See Jane Run

Take a super-simple sentence – one of the earliest and simplest – and see if it doesn’t blow apart the universe as we know it.

See Jane run.

Let’s start with run. You and I and everyone we know take our bodies to be integral parts of ourselves. We walk, run, piss, screw, eat, digest, grow, age, decay, etc. We claim ownership of all of these activities. Yet in truth, we have absolutely nothing to do with any of it. You don’t decide to become hungry or to develop a need to pee, your body does it and then the mind says, “I’m hungry” or “I have to pee.”

The “I” that is appended to those sensations is just a habit of thought, isn’t it?

Back to the body.

You didn’t design that body, didn’t build it, don’t maintain it – you have absolutely nothing to do with it. If you did, you’d never have another ache or pain, would you? In fact, you’d probably just sit around having orgasms all day.

Moving on to see. Who or what is seeing? For starters your eyes ‘see’ only a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, what we call ‘visible light.’ The eyelids open, light is received, forms, shapes, colors perceived, and learned concepts – “table” “lamp” “chair” – are cognized by an unimaginably sophisticated array of neurons and synapses that, again, ‘you’ had absolutely nothing to do with. You, didn’t see, anything. Seeing happened.

Which brings us to Jane.

Jane fancies herself to be something called a “girl” or, at some point, a “woman.” She’s laid claim to ‘her body’ even though, at this point, it’s fairly obvious that that body and the thing known as Jane are nowhere close to being one and the same thing.

So let’s forget about the body. For discussion’s sake let’s just say Jane is inhabiting or using this body during her time on earth – that her body is a kind of lifelong Uber account that gets her head from Point A to B and so on.

Jane, then, is what, exactly, thought? Overlooking the inconvenient reality that the brain also is part of the body, let’s go with Jane as thought. What we know is that other than in deep, dreamless sleep, Jane is suffused with endless numbers of thoughts. Moment by moment come an endless progression of thoughts about her surroundings, her bodily sensations, and just about everything else as well.

In fact, Jane cannot think about thoughts without thought – to think about thought requires thoughts about thinking.

Furthermore, Jane and the universe of objects around her do not – indeed, cannot – exist in the absence of thought. Stare at an apple and drop all the concepts about it – apple, red, fruit, round, etc. – and what is left? In other words, thought doesn’t so much translate the world around us as create it. Without thought there is no world.

Meaning that without thought Jane does not exist. Jane is just another thought, albeit a lifelong habit. When she was very young, there wasn’t even a Jane-thought – Jane had to learn to be Jane and to be a girl and a human and how to run.

See Jane run. 

A Life Sentence of Solitary Confinement

It is said the worst punishment that can be meted out to a prisoner is solitary confinement. Lock someone in ‘the hole’ long enough and he starts to go mad (note the metaphorical connection between ‘hole’ and burial/death).

Seems rather clear to me now that this is pretty much the way each of us experiences life – through the prism of constant separation. And I think it drives everything we do – everything.

Look at it for yourself. Are you not in essence ‘locked’ up in a body/mind, separate and apart from everyone else? Is it not a ‘life sentence’?

Now, some might argue that while all this is true, death rather than separation is the greatest of all motivators, the biggest of fears.

I disagree. How can we fear something we have never experienced? Think about death for a moment and what you truly fear is the separation that comes with it. If we knew we weren’t going it alone, if we knew that a dying loved one would be waiting at the other side or, conversely, that we’d be waiting for them, would death still seem all that bad? “You go on ahead, I’ll be there soon.” Ho-hum, just another trip, but a more exotic destination.

Recall the expression, “Born alone, die alone.” Just four words, but one of them shows up twice. And it haunts us.

So great is our fear of separation that we cling to unhealthy relationships; accumulate money or fame or power, but for the admiration of others; obsess over our bodies or our dress. We even create gods who will supply our lives with eternal meaning and we tell ourselves our lost loved ones are ‘resting in peace’ or ‘looking over us.’ We cannot abide the idea of a permanent separation and, by extension, the impossibility of a permanent connection.

To which someone might respond, “I actually like my alone time. I need to retreat into nature to recharge.”

Yes. But notice you don’t ‘leave’ for it, you ‘retreat’ to it, meaning the plan ultimately is to return. We even label them ‘retreats’ because the ultimate goal is to return to life better able to reconnect with others through love, family, work, whatever. To re-connect.

