The Meaning of Life
Click on the image for a closer look.
In this image of a part of a vast gas cloud in the Eagle Nebula, a "nearby" star-forming region 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Serpens, our entire solar system would only be as large as this - o - and the Earth would not be visible, even as a speck!
What is the meaning of life?
First off, the world is flat and the Sun revolves around the Earth!
Yes, I know, humanity disproved these ideas centuries ago. But how many times a day do you seriously think of yourself, doing whatever it is you do, on the curved outer surface of a giant ball of matter hurling through space? How many times a week, or a month, does the thought cross your mind? For me it is about twice a year, and then for only a few seconds at a time. The rest of the tine, I perceive myself to live on a flat surface. If I contemplate driving to California, it is a straight shot of 3,000 miles across a flat landscape from this ocean to that ccean.
And the sun "comes up" and the sun "goes down". I never say to myself, "It is 5:30 AM and soon the earth will rotate to a position where I can see the sun again." Do you say that to yourself? No, I see the Sun "rise" and the Sun "set", pretty much they way primitive humans did thousands of years ago, and I have never felt the need to modify that perception. It works for me, and along with the flat Earth, it is my reality.
So all this is to say that the meaning of existence for me has already been created, by me, through this flat-lander world view. And if I can create this meaning, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then this fact needs to be taken into account whenever we ask the question "What is the meaning of life". We ask that question as if to imply that there is some inherent, hidden meaning out there, independent of our own frail and imperfect perceptions of it, and all we have to do is discover it, preferably by asking someone who knows more than we do. Hence the metaphor of the pilgrim, ascending to the mountaintop to ask this question of the sage, who has been meditating long enough to know the answer.
Lots of people know the world is round and the Earth orbits the Sun. You know it. I know it. But it has no "meaning" for me. I am a living being and the "life" we seek meaning about is part of what I am about, and I do not readily accept, or put into practice, that "meaning" for my life. What does that say about the meaning of life?
Lets hold off a bit before we go too far with that one. It is enough to say my flatlander illusion is suffering an attack, and I am now unable to ignore the Universe, the way I have up to now.
Now when something opens up an image of the universe and prompts us to see ourselves within a vast 3-D reality full of galaxies and stars and space, one would expect each of us to be transfixed - to be so utterly in awe as to spend most of the rest of our natural lives just staring reverently at the universe in which we exist. Yet in point of fact, most of us, or more correctly the vast and overwhelming majority of us, snap off a quick and slightly self-conscious "Gee Whiz!" and rapidly, perhaps too rapidly, rush to reassert the flat world perspective - to retreat back into the Ptolemeic universe we grew up with. It feels comfortable.
We don't change our lives. We don't reassess our priorities. We don't even change our thoughts. At most we, myself included, take a moment to stare up at the star speckled night sky, wonder at its beauty, and maybe a bit of its mystery, and then run back inside to watch TV. It is almost as if we thoroughly modern people welcome the coming of the dawn, as did our prehistoric ancestors, frightened and cowering in the night. We welcome the uniformity of the blue sky of day because it blots out the stars that prick our flatlander perspective. Perhaps the day extinguishes more than starlight. It pacifies the troubling realization that the flatland we want to live in, we do NOT live in. If we lose this illusion, we perhaps lose our sense of security.
We have manufactured, since prehistoric times, when the night sky was seen merely as a dome of nearby dots of light, an illusion. And like all the best illusions, like the most dramatic of magic tricks, we accept it as reality. We understand that it is a trick, but since we can't see through the illusion, we relish the fantasy. We don't really want to find out how the trick is done - to know what lies behind. Just as when sitting in a darkened theater enjoying a good movie, should the realization fleetingly surface in our minds that these are just actors pretending, we quickly, like the magician's assistant, distract ourselves from the obvious and vanquish the thought so we can reestablish the illusion and get back to the entertainment. How many hours, days and accumulated years will we spend watching dramatizations by pretenders - TV, movies, plays - we accept it all and seldom, consciously, say to ourselves "This is not real."
