’s chicks destined for meat and eggs will soon be free-ranging, roaming the earth for real….along with fairies, leprechauns, and free-range humans.

Selecting Naturally

It’s kind of amazing in this day and age, with technological developments happening at the speed of light, that Darwin’s natural selection, which he deduced from exhaustive research about 150 years ago, still forms the basis for modern molecular biology.

In last week’s post, I wrote that concern over what-the-neighbors-think is a “learned notion.”  I may have been wrong.  I recall dear-ole mom drilling that concept into us at an early age.  I thought I learned it.  While that could be partially true, Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism Is True, suggests that this powerful desire of caring with others think (about us) is deeply embedded in our emotional DNA.  The urge to titivate seems to have been developed as part of our species’ natural selection.

We like to think of ourselves as in control of everything we do and think.  But we, as organisms, have been developing for billions of years, constructing, continually altering, and perfecting, subtle behaviors which become ingrained in our genomes.  The one driving force behind every creature, from the most basic single cell to complex, emotionally-driven humans, is the need to reproduce.  More innately powerful than anything else is every organism’s tenacious impulse to make sure its genes are passed on.  Sex did not develop into a pleasurable act that homo sapiens are driven to perform, again and again, for nothing.

For humans, living for hundreds of thousands of years in small bands, meant making sure we were attractable as a mate.  As groups and tribes grew more substantial, so did our need to make sure we always presented our best side.  This self-esteem preservation, to appear attractive to others, has crawled into the depths of our being.    Evidently, for example, the natural angst of speaking in public was designed by natural selection.  For most of human history, we did not speak in public.

They evolved to attract their mates.

When CD came up with Survival of the Fittest, he wasn’t referring to how long an organism could survive relative to another, but how many offsprings it could successfully leave behind before it died. These microevolutionary instincts, driving behaviors embedded in our psyche, carry on long after our jobs of passing on genes has been accomplished.

I wish I could say I’ve evolved beyond the grasp of what I imagine the perceptions others have of me.  It may be though, that I’m still in amoeba level.

Non sequitur

Lately, I’ve been finding myself uttering this expression a couple of times per day.  It must be where I’m living that has me periodically announcing this to myself.

It shouldn’t matter, being stared at.  But young or old, a preponderance of locals still break their necks to get a good look at the weirdo in their midsts.  After a few years, I thought I’d be over it by now.  But I recognize it must be an internal flaw (surely one of many).

The fallacy of a non-sequitur. The inference drummed up from the premise just doesn’t follow.

Why should a stare matter anyway?  It shouldn’t.  That is the non sequitur.  It only matters in my head.  In the reality of life, the logic the internal voice tries to make of all the rubbernecks matters not.

For example, the internal role-playing may discuss what impressions others will have if I, literally, skip through the park.  The voice tries to sneak in something like, “this will be uncomfortable,..they will be gawking.  Maybe I should not workout here.”

The what-will-the-neighbors-think is a learned notion that must be clinging in the imagination like excess residue that won’t wash away.  Yea, sure, we can’t just run amok among ourselves without mutually accepted behaviors.  Yet at the same time, altering reasonable actions because an internal voice is making deductions about what others “may” think is a bit of nonsense.

Hence, I’ve been trying to preempt the prattle with the command of “non sequitur” whenever the voice begins the what-others-may-think soliloquy.

If my ego is giving me a particularly hard time,  repeating non sequitur aloud (mostly) assuages its insistence.

Hmm, perhaps I’ll need to make wider use of this latin-based phrase.

The Break of Dawn

If I were a true punster, the title would be The Crack of Dawn.

The first year of college right out of high school was a jumble of experiments.  At 18, the school was far enough away from home that commuting was impractical; therefore I arranged a government loan to cover dormitory accommodation as well as tuition.  The guy who’s room I shared upon arrival must have drawn the short straw because he didn’t seem so thrilled to have landed a green, freshman roommate.  With his waist-length hair, he sported a “been there/done that” attitude.  But he quickly warmed up to my irresistible charm (haha) when he carefully showed me how to use his sophisticated reel-to-reel tape stereo system, top of the line for its day.  The speakers were almost as tall as I, making his impressive recording compositions from bands like The Who mind-blowingly absorbing after we would share a bowl of hashish.

Bunking with him lasted only a month or so before a spot opened up on the fraternity floor where a couple of my friends were staying, so I soon became an unofficial frat member.  It wasn’t a jock frat, rather a mix of background and color.  If there were any athletes in the fraternity, it ended up being two of my friends and me.

Shortly after arriving on campus, I noticed a poster at the gymnasium’s entrance inviting students to join the swim team.  No experience necessary read the sign.  “Hmm, I might be up for that,” I thought.  I had never participated in an official school sport, and the idea of no experience was an attraction.  After all, how hard could swimming be, I thought, having swum in the ocean almost every summer growing up.