Children in orphanages who are not held degrade physically and emotionally very, very quickly. Left unattended long enough and these little humans are forever damaged. The same with the elderly who, overlooked or forgotten, grow senile, depressed, and die.

So what to do?

Seems to me the first step is to stop. Really stop and question that earliest of stories in the mental library, the one that takes for granted this idea you were born and die, that you are THE subject in a universe of objects.

I mean, how weird is that? That YOU are the center of the entire universe. And you take it for granted.

Next, Mr/Ms Subject, consider that everything you fear and everything you do is predicated on finding and keeping a connection with one or more of these universal objects. More important, recognize the impossibility of this. It is impossible.

Meaning, you are a rat on a wheel, forever chasing a piece of cheese you will never, ever catch.

Suffering as an Offering

An avid reader as a child, at some point I remember being intrigued by a rather simple discovery: that most of the really interesting people in life came from difficult circumstances. I don’t remember any notable personalities, artists, writers, etc., emerging from the antiseptic world of suburban America (or any nicely developed stretch of society).

Suffering, it turns out, is the thing that churns up the sediment of the soul, leaves us uneasy, forces us to consider life through different filters. We hate suffering when we’re in the midst of it, but if we’re fortunate we also thank it when the dust has settled, when we’ve grown or learned something or evolved.

So you can imagine how happy I was to read another of Brain Picking’s marvelous essays, this time on Friedrich Nietzche’s belief that nothing meaningful comes of a life free of suffering. A fulfilling life, said Nietzche, is achieved “not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.”

The thing is, to one degree of another all of us know this. The best meal is one consumed when we are ravenously hungry; a fire is never quite so welcomed as when we are shivering from the cold; the thrill of a new love always feels that much keener when it interrupts a long stretch of loneliness.

But suffering alone isn’t enough. We need to be conscious of it, recognize it for what it is. Failure to do so means the suffering will come and go without meaning or purpose. Like so many, an awful lot of my life was characterized by suffering. But also like so many others, I spent the majority of that time simply trying to get out of it. The suffering was something to be avoided or transcended or ignored – certainly not embraced or at least studied.

It was not until the Mother of All Existential Crashes in early 2006 that it at last occurred to me that god, life, whatever, was trying to tell me something. That a lifetime of gradually escalating suffering was an offering rather than some form of punishment. And I’m oh-so grateful that something – a grace, if you will – at last saw that suffering for what it was and rather than working to overcome it instead focused on understanding it. That, of course, remains a work in progress.

So here’s the question: Once we come to see suffering as a gift, why do we nevertheless work so hard to keep those we love from experiencing it? Why, as parents, do we strive to shield our children from any form of suffering, to remove all of life’s hard edges, to grease the skids so that they might “enjoy a lifetime of material comfort and success”? Why, when a loved one weeps from pain, do we instinctively wrap our arms around them, whisper that it will be ok, or wish that we might take away their pain?

It is telling that, when asked what he most wanted for those he loved, Nietzche responded: “Suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.” He added: “I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.”

The brain – not just human, every species’ brain – is said to have evolved to enable increasingly sophisticated creatures to safely navigate a world that otherwise might eat, burn, drown, or crush its them. The brain developed sophisticated neural pathways and motor connections to warn: “Cliff! Lava! Alligator!” It learned to separate pleasure from pain, to seek more of the former and to avoid the latter.

But the thing is, the brain never ceases in such pursuits. Like a mindless (pun intended) automaton, the brain keeps seeking comfort and eschewing pain regardless of how well-appointed the home, how stocked the pantry, how healthy the body. We become ‘helicopter parents’ endlessly obsessing about the welfare of our children; we become hypochondriacs racing to the doctor for every ailment real or imagined; we grow fat and indolent while our children become dull-eyed and complacent.

Helen Keller, who knew something of suffering, noted: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Interesting, isn’t it, that she led with a strengthening of the soul? To Keller and her ilk, ‘ambition’ and ‘success’ were not to be measured in the figures of a bank statement or the comfort of a home – they were to be measured in understanding the very nature of existence itself, why we are here, who or what we are.

Maybe, in the end, the ultimate expression of love for another is, as Nietzche suggested, to hope for our loved ones a modicum of suffering; to let them thrash about, to struggle for air, to dive deep within and not merely cry out, “Why me?” but to go further and ask, “What am I?”