So it is with the Universe. "The play's the thing." (Shakespeare) "Sshhh. Don't spoil it. Welcome the dawn." (Anonymous) "Here comes the sun, nah nah nah nah, Here comes the sun. It's all right..." (The Beatles)
So in my wondering about this idea, about the true Universe, perhaps I have made a big mistake. That latent curiosity finally got the best of me - curiosity about what exactly IS the Universe and what have we discovered about it in the recent past, when new theories and technologies have pulled aside much of the veil that had obscured it from us. This goes way beyond the round-Earth concept. Last week all the ingredients fell into place. I had a $25 Christmas gift certificate for Borders Books, and had to stay over at an historic inn in eastern Massachusetts in order to be there in the morning for an early presentation, which meant time on my hands. And in the astronomy section at Borders, a place I had never been, I found a $25 book that had all the answers - at least all those I immediately wanted to hear. It combined the brilliant images of deep space generated by the Hubble Space Telescope with an introduction to what these imply about the Universe in which we live.
The trouble with truth is that you can't forget it - it is like the words spoken in haste that can never be retracted. It just hangs there, echoing. And in opening that book, I may have been just a tad too hasty. Sitting in my Queen Anne wing chair in that 18th Century inn, surrounded by furnishings and history that last had great relevance during the American Revolution, I opened the book. I did this with some reservations, like those that might have troubled the scientists who were about to discover the Atomic Bomb. I felt that I was tinkering with something inherently dangerous.
As I pried open the first pages of this book, I wondered was I prying open the lid of Pandora's box? Would the spirits that were about too fly out torment me for the rest of my life? Once opened it could not be shut up again. The genie could not be put back in the bottle. But like one who is fascinated by the grotesque, I could not turn away; I could not help but look at it. And so I devoured the book, and I believe I have indeed tinkered with something very dangerous, and very wonderful.
What indeed is reality, when taken within the contest of deep space. When we see pcitures of the Hubble Deep Field and see images formed millions of light years ago - not "now" - we are prompted to ask "What is reality?" We live in a world where there is virtually no time difference between fact and perception, where the only hint of a disconnect is the few seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder we hear. But we now know that what the telescope sees in remote parts of the Universe, in fact even what we see with the naked eye when staring up at the night sky, is light produced by a reality billions of years old, a perception of something that may not even exist anymore.
For us space, time and reality are bound pretty tightly together. We drive down the road, and the car we see coming into the intersection is real enough to force us to slam on our brakes. We do not live inside a dilemma because the light from the car is taking a short time to reach us. We are not thrown into ambivalence because we are not sure if the car we see might already have passed through the intersection, and therefore we can speed on ahead safely, or if, in fact an unseen car has entered the intersection and threatens us, even though it is not yet visible.
But in the Universe, the Hubbell Deep Space images reveal "realities" - pictures of things we can see - which are millions of years old and may not even be there anymore. In essence, the Hubble pictures of existence in deep space are an illusion. The time delay is on a dimension we cannot even begin to comprehend, as it takes millions of light years for the images to reach us. Too far from our own experience to be relevant. Let's look closer to home. It takes 8.5 minutes for light from our star to reach earth. The sun we see setting just below the horizon actually already set some time earlier. And as we sit in the predawn glow waiting for the Sun to appear, it "appears" almost ten minutes before we can see it and say "There it is."
Is this time delay relevant in our own defining the disconnect between reality and illusion - between observed reality and real reality? No. For us, the experience of existence IS reality. We don't stand outside for hours to watch a sunset, and then go indoors 8.5 minutes before it disappears because we "know" it already has set - in reality. Reality is inseparable from our experience of reality, and while we may intellectualize about the machinations going on "behind the scenes" like the magicians performance, we can't really operate in that sort of reality. What we see is what we get. We don't want to, and we don't need to, understand the illusion - the trick - we just need to "see" it. And "Seeing is believing."
Reality is self-generated...
So reality is egocentric. We don't create it, in the sense we generate the core purpose of existence, but we clearly accept it. Our very lack of deconstructing it, our willingness to accept the illusion, the trick, defines its meaning. It is, in a real sense, an act of will. And in undertaking this proactive stance, we energetically ignore, or even deny, the reality that is otherwise presented to us.
Adam eats of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and like those of us who now understand the Universe, his ignorant bliss is destroyed. Now he begins to suffer.
And so the search for "The meaning of life." What is it? Not to sound to Clinton-esqe about it, but "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'meaning' is." What do we mean by meaning?
What is the "meaning" of farming? The farmer, and his family, live on the land, cultivate it, plant seeds in it, fertilize the ground and harvest the crop. They eat the food they produce or sell it for cash profit which they use to buy food and other essentials. While we are trying to describe to another the "meaning" of farming, in the end we have described a process called "farming". The meaning is the process.
