When someone speaks negatively about you, you usually feel that you need to retaliate. Every time you react, you create certain neural-pathways in your brain. The more you react, the more you strengthen those same pathways, while weakening others.
Overtime you build the habit of always reacting in a particular way whenever someone is negative toward you. These habitual reactions then lead you into more anger, fear, and hatred. Your need to punish whoever is causing you suffering, so you can find some sense of relief, only makes you suffer more.
Although habits are challenging to break, your mind is capable of changing. You can water the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love in your inner garden. You don’t have to water the seeds of anger, fear, hatred, delusion, and craving. When you are aware of what you are doing, of how you’re thinking and feeling and perceiving, you won’t react as blindly to the events of your life.
When someone is unpleasant, you want to react. You want to cause them the same amount of suffering that they caused in you. Only then, you believe, will you be satisfied, but you never are for long. While it is common to react when you feel angry, misunderstood, unloved, and so on, there is another option.
You can pause instead.
When you pause, you can use those few seconds to make peace with yourself. You can be mindful of your anger, fear, sadness, and uncertainty. You can be aware of what may happen if you do react.
All you need to do is return to your breath.
Counting deeply, notice what is happening: your heart beating, your head aching, your shoulders tensing. When you stop to breathe in and out, in and out, you can transform your destructive energy into compassionate energy.
Every irritation will be a chance for you to come back to yourself.
When you are angry with someone, you are usually more focused on them than on your own feelings. Your house is on fire, but rather than putting out the flames, you want to burn everything down.
If you can find the inner-space to tend to your own anger first, you will begin to feel relief. When you embrace your feelings, when you do not add fuel to the raging fire, you will gain insight into who you are. Then you can make more skillful choices.
You can acknowledge to yourself, “Breathing in, I feel anger. Breathing out, I feel anger.”
You kill your anger when you smile to it.
When you show compassion to yourself, you can turn what is destructive into what is healing. You don’t need to hide from anger or pretend that it doesn’t exist or judge yourself so harshly. Your tender care of your anger will make you a more peaceful person.
Sometimes when your emotions are loud, you cannot hear what other people are saying to you. When you can sit quietly with yourself — neither judging, expecting, nor condemning — then you can hear the world again. You and the world are one.
As you look at your thoughts, you can let go of your thoughts. As you look at your feelings, you can let go of your feelings. You can see what arises and passes.
When you are in a conversation, you don’t need to interrupt, justify yourself, or blame. You can just hear what someone is saying. Even if they are hateful, greedy, or full of wrong perceptions, you can listen to them deeply.
You can help them, even if only through your presence, your loving words, or your small actions. When you see their humanity in yourself, you want them to be free from their suffering.
Through a regular practice of mindful breathing, you can make peace with yourself.
When you are kind to your suffering, you can relieve the suffering of others.
Often when people listen to each other, they don’t really listen to each other. They only hear their own interpretations, opinions, and beliefs.
When you are not calm, when your mind is muddied by thoughts and feelings, then you are not aware. You react to events blindly then, lost in your stories. When you are present, you sink into stillness, connected to your mind-body. Muddy water clears when you are still.
If you feel upset, you don’t have to speak or act out. Return to your body instead. Breathe in and out. Listen to the other person’s perspective without internally commenting on whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. Speak truthfully, but compassionately, trying to understand what they mean.
Will your speech cause more suffering or will it bring harmony to your relationships?
When you make a mistake, apologize. You don’t have to conjure up excuses to justify yourself. Apologies can relieve a lot of suffering in the other person. At the same time, don’t abuse yourself either.
Practice forgiveness so you can let go of your burdens and begin again.
When you suffer, your suffering will affect others.
When you are peaceful, your peace will radiate out from within.
There is already a lot of violence in civilization. You have to be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, so that you do not contribute to more hatred, fear, anger, greed, and ignorance. Violence only creates more violence. To prevent the next war, you must practice peace now.
