Friday, March 28, 2014

Woody Allen, Nihilism, and the Creative Impulse

[Note: I wrote this essay a few weeks ago, when I was just planning on re-starting this blog. Now the subject matter has fallen out of the news, but it's still an interesting topic, and a good break from the usual non-dualism talk I've promised not to get lost in. So here goes, better late than never]

Woody Allen's family scandals have been in the news quite a lot these days, with the resurfacing of accusations of child molestation by his adopted daughter Dylan dating from the time of his messy separation from Mia Farrow in 1992, brought on by revelations of his affair and subsequent marriage to one of Mia's other adopted older children, Soon Yi Previn.

I'm not sure the tangled mess of the Allen-Farrow family can ever be adequately sorted out by outsiders as to what actually happened, or if that even matters to anyone not personally connected to that scene. What interests me is the discussion about Allen's art and philosophy of life that it has provoked, and in particular the significance of Allen's own deeply held views about the meaning of life, or the lack of same, and how that is reflected back and forth between his life and his art.

In particular, I found this article by Damon Linker to be provocatively interesting, if also deeply flawed. His opening thesis is put forth here:
I don't know what did or did not happen between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow more than 20 years ago, and neither does Nicholas Kristof. What I do know is that Allen is a moral nihilist. This should not be taken as evidence that he sexually molested Mia Farrow's adopted daughter when she was 7 years old, or taken as a sign that he'd condone such behavior. But it does mean he espouses a philosophical outlook that renders him powerless to condemn it.
This is a common criticism of secular, atheistic philosophy - its supposed impotence in the face of evil, which includes an inability to even call evil by its name. In some cases that might even be true. But is it true of Woody Allen and his art? Not by a long shot. In fact, I think a sincere understanding of Allen's art reaches the opposite conclusion, not least because Allen has himself made much fun of nihilism and ridiculed it with great comic effect in his movies.

Allen's comedic and film oeuvre is not entirely distinguished or consistent, to be sure. It is often highly personal, even self-indulgently so, and documents his own evolving notions about life and morality in twists and turns that often make even his admirers seasick. And yet it is hardly what one could call nihilistic, though some of his films do touch on the subject of nihilism, most prominently Crimes and Misdemeanors, considered by many to be his best work. Without going into detail (Linker already does that) the movie's basic plot could be summarized as "bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people." The key message seems to be that the universe simply does not reward or punish people on the basis of their moral worth, and that expecting it to do so is delusional and sets us up for terrible disappointments.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Three Card Monte Enlightenment Scam

One of the most common neo-Advaitic or neo-Buddhist tricks that gets played by the "awakened" set these days is to point to the simple fact that our everyday awareness has no visible ego in it, and with a bit of three-card Monte misdirection and creative shuffling of concepts, viola! - suddenly we can see that every negative emotion or thought we've suffered arises within a radiant, luminous, transcendental awareness or emptiness, and we have either rigpa or the Self at our fingertips, and now we are not just on the road to enlightenment, we are already there.

Did you miss that? Okay, let me slow down the card-palming a moment and point out how the trick is done. The neo-Advaitin or neo-Buddhist teacher begins with the simple trick of claiming that there is only one mind, or one reality, and that of course this is it, right here and now, in this present moment, just as we experience it. Who's going to argue with that? This is the setup, and it's very important that no one question it, because without this setup the whole game falls apart. But we've all heard that reality is non-dual, and that nirvana and samsara is the same, and that we are the Self, so what's to question? Doubting that would be dualistic delusion, right?

Okay, so that part is settled. Next step is to examine our awareness in this moment, and to point out that we are always looking at objects of one kind or another. Thoughts, or perceptions obsess us, and preoccupy our attention. But...what about the awareness that is aware of these objects and thoughts? If we simply invert attention on its own awareness for a moment, we can see that sure enough, this basic awareness we have right now is distinct from the objects or thoughts we perceive. We can see that awareness itself is actually an empty screen of sorts, and that thoughts and perceptions themselves have no real solid substance to them in our minds.