But it must be more. Perhaps we see meaning in the purpose of something. Those most religiously inclined seem often to ask the "purpose" of something as if this were the key to its meaning. So again, what is the meaning (in terms of purpose) of farming? Simplified, the question can be phrased as "Why is farming?", or "Why does the farmer farm?".
The meaning/purpose of farming is survival. The person finds himself alive and hungry in an environment which permits the production of food (and profit) through labor directed at the land. And so he chooses to do that. And by these means he survives. In other words, meaning is either in the process or in the end result; it is either the means or the ends, it is either the "What?" or the "Why?". It is, therefore, self-generated. No entity outside the farm family defines, determines, regulates or motivates the family in selecting the ends it wishes to achieve nor in the means it chooses to employ to get there.
And so to us all...
But, you say, the "society" teaches us about farming. We don't think it up on our own. In many ways it guides and nudges and directs us. So does this not suggest some external "invisible hand" at work. Not really. Society, or culture, or more correctly the evolution of humanity over millennia, created farming - it is still self-generated, just in the long view, over the broader span of time. And within the Universe, where a billion light years is as a day, millennia are simply too insignificant a volume of time to suggest external creation.
The concept of "meaning" usually implies that there is some sort of end result or outcome that "explains" why something is happening and which is more than just the sum of all this selfish effort. That is what lies behind the idea of "design" in the Universe. Design implies an outcome, just as engineering results in a building, or a machine or a spaceflight to Mars. The meaning of farming is, in these terms, the survival of the farmer. The meaning of life in traditional Christian terms is often framed simplistically in terms of Heaven and Hell, and the apocalyptic end game of Christ's Second Coming and God's master plan. It is survival taken to a point beyond life.
In general terms, humanity can take this depth of meaning right off the table. There is not going to be any outcome. It's over. We're doomed. End of story.
The Sun, astronomers now understand, is a star of the type, quite common in the Universe, that exists in a relatively stable state for about 10 billion years. Although this star is a seething ball of nuclear holocaust on a scale unimaginable in earth terms, we happen to be on a planet just close enough to be warmed gently by it, and just far enough not to be incinerated. Our Sun has been living, in this state, for 5 billion years - half of its expected life span, and in about 5 billion more years it will expand into a gigantic Red Giant Star that will immediately consume all life on earth.
For animals whose rich and seemingly endless lives span under a century, 5 billion years seems an endless span of time - virtually an eternity. Surely, considering the vast strides in technology humanity has made in its short span of a few million years - from stone tools to space shuttles - we have plenty of time to solve this one - to find other inhabitable planets and develop the transport capabilities to move the human race there. We are so impressed with our own evolution that we have developed an auxiliary religion - a secular faith that says no matter what the problem, technology and science will solve it. We lack very much evidence that this is true, even when just dealing with the miniscule problems of life on earth. But we still believe we will conquer the Heavens.
The problem is a matter of scale. We cannot just move to Mars, because the Sun as a Red Giant will actually expand in size to at least the orbit of Mars, and consume it as well. We have to get completely out of town, not just move down the street. And here lies the impossibility. Were we to load all of mankind into a gigantic space ship today, a sort of intergalactic Noah's Ark, and speed away from the Sun at top speed, and were we all to be able to live in that ship for 5 billion years, we still would not have found a near world to inhabit before the Sun exploded and we were all destroyed.
So humanity has no outcome and "meaning" cannot be framed in terms of an outcome.
So Life is Meaningless?
No! No more than a Shakespeare play is meaningless. The meaning is found within the play, within the exercise of comprehending the drama. As in the example of farming, meaning is still about the process and the outcome - not the general outcome, but the particular outcome. Our outcome. And in this realm of our own lives, we have certain options, certain creative opportunities, a level of "management control".
Enlightenment comes when we recognize that meaning is self-generated. We enjoy the book. The process and the outcome. That is a passive relationship to meaning, which is as much as most of us ever can hope to attain. But when we become fully engaged in the process, when we write the book and then read the story, that encompasses all aspects of meaning.
Meaning is about creation - not the creation of the Universe, but our own act of creation within that infinitesimal fragment of the Universe we can claim as our existence. Personally, I find much more pleasure in discovering that "the meaning of life" is something within the grasp of my own hands and will, than that it is some illusive concept hanging out there just beyond reach, or worse, embedded inside some gigantic and uncooperative deity and the myths and rituals spawned in the dark ages of the past designed to get us closer to that deity.