The Loneliness of God

In the sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” our heroes discover that most of the once-familiar faces around them are, in fact, hostile aliens in cloned human costume. The story resonates precisely because it taps into that most primal of human fears: that each of us is truly alone in a hostile universe.

This is the Great Conflict of the Human Ego, the one each of us ultimately is destined to face. Our minds have convinced us that we are real; that we were born, we will die, and in between we will live lives of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies.

To debunk that mistaken illusion is not exactly rocket science. Anyone with half a brain can look at, say, a tree and recognize that ‘it’ does not end and the rest of the universe begins. A child, of course, will point to the tip of a root or the end point of a leaf and suggest these are the demarcations. But a bit of education about photosynthesis, rain, soil, decomposition – not to mention quantum physics – puts an end to all of that.

And of course, the same can be said of you and I. There is no start or end to this thing called ‘me,’ no life separate and apart from the planet upon which it depends. Up from the sea rises this little wave of me, back down ‘I’ go, repeat.

So with just a modicum of inspection we see that everything truly does stem from everything else, no separation, no entities of any kind, and that there must indeed be a ‘singularity,’ a God from which some kind of Big Bang of imaginary existence originated, the start of the Dream.

And isn’t that kind of lonely?

Something in my consciousness must have known it was my final ayahuasca ceremony, that I’d soon be heading back to the ‘real world.’ And so rather than the usual phantasmagorical array of geometric structures and colors and sounds, there was simply a garden, stunning and calm, water and lilies, serenity itself. And then there was a gently arcing wooden bridge and on that bridge rested a beautiful white lotus flower and in that instant I became the lotus and I knew – knew beyond any doubt – that I was God, the One. And as this lotus-self opened came the universe itself and my heart felt as if it would explode from the joy of this recognition. It was beautiful and magnificent and blissful.

And then it was lonely. Terribly lonely.

I was the One, but in the immortal words of Three Dog Night, “one is the loneliest number,” and there was this terrible recognition that I created the universe so that I might know myself. This is, of course, not a new concept – the mystical types have been telling us this for years. But not discussed is the loneliness of that proposition, the idea of a cosmic Orphan forever hatching a universe of others that it might enjoy companionship.

Kind of a bummer, isn’t it?

A Wave to God

Sitting on the beach last week, watching the waves rise and fall, rise and fall. The tide rolling in, receding. Clouds building, abating. Birds (and humans) coming, going.

Any or all of it a perfect metaphor for life, for existence itself. Little wonder that the mystics so often use the ocean and its waves to explain the IDEA of a self.

My infinitely patient teachers are forever reminding me that I am OF the ocean, not separate or apart from it. That you and I and our neighbors APPEAR to rise up out of its depths (birth), spend a brief period of time scooting across its surface (life), before merging back into it (death).

The mind mistakes the journey as a thing called ‘me’ and ‘my life.’ Yet upon investigation no such entity or phenomenon can be found.

Thoughts, yes. A physical body, yes. But thoughts arise and abate like the clouds above our heads. And the body is of – and returns to – other elements which are themselves of other elements and so on for eternity. None of it has any substance unto itself.

Yet this remarkable illusion (or dream, if you prefer) persists.

One of those teachers recently shared this with me. Its wisdom profound and so easily overlooked.

Before the cloud appeared, the conditions were there for that cloud – the moisture and the air and the wind – and the eyes to see that cloud.

Cloud does not have a new existence – a separate existence which begins and ends – it is only a formation of something that already exists. Yet we think of the cloud as a “thing” and we give it independence when it really never had any. 

If we apply that to anything in the universe, if we walk that process back, we find that there never was a real beginning of existence to any “thing.” Something IS – and from that all “things” appear and disappear. All “things” ARE THAT, in essence, whatever THAT IS. We might say THAT, that ESSENCE, is pure existence – pure Being – formless – pure potential to BE any “thing.” 

To me, the key passage here is “the eyes to see that cloud.” Here is where the dream begins, the illusion forms, the me is born. Any of us can see that a cloud is formed of wind and moisture, that it is of other things. But we overlook that so too are the eyes ‘seeing’ the cloud, the mind processing that image, the self supposedly lurking in that mind and the experience of seeing a cloud.

We spend (waste) this temporary existence attempting to improve these bodies, these imaginary lives. But instead of celebrating and agonizing with the rise and fall of our little wave, why not inquire into the ocean from which we supposedly appear?

Yes, just another thought….