In Zen Buddhism, when you walk, you are walking. When you sit, you are sitting. When you are going to the bathroom, you are going to the bathroom. Whatever you are doing — whether you’re sweeping the floor, listening to a song on the radio, or biting into an apple — you are fully aware of what is happening. You are caring for each moment like you’re cradling a baby in your arms. When you’re fully engaged in your life, you’re not separate from what is outside of yourself. You (the subject) and what is out there (the object) melt away.
When you practice Zen, you’re not only practicing on the meditation cushion. Zen is ordinary life. There is no real difference. What happens is happening with no clinging to what is happening. “Forgetting the self is the act of just doing the task, with no self-consciousness sticking to the action.” (Aitken, Robert)
When you lose yourself in storylines, you can return to where you are. You don’t need to beat yourself up, saying, “I’m such a bad person for thinking, for feeling upset, for worrying so much.” Just note that you have drifted away from the present. Then you can come back, over and again.
It’s natural to feel sad and mad, excited and bored, and on and on. You are a human. You don’t need to block out your feelings and thoughts and sensations. You’re not a stone or a block of wood. Instead of seeking distractions, rationalizing, intellectualizing, or forming judgements, watch what is here, now, arising and passing. Breathe and let go.
Anger comes, anger goes. Sadness comes, sadness goes. Peace comes, peace goes. Your shoulders may tense up, your heart may beat faster, your insides may hurt, a bird may chirp on a nearby tree, and two squirrels may chase each other over an acorn. There is no need to hold on. You can smile instead. You can smile to your fear, smile to your happiness, smile to your tears, smile to your indifference.
From looking at your fear, you can see the fear of other beings. Your desire for happiness is like so many others before and after you. Your joy becomes their joy. Your suffering becomes their suffering. When you are peaceful, you want others to be peaceful. Their peacefulness becomes your peacefulness, their happiness becomes your happiness, their suffering becomes your suffering. When someone is in pain, their pain often spills over on those closest to them. Instead of judging them, you can love them. You can tend to them in your heart because you tend to yourself.
“In Zen, we practice to realize what has always been true. We wipe away concepts and hang-ups, delusions and attachments, but as Hakuin Zenji says, ‘Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.’” (Aitken, Robert)
When you can see through your delusions, there is space. Freedom. You no longer need to blindly react. You are simply here, aware of what comes and goes. You see the phenomena of the past, present, and future — interacting, changing together, inside you, around you, inside and around you. Everything is a cause and an effect.
When you are sitting, you are sitting. When you are standing, you are standing.
You are standing on the soil, in the sun, in the air, near the sea, under the trees. You’re standing with the bees pollinating the flowers and the birds eating the worms and the caterpillars crawling on leaves. You’re standing with your ancestors and descendants. You are standing because of the stars that burst millions of years ago. You depend on so many things to be. In every moment, you inter-are with your ancestors, with your feelings, with your thoughts, with a mountain that is two thousand miles away.
Everything is changing with each other.
You are not separate from the rest of the universe. You’re an expression of it — going as far back as the Big Bang, as far back as subatomic particles forming into atoms, and possibly even before that. You’re made up of the sun just as the sun is made up of you. You cannot be without spacetime, without the rain, without the carbon dioxide that you exhale, without the roots beneath your feet. What is out there, what is in you, is an interrelated process.
What you cultivate in yourself is not only for yourself, but for others as well. You are already perfect, yet you have a lot of work to do. Through your lifelong practice, you can let go of what holds you back from seeing yourself as you are. But who are you?
Even if you disagree with Peter Singer’s conclusions, his argument, if taken seriously, will make you question a few things about your own life:
1.) How much am I actually doing to prevent the suffering of the world?
2.) If I have the means to prevent the suffering of others, but I am choosing to eat out at a fancy restaurant every week instead of helping a baby who is dying of malnutrition, am I truly being moral?