Most of us, in our search for "meaning", are relatively passive about it. We sit, like diners in a dimly lit restaurant, waiting for the waiter to bring us a menu so we will know what to order. The problem is, the waiter never comes and the menu never arrives. But if we look across the room - we will notice that the door to the kitchen is ajar, and as we push it open we see inside a glorious panorama; foods of every description piled high on cutting boards, tables and cabinets. We can take down the pots and pans and make our own dinner, as we like it and as we please, sans menu and sans waiter.
This gives new meaning to the phrase "Carpe Diem" - "Sieze the Day". Not sieze the day in terms of sieze the opportunity that each coming day presents to us, but seize the day in terms of grasp the day - the way a sculptor grasps the clay, molding it and shaping it into something of beauty and grandeur. We form meaning by our own hands.
The end of the Beginning...
So this is a work in progress. Stay tuned, and don't fear the edge of the world - you can't fall off...
Time is observed by seeing change and measuring that change by cycles (day/night; spring/summer/fall).
Space is observed by seeing movement; things pass by relative to us, or we pass from point A to point B relative to things around us.
These concepts are familiar to observers, but they are artifacts of observation, not reality.
Let's look at space (movement) and time (cycles) at the atomic level. The electrons cycle endlessly (time) and the atom moves endlessly (space). The thing that is transcendent over both these is its effect. Effect is the nature of its interaction with all other reality. Its effect is an artifact of its self and is not changed by time or space. It is the same then as now; it is the same here or there.
You can say that this derives from the qualities of space and time which are embodied in it.
I believe that the concepts of space and time are derived from effect. These are artifacts of the act of observation, not of the reality being observed. Effect transcends space and time.
Effect can be seen as the character of the entity - its "personality". The personality of reality IS reality and transcends all manifestations of space and time until it is observed. Observation is the second level veneer the Taoists caution against. It is "speaking the unspeakable". It is "about" what is, not what IS. The word rain is not what rain is.
Space/time is to reality what market value is to a painting. No market value exists in the pigment or brushstrokes of the painting. Market value was not an intrinsic ingredient in the creation of the painting. The painting just "is". We introduce market value via the observer.
In fact the tree does not make a sound if no-one is there to hear it.
Dedicated to Dr. Robert Funk, Former State Archeologist of New York, who would have relished this discussion had he lived a little longer.
The end of the Middle...
As I said, this is a work in progress. Stay tuned, and don't fear the edge of the world - you can't fall off...
"We shall never cease our exploration; and after all our exploring, we will return again to the same place and know it for the first time."
No concept is so firmly embedded in New Age approaches to life experience than the concept of "living in the present", or "in the moment…", or "in the NOW." Purveyors of enlightenment, from the ancients Lao Tzu and Buddha down to the modern gurus of Thich Nhat Hanh ("Being Peace" and other essays) and Eckhart Tolle ("The Power of Now" - 1999), all stress the need to find ways to reach the ideal of living in the Now, often through complex and strenuous exercises of transcending meditation and re-focused consciousness.
And no-one can fault their fixation with the moment, as any who have achieved this state of elevation above the traditional modes of perception can attest. The feelings of satisfaction, peace, clarity and even euphoria that result can easily be classified as "enlightenment."
Since this phenomenon seems firmly rooted in qualities of human perception, let me first present my take on how perception works - what might be called the bio-mechanics of perception.
Most of us believe we are merely passive receivers of a rich and continuous stream of sensory input, much like water flowing into a glass from a faucet. The sum of this receipt is our sense of the world around us, and of our selves. Yet I find perception is largely a matter of illusion.
The continuity of perception is an illusion formed of millions of discrete micro-episodes of awareness - each occurring one at a time. Try and listen to two things at the same time - the ticking of a clock and the refrigerator running, or someone talking on TV and the sound of a lawnmower running in the neighborhood. You imagine you hear them both simultaneously, but when you actually try, you realize that you cannot hear both at the same time. You develop what seems to be a continuous awareness of both by the process of mind oscillating rapidly between each. If you listen to one you can't hear the other. But if you jump back and forth between each, you believe you hear both, just as the rapid panning of a radar antenna produces what appears to be a continuous image of planes in flight or storms passing over the land.