And guess what? There's a kind of relief in seeing that. Even a kind of temporary bliss and happiness we can find in it. Because, for sure, these things that bother us aren't actually real, they're just thoughts! And this ego we've been so troubled by? Well, it's just like these thoughts, it's just a thought itself, and not real. The awareness that is aware of these is the only reality, and it, too, is empty and untroubled. So, just notice that, be that awareness, and we are released from all the trouble we previously thought ourselves to be in. In fact, if we invert just a bit on this awareness, we can experience some sort of amazing pleasure and even inexplicable bliss. Who knew?

Simple, right? No need to do anything more than keep repeating this insight, and keep pointing to our own awareness, inverting upon it, and by that process becoming more and more free, happy, even enlightened. It doesn't get any better than that!

Well, there's a few little problems with this approach to non-dualism.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Cosmology of Reality and the Ego

A reader PM'ed me a series of questions in regard to a recent post, Ego As An Emergent Phenomena.
Nice article.  And surely you're right that simply seeing that the ego is not  there as a simple entity is far from the end of it.  But I do have a question (too long to add as a comment):
Surely infinite consciousness doesn’t all just latch onto this particular body-mind!  At best a tiny fraction of it does. So why in the world would “consciousness’ begin to suffer and feel isolated?  Even if we suppose it latches onto ever body-mind that it is aware off.. surely there is much more to consciousness than that?
The contraction, which is tangible enough, seems to be a contraction of the body-mind-and that part of consciousness identified with it. 
In certain states, certain kensho experiences,  there is still the separate self, but no longer the contraction.  Although it may feel that in these cases what one is, is boundless, nevertheless the perceptual field is that of this particular body-mind, yet without any of the previous feelings of contraction.
It is then may be a further discovery that in some sense this is in fact something universal.
So what felt contracted and isolated previously was that particular viewpoint of consciousness which is still defined by this body-mind, though not necessarily “identified” with it.
These are excellent questions, and I appreciate the dialog. I gave him some quick short answers, but said I'd really need to expand this into a full post to begin to adequately respond.

I think it's necessary here to examine the origins of our assumed cosmology of the ego-phenomena, and not merely address the aftermath of it, in our present relationship to the body-mind. As I tried to describe in the previous post, our personal sense of ego or self is merely an emergent phenomena derived from the "storm" produced by identification with the body-mind. But that wording, as the reader points out, might leave the impression that it is this present self or ego that identifies with the body-mind as it seems to us, a limited and separate phenomena from our own consciousness, which is not actually the case. The process of identification begins long before the self or ego arises as an emergent product of that identification. So while it may seem to be the case that this self or ego of ours identifies with the body-mind, that's not actually how it works. And that is why understanding this process can seem so confusing.

I don't think I can respond to this question without describing my own personal experience of it, because that's how I relate to it. I try to keep a foundation in traditional teachings about this matter, but at bottom, I'm just responding to the things I've seen and experienced, the visions I've had about this process, and what I've made of them. I don't pretend that any of this is authoritative or complete or even true, but it's where I'm coming from, so just take it for whatever it's worth to you. Make use of whatever aspect of it seems recognizably true.

One of the most powerful visions I've had about the cosmology of non-dual reality began from the position, if you could call it that, of the Absolute Reality, in which there is simply and only the single, non-dual living Conscious Being of infinite, formless form, like a gigantic Amoeba, infinite in all directions, formless in nature, but also containing all forms, without the slightest separation whatsoever. These forms within the formless reality appeared like an infinitely thin "skin" on the surface of this Absolute Being, like a beautiful, shiny oil slick on the surface of an infinite ocean, glowing with infinite radiance, and utterly non-separate from that ocean, like infinitely tiny glowing waves moving on its surface. Every form appearing on this "skin" was like a wave of infinite light, and each form was itself infinite as well, and also infinitely conscious of itself. The sight was unimaginably beautiful and complete, one without a second, with no contradictions involved.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ego As An Emergent Phenomena

One of the common assertions being made these days among the non-dual set about the ego is that it doesn't exist, and that we can demonstrate this by examining ourselves directly, and not finding it. Because we can't find an actual "thing" we can say is the ego, it must not exist, or so the reasoning goes.