3.) Am I doing all that I can to help others, or am I only doing a fraction of my capacity, due to my own self-interest?
4.) What is the right amount of aid that I can give without sacrificing my own well-being? In other words, what is the right balance between what I can do for others without harming myself? How extreme should my generosity be?
5.) What makes the lives of those who live in countries far away from me any less valuable than those who live in my own community? They are as human as I am. I can ignore their suffering by distracting myself with material comforts, but then, I would not be living responsibly, honoring the dignity of those who are mistreated, helping those who need medical care and food and shelter, or harmonizing my ideals with my actions.
Epictetus (50–135 CE) was born as a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia. After Emperor Nero’s death, he eventually gained his freedom and taught Stoic philosophy in Rome for close to 25 years. Emperor Domitian, who feared the dissenting influence of philosophers, banished Epictetus from his home. He traveled to Nicopolis in the northwest of Greece and developed his own school, teaching in exile until his death. His ideas impacted historical figures such as Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although Epictetus never wrote down his teachings, his disciple Arrian, who was a famous historian, recorded what he had said.
Epictetus’s main works are the Discourses and the Enchiridion.
Sharon Lebell has interpreted his timeless philosophy in “A Manual for Living.” She is the author of such inspiring works as “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness” and “The Music of Silence: Entering the Sacred Space of Monastic Experience.”
Lessons of Epictetus:
1.) Some things are in your control and other things are not. Some of the things in your control are your opinions, aspirations, desires, aversions, and actions. These things are under your influence to a certain degree. Some of the things that are not in your control are the body you are born with, who your parents are, and your status.
Once you have learned what is in your control, don’t concern yourself with what is not in your control. Your death, for example, is not in your control, but your attitude toward the idea of death is in your control. Your response to your fleeting time on earth, to the death of a family member and friend, to how you communicate with those who are grieving, is in your control.
2.) Events are as they are. Your interpretation of different events is what gives them meaning, value, and significance. If you’re undisciplined, you will divide your experiences into rigid categories of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false.
Your judgements create heaven and hell.
3.) What matters is what you can do with what you are given. Look for opportunities in every obstacle you encounter and respond in an appropriate manner. You may need patience for adversity, self-restraint for lust, humility for criticism, compassion for the suffering of others.
4.) You cannot be expected to give what you do not have, whether that is money, power, time, or skills. If you can help, do so without any expectations. If you can become powerful and rich and famous while still maintaining your integrity, then do so.
At the same time, you will be challenged throughout your life. To preserve your integrity, to make the right moral choices, you may need to let go of a certain level of comfort, status, and money. You may even be ridiculed or persecuted for holding onto what you value as true and ethical. When you focus on what you can do with what you have, you will live harmoniously. When you neglect what is in your control and resist what is natural, you’ll never be at peace.
5.) Events are impersonal — neither good nor bad. They will unfold as they do, despite all your wishes and expectations. Undisciplined people will look for signs that reinforce their beliefs, prejudices and opinions, while disciplined people will adapt to nature and act from their own moral principles.
Events will reveal their hidden lessons to you when you are humble enough to receive them. You must remain open and honest, while not sticking to the rigidity of your own conclusions.
6.)Wise people do not blame others or beat up on themselves. They look inside themselves for useful answers.
It is easy to label the universe in black-and-white categories, judging events as successful and unsuccessful, right and wrong, good and bad. It is far more courageous to look within yourself — examining your motives, intentions, desires, and aversions — while deciding on what action is the best one to take in each situation. Always ask yourself, “What is the right thing to do?” Then do it.
7.) Think about the purpose behind your speech. Many people express any passing thought that enters into their minds without concerning themselves with the consequences of their words. Unchecked speech can run away from you. You can fall into unthinking habits that disrespect yourself and others.