Our mind, or more correctly a thing we can call "Mind", is our perceptual intervention into external existence. Mind is not self-generating. It is selective and influenced by our will, and the resulting interaction of Mind and Existence, or Mind and External Reality, produces the sense of Self - our belief that we exist independently of the rest of reality. But Mind is not as passive as we may assume. It is active and creative; i.e., it is not just a recorder, but forms reality as much as it observes it.
In the example given above, when you think back or recall the past moments, you are certain each sound has continued uninterrupted and you have heard it all along. The reason these perceptions appear to be continuous is that the mind fills in the missing bits, the way it fills in the unheard sounds of spoken language or the lost fragments of printed words. People say we can read printed words when only 20% of the characters are visible because the fragments make up a recognizable and familiar pattern into which we can pour appropriate, but artificially created, perception; like mortar between bricks or like grout between the broken bits of a mosaic. Up close the mosaic is just a mass of un-integrated bits of colored stone whose only characteristic seems to be proximity. But as we draw away from them, we see a pattern that represents to us a completed or continuous picture. So as we drift away in time from the fragmentary perceptions of the present, where the only characteristic seems to be their proximity, our mind fills in between the broken bits and we imagine a picture - a continuity of perception that, in fact, is as much an illusion as the fragments of a mosaic. (Perhaps it is the inability to draw away from the fragments of immediate perception and place them into a context that underlies some forms of mental illness, such as autism.)
This illusion of continuity is precisely like the perceived motion of a film which is, in fact, a series of frozen frames. The perceived motion is an artifact of the mind as it extrapolates from hundreds of discreet still images, just as the perception of simultaneous sound in our example is the mind extrapolating from thousands of isolated micro-events; each a minute input of sound from one source or the other.
Within this illusion of continuous perception try to think of a time when you can hear both sounds at the same time. Each time you recall vividly the one sound, you cannot recall vividly the other. In fact it is impossible to recall both sounds together because you were only able to perceive one sound or the other. The continuity of the perceptual experience is an artifact of the "filling in" process. This process is facilitated by our experience - by "history". We have come to learn that events are linear and predictable. A clock ticks regularly and perpetually. So if we become aware of its ticking after a hiatus of awareness of it, we automatically assume that in between these two episodes of awareness the clock has been continually ticking. We hear a car on the highway and a second later we are again aware of the car and we assume between these events it has merely moved further along the road from point A to B.
The mind, in oscillations between discrete stimuli of hundreds of times a second, records enough disconnected fragments of perception to allow us to recollect as continuous even relatively unpredictable and nonlinear events. The oscillations of the perceiving mind are like the oscillations of a radar antenna; the blip of an object or the pattern of rain and storms is scanned periodically, but established in a methodical, linear evolutionary event. One sees disjointed images but assembles them into a continuous phenomenon.
We extrapolate from the known to the unknown, sort of like a mental game of connect the dots. Perhaps our earliest perceptions as infants are just of discrete and disconnected fragments of awareness. This is what Aldous Huxley calls "…the perceptual innocence of childhood." The child cannot contextualize - it doesn't have enough personal history to come up with a relevant "past" nor does it have enough abstract information to hypothesize a generalized past or future. So by default, it more or less exists in a present with slightly "feathered" temporal edges of a very finite "past" and "future".
The adult, however, has experienced a significant past and has acquired enough data to project a future in some detail and to some extent. We develop an understanding of patterns - we learn there is continuity. We begin to be able to understand observed reality the same way we learn to understand language - written and spoken - from collections of fragments appearing in linear fashion. The recognition of sequence - which is in fact the first recognition of past and future - allows us fill in, to remember and to anticipate.
In fact, it is the ability to contextualize - to place the current stimuli into a sequence that reflects a past/future continuum - that is crucial to our ability to understand experience. To successfully "use" the input, we need to recall how this stimulus fits into experiences we have already had, and how it signals the way we need to frame our actions relative to the future.