But it was grueling, with daily practices of endless laps of freestyle, breast, back, and fly strokes.  I didn’t know until after I joined that a friend, the only other guy who selected this college from my high school, Bob, had also joined the team.  We then became friends with another Bob, who we called Dunk, an abbreviation of his last name.  Bob had participated in organized swimming before, and Dunk was a superb competitive platform diver.  We still call each other friends to this day.  Together the three of us, along with Billy Beirster, from Brooklyn, NY, were the newbies on the swim team.  We were a tad on the unrestrained side, whereas the balance of the team was,..umm, more mature.

As in any sport, the games, or meets in this case, made the practice worthwhile.

As an example, Billy would regularly, actually upon request, demonstrate his nostril inhaling prowess by snorting jello at lunch in the school cafeteria.  In those days a cup of jello cubes was a staple dessert selection.  Beirster would carefully and steadily balance a cube, which was at least six times larger than his nostril opening, with one finger below his nose, while he closed his other nostril, as focused snorters do.  Then, with everything still, except for the wobbly jello cube precariously balanced on his fingertip, it would suddenly disappear up his nasal cavity with one quick, short snort.

A lucky set of events allowed me to letter in swimming that first season.  To be given a “letter,” an embroidered patch, intended to be sewn on the back of a varsity jacket, required a certain number of points acquired by placing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the official events.  We competed with various state colleges and universities around Pennsylvania.

Billy Beirster had no problem snorting them.

One of the “away” meets was with a team not known to have particularly fast swimmers. Therefore our coach allowed some of us a chance to accumulate points by resting the regular starters.  I ended up placing first in the 50-meter freestyle event that evening, which, if I remember correctly, gave me a healthy chunk of points towards the letter that year.  A couple of my teammates were smoking pot before that meet, which may be the reason I had a further edge.  I had learned my lesson with drugs and swimming earlier in the month by popping a tab of LSD just before a swim practice (not one of my most intelligent experiments).  During the endurance laps, the psychedelic effects kicked in big time.  The water started feeling thick like the jello Billy snorted.  Every time I took a breath, hallucinations of large, colored clouds with dragon details appeared against the folded up bleachers.  The lane markers on the walls at each end of the pool would spin clockwise, then counterclockwise, and gyrate to appear further distant the closer I became until I finally banged into the wall.  One of the senior swimmers approached me while I was still in the water, looked into my eyes and said, “Freddie, you don’t look so good, I’m going to recommend to the coach that you go back to the dorm and rest.”  “Thanks,” I gratefully replied, “I’m feeling a little out of it today.”

Receiving a letter like this required points.

But I’m rambling.  This is about Dawn.  Or rather Valerie.  She could have been a poster flower child.  After all, the Vietnam war was still in full swing and the hippie movement hadn’t yet faded. The second draft selection was processed during that first college-year and luckily I received a high number, meaning I wasn’t compelled to enlist and fight in a war that made no sense.   Anyway, I was semi-intoxicated by Valerie’s presence.  For whatever reason, she liked hanging around Bob, Dunk, and I.   Not long after I met her though, she changed her name to Dawn.  She was tall, slender, pretty, long blond hair, light and smooth olive skin, a down-to-earth sultry voice, intelligent, and au naturel.  If she wanted to change her name to Dawn, who was I in my half-stoned mind to opine.  I fell for her all the same.  My puzzle was that she didn’t fall for me.  I dreamt about her and was confident she would be the perfect girlfriend.

It was a popularly unpopular war, Vietnam.

Toward the end of that first school year, I was therefore thrilled that she wanted to accompany Bob, Dunk, and I to our hometown for a long weekend.  “Maybe she’ll become enraptured with me away from school,” I naively pondered.  But then she met my brother D.  It must have been his long curly locks during the time he was living out a short rebel streak that attracted her to him.  Bro D was renting a room from friends of mine in town.   When I met them one morning, I walked into his room and there they were, in bed together.  He just looked up at me and smiled.  I could only smile back, even though there was a sudden gnarly turbulence in my gut.  He was doing what any red-blooded guy would do if given a chance, so I could only admire him for that.  He happened to conquer what I couldn’t.  He didn’t know I liked her.  I never told him because admitting so would have acknowledged a made-up fantasy.  Anyway, better him than someone else, I remember thinking.

Shortly after that, something clicked.  How could I take anyone serious who had changed her name from Valerie to Dawn?  Her closest friend changed her name to Born.  The bohemian outlook started seeming a little too hippy dippy.  Just that quick she was erased from my desire board.

I quit full-time college midway through the 3rd semester (2nd year) as I couldn’t figure out why I was going into debt studying for a degree I didn’t much care about.  I’d go on to attend five universities over the next 10 years (another experiment I wouldn’t recommend) before figuring it out and receiving a diploma, or two.  But what brother D didn’t realize, nor did I, is that toward the end of that first year, he helped me over a short phase with the Break of Dawn.