Speech is neither good nor bad but people often talk to each other in a careless manner. It’s seductive to prattle on about nothing, to chat about trivial matters, to gossip about another person when they are not nearby, to laugh at someone else’s misfortunes rather than laughing with them. Speaking in this way degrades you as a person and strains your relationships. It is better to remain silent than to indulge in harmful speech. You become what you focus on.
8.) Life is too short for you to indulge in mindless consumption. Be aware of what you absorb, whether it’s from a TV show, songs on the radio, political speeches, or arguments. Discover what nourishes you, what enhances your well-being, rather than what feeds your ignorance, greed, and anger.
When you don’t choose for yourself, someone else will choose for you. And they always have their own agenda.
9.) You are influenced by the communities you are in. Without realizing it, you’ll adopt their values, opinions, aspirations, and habits. You’ll learn how they interpret the world. Be careful about the people you are around, even if they are kind, talk about wanting to improve themselves, and desire to know you more. They may not be a healthy influence on you due to their ignorance, destructive behavior, and prejudices. Seek out those who uplift you, who make you a better person, not those who diminish you.
10.) Do not feel compelled to justify yourself. Let your worthy deeds speak for themselves. You cannot control what others think about you, but you can control the development of your character.
Children are conditioned to accept the codes of their given society. They are reinforced with different symbol-systems from their parents, religions, schools, communities, cultures, peer groups, and so on, internalizing these systems (to varying degrees) overtime. They eventually think, feel, and act in accordance with these “reality tunnels,” despite whether they rebel against or conform with them. Ultimately, they will assimilate certain “realities” into their identities.
One of the first symbol-systems they learn is language. They learn what the agreed upon symbols to designate meaning are. Different cultures have different tacit agreements over not only what some words mean but what should be said and not said, what should be in one category and not another — essentially how their chosen realities are to be divided to make sense.
Children not only have to learn the codes of language, but they learn, whether consciously or not, many other forms of agreement.
“For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles — father, teacher, worker, artist, ‘regular guy,’ gentleman, sportsman, and so forth.” (Watts, Alan)
People identify with the categories, and sometimes stereotypes, chosen and placed upon them. They aren’t merely one role, but a multitude of related roles. Father and son, laborer and high-school drop-out. Daughter and sister, amputee and white veteran. Son and brother and fatherless. Methodist and Japanese. Out of the innumerable roles available, people learn to identify with a conventional view of “self.” They believe that they have a persistent identity with a history, apart from everything and everyone else.
“According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real ‘me’ than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is a firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!” (Watts, Alan)
The history of a person’s identity, of their memories of past events, is continuously selected for and interpreted (often without conscious awareness, depending on the emotional intensity and regularity of those events). Out of an infinitude of events that transpire in one’s life, some are chosen as significant while others are not. Experiences that are seen as insignificant, nonsensical, irrelevant, and so on, are discarded overtime.
People interpret the events of their lives using the different symbol-systems that they have internalized. Experiences are processed through their mental filters to make sense to their perspectives. They select one type of past and not another. One event is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, scary or pleasant, but not another. Some experiences are chopped up into familiar signs, while other experiences are forgotten. These signs represent only a narrow spectrum of “reality” out of all the information that exists.
What is represented is only a finger pointing to the moon. As Alfred Korzybski wrote, “The map is not the territory.”
Furthermore, people communicate their realities with language. Their language is an “abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once — a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms.” (Watts, Alan)
To account for all that happens in the universe, to even perfectly describe a “a particle of dust,” would take an infinite amount of time. Thinking (communicating with ourselves), speaking (communicating with others), using a string of symbols abstracted from the past, will never fully grasp “every breath, every beat of the heart, every neural impulse.” (Watts, Alan)
“Taoism [on the other hand] concerns itself with unconventional knowledge — with knowing life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.” (Watts, Alan)
Conventional thinking isn’t shunned, but rather, is used as a tool and not as the Truth. Taoism is based on a hunch, an intuitive state. Peripheral vision of the mind. Taoists will “feel” a situation and know it, without limiting it. While the intellect is trying to box the world into rigid categories, and grasp at the past and future, the Taoist doesn’t cling to their experiences. The intellect will exhaust itself in seeking the Tao, in its need to define it.