Now living in the moment, in the present, in the "Now", is the antithesis of contextualizing perception into a framework of past/future. Of course everyone recognizes the logical impossibility of "the present." It is an impossible and infinitesimal logical pivot-point between future and past. As soon as an awareness occurs, the thing perceived has already slipped out of the future and into the past. But the "Now" which is offered as enlightenment is only intended to be an approximation, a refinement - a limitation of the apparently infinite past and infinite future that we perceive our "selves" - in our "Mind" - to be existing between. Somewhere between the infinite (past/future) and the infinitesimal (present) is a little realm of perception which can be considered "Now". When Eckhart Tolle ("The Power of Now" - 1999) speaks of the "power of Now…", he is trying to convince us we should live in the present, and he is trying to show us how to do it. This is an easy sell to anyone who has tried to live in this finite realm of the present. It is an experience full of clarity, peace and even euphoria. But contrary to the teachings of the Zen masters, who urge endless study to achieve this state, I can turn it on like a switch.
We understand how this works by reflecting back on the bio-mechanics of perception - rooted in oscillations between discrete bits of sensory input. In this case it is not discrete sounds that represent the Mind targets, but rather it is the context points of "Past" and "Future."
The power of now is so immediate because you suspend Mind - the mental chatter, the constant contextualizing - which is the oscillation of mind between recollections of the past and anticipations of the future. The effect of these oscillations is to produce a sense of context or of position for the present. But the true experience of present - of what Tolle calls the "Now" - is in isolation from this sense of context. It suspends the past/future oscillation. As soon as one places themself in even the smallest context - a little bit of past and a little bit of future - the "now" is lost and the "present" becomes just a compressed version of the mental context. The chatter of mind in this more limited context is less dramatic because it has much less content to deal with - it is working on a past that is perhaps a few seconds old, and a future that is projected perhaps just a few seconds ahead in time. But the fact remains that it is still contextualized. The mind is still rapidly considering the past and the future. Mind whispers quietly, instead of talking loudly, and we imagine it has been silenced.
Mind exists only if there is oscillation - the same way electricity depends on waves - the oscillation of alternating current. To be released from Mind and to experience Now one must suspend this oscillation. The intensity of religious ecstasy - where one feels they are risen above the cares of the world - is due to the termination of the constant attempt to deal with context, with the mental oscillation between past and future. Religious conversion, which often results in immediate feelings of liberation and euphoria, releases us from that need - our lives are no longer in our hands, but are released to the hands of God. The euphoria of death, that some experience, is the ultimate release from Mind - from the constant contextualizing of past and future. It is finally the ultimate "present". The past is now irrelevant, and the future does not exist. "Now" is all there is left.
Why is it we so thoroughly enjoy our vacations, or travel to exotic places, as if each moment were magical and liberating? We are so distracted by the relative intensity of our daily experience, so fascinated with new places and new experiences, that we temporarily abandon the process of contextualizing. We quit worrying about paying the bills, things we said that we regret, problems we have to think about, people we have lost. The mind-chatter is gone - until we get back home. It is that mind-chatter; that endless contextualizing that goes on in our heads, that is so detrimental to our "bliss". It is loaded with anxiety; anxiety about what we have done and what we have to do. We are realeased for this, on our trip. For us the "past" is what we did yesterday and the "future" is what we are going to do tomorrow, and neither of these is connected to our "normal" lives. Embedded in the experience-saturated itinerary of our vacation, the present - the "now" - is today.
What is it about natural childbirth that allows one to be released from pain? Where is the magic that turns potential agony into peace? The highly ritualized breathing exercises are designed to focus the mind in the present and to shut down the past-future contexualizing oscillations. The disconnect with the anxiety of past-future is so complete, because of the prodigious effort needed to follow the rituals, that one is capable of actually blocking the pain response.
Of course you don't really block the background mind-chatter - you don't drown it out by conscious effort or by substituting something else in its place. You merely disconnect it - like you disconnect a phone line. The person at the other end of the line may still be talking, but you are not receiving. The reason you perceive clarity is because you have removed a screen of irrelevant perception from between you and the physical world. It is analogous to when the ambient noise level in a room drops to where you begin to hear subtle sounds. Ambient mind-chatter is just like ambient noise - it drowns out, interferes with and destroys what might otherwise be perceived.
White noise, like white light, absorbs everything to the extent that sound (or colors) are not visible. Remove that white noise or white light and what was always there, but was obscured, is revealed. We can only see the stars when the sun goes down. Not because the starlight becomes brighter but because the ambient light is deactivated.
We all know people who claim fantastic clarity of vision and dramatic insights into the world around them when high on drugs. We may experience a special appreciation for experience - music, nature, sex, food - even after a glass of wine. And at parties, when "stoned" in one form or another, we seem liberated from any of the negative aspects of our daily lives. That is the essential meaning of getting "high". When we get high, what we are really doing is not seeing more clearly, but simply breaking our connection with the ambient mind-chatter; we have cut the wires that connect us to non-present, contextualizing about incoming perception.