A lot of people seem to find this very convincing, even definitive, and employ it as a conversation stopper whenever someone brings up any reference to the ego. Mention the ego, and like clockwork someone out there will stop you in your tracks, and say, "but there is no ego, and therefore it can't do anything, and therefore we are not responsible for whatever it is you might attribute to the ego". The problem with this argument is that it assumes two highly debatable points:

first, that someone has actually examined themselves thoroughly enough, top to bottom to actually say for sure that the ego is not there.

second, that the ego has to have some sort of definable, identifiable center or substance to exist.

I have to point out that just because you can't readily find the ego, doesn't mean it isn't there. Most "things" in this world that are subtle enough, or complex enough, to have meaningful effects can't be easily reduced to some substance or "thing". But that doesn't stop us from observing their effects, or otherwise seeing the pattern they create. By observing those effects, we can infer their reality, and describe their characteristics and qualities with some degree of certainty.

Take something as simple as an electron. We can't actually see electrons, and we don't really know what they are when it comes down to it, but we can infer their existence from the effects we see when they move and interact with our environment.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Dialog On Identification With The Body

I've gotten a few responses to my essay on "What Enlightenment Is, What It Isn't, Why You're Not Enlightened, And How You Can Be", posted a couple of days ago. One of them, in a Facebook thread created by my friend and sometime sparring partner Jeannie McGillivray, is worth looking at. I've cut and pasted it here, taking out the comments from others, and focusing on the exchange between Jeannie and myself. I've included comments from some others in the conversation to make clear what Jeannie is responding to in some of her own comments. If the thread continues, I'll add to it down below. Anyone on Facebook can follow the thread there, either by following the link above, by going to Jeannie's timeline, or by following or friending either one of us on Facebook.

Jeannie McGillivray
London, United Kingdom ·

I saw a very thorough blog post from someone about Enlightenment yesterday, and part of the post was about what Enlightenment is, and isn't, in their opinion, and this person defined it like this "Identification With The Body-Mind Is Un-Enlightenment, And Enlightenment Is Freedom From Identification With The Body-Mind". Interesting.

This got me wondering... "Can we ever truly sustain identification with the body-mind?" I know I can't, my experience is that my normal state is in fact dis-identified with anything at all. For example, when I'm engaged in an activity at work, am I identified with the body or thinking? No, I'm not identified with anything, I'm just life happening. How about whilst sleeping? No, I'm not identified with anything. Eating? No. Driving? No... and on it goes.

In fact, isn't this true for us all? Could it be that every now and then we simply have a thought that reminds us of the body or mind or a thought about something that we do or don't like, and that to us this the very presence of this type of thought says we're identified or un-enlightened?

Conversely, can we ever truly sustain dis-identification with the body-mind I wonder? As the living reality that we are, as life itself, how would that work? Would there be a state that prohibited certain types of thoughts, or would the thought "I'm fat" or "I'm crap at this", or similar!!, arise and we would pay no mind to it? If that's the case, don't we normally do that already? I mean, I'd find it pretty challenging to think about being fat or crap or great or rich or poor all the time!!

So, this brings me to wonder "Is 'Enlightenment' or 'Un-Enlightenment' just a thought?". "Can we or anything in life be defined in fixed terms like "I'm enlightened", "He's enlightened?" "She's enlightened" "I'm not enlightened", "He's not enlightened" "She's not enlightened"?" Aren't we all both? And, if we could be fixed, would we actually want to be? I mean, it seems to me that we are all aliveness itself, pure unpredictable potentiality. As such aren't we undefinable, unpredictable or even unknowable? Do we know what we are? Is it possible to know that?

Can we be free to be free or fixed, identified or dis-identified? Can we simply see it all as an idea? If we can, what happens then?