Chaung-Tzu once said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”
The mind isn’t reduced to idiocy, although those who are conditioned to accept Western systems as true may believe that to be the case. The Taoist plays with his innate intelligence, spontaneous and aware. Instead of forcing out a solution, she lets go of her mind until stilling into a pure naturalness. Then he directly knows the Tao, unconscious of good and bad, moral and immoral, black and white, up and down.
Rather than darkness or light, there are infinite shades of the Tao. To define the Tao is to not know the Tao. To grasp it is not to grasp it. In the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, as in Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), there is no “true” division in life. Human beings, but not nature itself, are the ones to separate “things, facts and events” into categories. These categories are relative to different perspectives, but they are never truly fixed, permanent, or absolute.
“Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from a physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from a sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.” (Watts, Alan)
For a Buddhist, to describe “reality” in a fixed, linear manner with symbols, is not to know “reality.” To describe it, or the self, as permanent and separate, is to not grasp the changing ineffability of life. There is no enduring self that persists, for “the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.” (Watts, Alan)
Every moment is a rebirth, a coming back to the present. Buddhism above all is a practice, seeing the world with clear awareness. “Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels.” (Watts, Alan)
There is a watching of sensations, feelings, thoughts, without any purpose or judgement. Like a mirror, the mind is “passively active,” purely reflecting what arises and falls away. When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no one to grasp it. When there is no one to grasp, then there is no division, no subject and object.
The Buddha did not try to create a philosophical system to satisfy the questions of restless minds. He often maintained a “noble silence” about questions dealing with gods and the origins of the universe and absolute reality, because to him, they were irrelevant when understanding the way to liberation from suffering (dukkha).
To seek such answers is to cling to abstractions again. Lost in the perpetual cycle. Many of the questions that people ask about meaning, life and death, are merely subtle ways of trying to categorize the world, turning their uncertainty and fear into familiar ideas. “Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound ‘water’ is not actually water,’ the classified world is not the real world.” (Watts, Alan)
To be liberated is to have no intention of liberation. To try to become someone important, to achieve something outside of oneself, to adhere to some dogma of ultimate truth, is to be confused with the compulsive habit of symbolizing. The more one tries to figure out the Answer, the more frustrated he or she becomes.
“I have no peace of mind,” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”
“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”
“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”
“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”
To try to empty the mind is to get caught up in the mind again. To let go of the mind, of thoughts and impressions, “neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them” is to free the mind. To practice no-thought is not to block all thoughts from coming in. Then one would be as good as a stone. Thoughts come and go. That is all. To let go is to trust in one’s natural spontaneity. There is no effort.
Línjì Yìxuán said, “There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand…. As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them.”
One doesn’t try to silence one’s feelings, thoughts, impressions. One is not trying to be indifferent or removed from the world. There is an awareness of what is. Subject and object, knower and known, white and black, arises relative to everything else. Everything depends on everything else to be.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper elements.’ And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without ‘non-paper elements,’ like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”
There is no such thing as a separate self. Everything relies on everything else to be given a shape, even non-shapes. One’s mind-body gives structure to experience, while there isn’t experience without one’s mind-body. Sunlight makes sight as sight makes sunlight. The “individual” and “external universe” are simply abstract limits that one has set up. There is no “between” between the two, because the division is not truly there. People give importance to their ideas of what is “me” and “mine” in contrast to the experiences that they have, as if they are apart from them, as if they “have” them. They identify with narrowly selected memories and social roles and feel as if they are permanent. Meanwhile life passes them by and they don’t notice. They have become so fixated on their ideas of what life is rather than seeing what is happening to them.
To even get caught up in ideas about what Zen is, and what Zen isn’t, is to stink of Zen. One can be as attached to their spiritual self as to their material self, believing they are a certain type of person and not another.