When we think of this sort of clarity of perception we think of enlightenment; the product of years of concentrated effort, study and meditation. But anyone can simply switch on this same clarity. How does the break with mind chatter and the focus on Now happen so quickly and completely? Because its root is not the creation of a complex new way of perceiving. It is the switching off of the old way; of the incessant oscillation of mind between past and future - the constant contextualizing that sets up the noise in the first place.
Let me use an analogy. That which creates light or sound in our world is the end product of a huge and complex infrastructure - of systems that have taken hundreds of years to perfect. Switching them off is simply a matter of throwing the switch by which we connect to that system. We cannot create light and sound by throwing a switch, if the systems are not present, just as we cannot create non-light and non-sound by building a system to generate darkness and silence. But we can create non-light and non-sound by simply disconnecting from the systems that create sound and light. The system is still there - the power is generated, the wires transmit it, the stereo is intact and functional, the lamp is intact and functional, but we have disconnected from it, so it is non-existent as a component of our perception.
Normally one receives the ambient mind-chatter of contextualization and the input of immediate perception simultaneously, just as one receives light from the stars and from the sun on a sunny afternoon. But the immediate un-contextualized present is not apparent until the mind chatter is removed, just as the stars can only be seen at night, when the sunlight has been removed.
Our sense of existence is built on the bio-mechanics of perception, which in turn is based on mental oscillation. Our sense of experience is rooted in the mind's oscillation between past and future. Turn off that oscillation completely and we are dysfunctional bordering on autistic. Turn it down very low - so extremely low we may best think of it as "off" - and we suddenly find ourselves living in the illusive "Now" - in a purity of the moment that we may not have felt since childhood.
The beginning of the End...
So this is a work in progress. Stay tuned, and don't fear the edge of the world - you can't fall off...
Incongruence: The Infrastructure of Moral Logic
We constantly draw conclusions about the actions of others. We apply some standard by which we determine if these actions are "right" or "wrong". These might correctly be called "moral judgments". It is how we determine the actions of others to be fair and equitable, or not. It is how we form opinions on policy, law and justice. We believe we base these on the bedrock of "moral logic" - a structure of consistent and incontrovertible axioms. Yet how often do we examine this underlying structure? How often do we test it to see if our judgments are in fact consistent and constant?
I see three basic moral environments in which such judgments are made, and far from being compatible components of a transcending morality, I find these to be contradictory and inconsistent.
The Social Framework
The first system of moral logic is based on what I would call "equity". This is most simply and directly stated in the axiom "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is perhaps the basis of law, in that all people are treated equally and universally by rules for "right" and "wrong" that do not change with time or circumstance. We strive to improve the world of social interaction by not inflicting on others acts which we would find objectionable if we had to suffer them.
By this standard, if it was immoral for the Soviets to drag those suspected of subversion out of their houses in the middle of the night to be imprisoned without due process, it would also be immoral for the United States government to do likewise. Most people readily accept this as a standard of "fairness".
This principle is violated when we call rebels against the British occupation of New England in 1776, and resistance fighters in Nazi occupied France in the 1940s, "freedom fighters", but label those who use military tactics to resist American occupation in Iraq "terrorists."
The Intellectual Framework
The second system of moral logic is based on what I would call "reciprocity". This is most simply and directly stated in the axiom "An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth." While this is often seen as the fairness concept behind the justice system, which punishes with like injury those who break the rules of society, it also is used to justify the endless conflicts we often point to as the biggest threat to order - terrorism. Getting even underlies this concept. And getting even fuels the conflicts in Palestine, Northern Ireland and other places where each side sees "justice" in their cause.
Unlike the concept of "equity", in this instance you do unto others the opposite of what you wish them to do unto you. You execute the murderer; you bomb the house of the bomber.
This principle is only violated if one attacks without being attacked. If no-one has poked your eye out, you must leave the eyes of others alone.
The Natural Framework
The third system of moral logic is based on what I would call "evolution". This is most simply and directly stated in the axiom "Survival of the fittest." This is a form of pragmatism that mimics the recognized process of biological evolution, where there is no "good" or "bad", but only that which successfully adapts - that which works.