In breath, out breath, in breath, out breath. Know, don't know, know, don't know. Expand, contract, expand, contract. Isn't this the natural way of all life? Isn't it OK? Isn't it more than OK? Isn't it natural? Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it awesome? Isn't it Divine?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Scientific Proof That The Self Is On The Right Side Of The Chest

Apparently, science has finally caught up with Ramana Maharshi's teaching on the location of the Self:

From Slate:

"Psychologists Adrian Alsmith of the University of Copenhagen and Matthew Longo of the University of London asked 10 blindfolded adults to use a metal pointer to motion at “themselves.”* Most people indicated their upper torso area. Then, perhaps to ensure participants hadn’t just made the gesture that required the least physical effort, the researchers steered the pointer around the test subjects’ bodies. Again, a majority of people told them to stop when their chests were tagged. As Alice Robb at the New Republic reports, Alsmith and Longo explain the results by suggesting that “the torso is, so to speak, the great continent of the body, relative to which all other body parts are mere peninsulas. Where the torso goes, the body follows.”

However, the entire issue was settled long before this, by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Notice where he points at 1:07.

If that isn't definitive, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Enlightenment Is, What It Isn't, Why You're Not Enlightened, And How You Can Be

The Current Scene

If we survey the non-dual spiritual scene in the West these days, we find vastly different views about enlightenment and awakening. Some are quite insightful and genuine, but many seem simplistic, derivative, contradictory, misguided, or patently false. It is quite common for idealistic people of all stripes to claim all sorts of spiritual awakening, based on all kinds of experiences and ideas, and then to loudly proclaim them to the world, quickly becoming writers, teachers, and Gurus of these non-dual truths, leaving us to wonder what is at the bottom of this whole enterprise, other than the usual human vanity. Seeing so much confusion and delusion in this movement, many are tempted to simply dismiss all of it as patent nonsense, without examining the source of both the delusions, and the genuine realities.

Some claim that enlightenment is the discovery that there is no separate ego, often by those who have examined themselves, and failed to find a tangible ego present. Others equate it with the discovery of a non-dual, all-pervading spiritual Presence within oneself that supersedes and "saves" us from the separate ego-identity. Many say that enlightenment is the discovery that we are pure, unblemished, primordial awareness, empty of self. Some claim that enlightenment is found in accepting our ordinary daily awareness as our true self. Each of these insights, and many more, are presumed to be the revelation of an inner enlightened consciousness that we can awaken to relatively easily, and that once this occurs even once, we need not bother with the search, or even any further spiritual practice other than reminding ourselves of these truths, and allowing the power of this awakening to unfold within us.

Most of these awakened teachers try to equate this process with the non-dual traditions of Hindu Advaita Vedanta or classical Buddhism and its many offshoots, while yet retaining independence from any responsibility to these traditions, as if we are in the midst of a new, modern western spiritual awakening with its own standards and teachings, only loosely related to what has come before it, but essentially realizing the same enlightenment, just shorn of their traditional sectarian culture and mythology.

Even though many of these awakenings have been inspired by the teachings of modern Advaitic teachers like Ramana Maharshi or Sri Nisargdatta Maharaj and their students, it is not generally felt that awakened westerners need study or seriously understand those traditional teachings or their approaches, much less apply them to their own individual cases. To them, their own awakenings stand apart as self-evident truths that need no outside corroboration or traditional wisdom. Others come from Buddhist or even Christian backgrounds, and yet feel free to play it very loose and fancy-free, able to stretch those traditions however they need to in order to accommodate their own viewpoint and experience. What all seem to have in common is a reliance on their own immutable personal experience as their primary guide to understanding what enlightenment is and how it is to be cultivated, rather than on the teachings of those traditions or Gurus, which at best serve as ways to affirm their own experience as true and valid rather than merely imaginary - and where they differ from these traditions, this is taken as a sign of either the corruptions of those traditions, or their lack of relevance to spirituality in the modern world, rather than a lack in their own experience and understanding.

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