This is a form of functionalism. There are no universals, for, like evolution, what is good - works - depends on the particulars of the environment. This fosters a form of situational ethic, which is familiar in the form of cultural relativism, but somehow pales as a basis for moral judgments.
These three systems are contradictory and incompatible, yet we use each and all as if they were not.
Equity and reciprocity would argue against an evolutionary stance tailored only to provide success to the instigator. It is certainly functional to use preemptive strikes to disable potential foes and maintain our position in the social environment, but this violates the sense of equity (they can use the same tactic on us) and reciprocity (they have not attacked us).
Yet we see the current administration proposing such an action as "moral". It appears the administration believes that whatever works to preserve the adaptability of this society in the world is self-justifying. In a sense it transcends "right" and "wrong". It is perhaps not surprising that those who see themselves as the targets of the "Natural" morality, and who perhaps are more committed to "Social" or "Intellectual" systems of moral logic, would see this as an "immoral" proposal.
If we choose to live by the functionalist code of "survival of the fittest", we must abandon the expectations of the morality of reciprocity, where our enemies may feel morally permitted to "do unto us" what we have "done unto them". And we must also abandon the morality of equity, because we certainly do NOT want others to do to us as we have done to them. That would defeat the whole purpose.
It seems our society is entering into a moral schizophrenia where in our ideal culture we still believe we hold to equity and reciprocity, but our real culture has embraced the situational ethics of the evolutionary model - the ultimate pragmatism of do whatever works and do whatever it takes.
Perhaps if we examined the inconsistencies within our own logical systems, we would recognize that these internal contradictions require some thought and some effort to transcend. Perhaps we need a synthesis - a new system that depends on the best of each. But, I am afraid that will be after the pendulum has first swung hard to the extreme edge of the new "moral" pragmatism.
December 12, 2004
On my 63rd birthday I can safely say that I have finally discovered the "secret of happiness"… or more correctly, the "essence of happiness," because it is not so much a "secret" - something hidden to be discovered with great effort - as it is a simple truth to guide the way you look for it.
First of all, you need to establish your self in the moment, the present, the "Now", and this is accomplished by reading, understanding and following the section on "Now" you find above this entry. Basically it involves disengaging your self from that constant contextualizing of experience by Mind, where the present is interpreted by its relationship to the past and the future. It is this endless oscillation between past and future that disrupts the euphoria of pure experience and the purity of the "moment".
But, admittedly, this disengagement can sometimes lead to a sort of blank or bland experience - intense, direct and infused with tremendous clarity, but not what most people would describe as "happiness".
What you then need to do, once you have stripped away the past and future and are floating in the clarity of the present, is to (ironically) re-establish a past and future. But this is not the long-term, dramatic and overwhelming past or future you just got rid of, which often stretches backward decades and forward for endless years. This is a near-term and intimate past and future of relatively modest proportions… minutes, hours, days.
Simply put, happiness depends on "anticipation" and "creation." First establishing yourself in the pure moment, you then need to re-inhabit the future with some form of anticipation - a party coming up, a trip you are planning, something coming in the mail… anything that in the near-term gives you excitement in looking forward. And you then also need to re-populate the past, not with memories of things that have happened years ago, not even with memories of those things you were just anticipating, but with things you have created. These things can be as grand as a painting, or as tiny as planting a flower. The idea here is that you are leaving something behind you that is outside of you; that adds to the world, that is caused to "become" because of your actions in the present.
I believe it is the deficit of creation (not "creativity", but the act of creating something) that is at the root of much of the human malaise. The joy that comes from making something, accomplishing something, causing something to exist that previous did not… this is impossible to match or duplicate, and substitutions (shopping, acquisitions, collecting) cannot approach that feeling.
Positioned, as you now will be, between this near-term future of anticipation and near-term past of creation, will make you happy, providing that your starting point is the disconnection of your mind from the oscillation between the long-term past and long-term future. In my experience, this is all it takes, and it works beautifully. The sensation that arises is, in my best estimation, what most people would describe as true "happiness".
The best statement I ever read of the meaning of immortality is found in Ray Bradbury's book "Fahrenheit 451", which paints a world most of us would rather die than live in. But one of his characters sums it up for me, and tags immortality onto the very "creativity" I have described above:
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Or something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a life-time."
As I said, this is a work in progress. Stay tuned, and don't fear the edge of the world - you can't fall off...