“For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the ‘suchness’ (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.” (Watts, Alan)
Once a master drank tea with his two students. Then he suddenly tossed a fan at one of them.
“What’s this?” he said.
The student opened it and fanned himself.
“Not bad,” he said.
He passed the fan to his other student.
His other student placed a piece of cake on it and offered it back to his master.
When there are no longer any names, the world isn’t “classified in limits and bounds.” While most people want to classify things in their proper places, a master trusts in spontaneity, in “no second thought.” Zen masters are not emotionless beings without pain or hunger pangs. They can be sad, jealous, angry, and so on. The difference between them and others is that they are wholehearted, neither blocking out nor indulging in what they are aware of.
Zen is not to “confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” (Watts, Alan)
Thoughts fall away when they’re not necessary anymore. Muddy water is best cleared when left alone. Zen is about seeing reality concretely — undivided by labels and titles and names and numbers and right and wrong. To sit in quiet awareness is to let the distinctions of me and other, subject and object, come go and come again. Without commentary, without purpose, there only is. Zen masters are neither gods nor are they perfect. They are simply human. Nothing special.
As Ikkyu said:
“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;
This is our world.
All we have to do after that —
Is to die.”
One awakens to what reality isn’t. Ideas of what one is, of what the universe is, seem more nonsensical the deeper one goes into it. Reality is ineffable, despite whether someone claims that “they are nothing” or “they are something” or “they are everything.” Rather than flitting from system to system, all people are already here, their “senses fully open to receive the world.”
There is nothing to be achieved, no one to blame, no past, no future, no birth, no death.
Only here, only now.
To some Westerners, the present seems like “nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline,” dividing the past from the future. For the linear-minded, for those who only know about reality through their compulsive thinking, the world will rush past them. Their ideas seem all-important to them, but their symbolizing can never sustain their heart beating, their breath, or the operation of their muscles, glands, senses, and organs.
They believe they are consciously in charge, but their minds only grasp at slivers of experience, which they are constantly interpreting and analyzing, dividing and separating. Yet in only a moment, they can see life as it truly is. The past and future, which they are so preoccupied with, is an abstraction. There is only this moment, moving but still. it’s here for everyone. Precious and timeless.
We are already at home in this moment. Yet we spend so much of our lives denying what is here. We get lost in all our storylines, believing that we are permanent, that we are separate from other beings in the world.
We chase after ideas of happiness while fearing to lose what we have. We buy a fancy convertible, work in an office with a window, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb up a mountain, write a book, study for a bachelor’s degree, make money on the stock market, and on and on. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy our growing desire. In the end, no matter how much we resist, we are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. We cannot capture life. It slips through our fingers, drifting away.
Rather than facing ourselves directly, we repress what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our personal issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, and loss. It is so hard for us to soften our hearts to our grief.
“When we find ourselves in a situation in which our buttons are being pushed, we can choose to repress or act out, or we can choose to practice. If we can start to do the exchange, breathing in with the intention of keeping our hearts open to the embarrassment or fear or anger that we feel, then to our surprise we find that we’re also open to what the other person is feeling. Open heart is open heart. Once it’s open, your eyes and your mind are also open, and you can see what’s happening in the faces and hearts of other people. If you’re walking down the street and way off in the distance — so far away that you can’t possibly do anything about it — you see a man beating his dog, and you feel helpless, you can start to do the exchange. You start out doing it for the dog, then you find you’re doing it for the man. Then you’re also doing it for your own heartbreak and for all the animals and people who are abusing and abused, and for all the people like you who are watching and don’t know what to do. Simply by doing this exchange you have made the world a larger, more loving place.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can react to suffering by hardening or softening our hearts. When we are genuine with ourselves, we can look deeply at our sorrow, our fear, our irritation, and transform that energy into compassion. Every moment, we are being tested.
“If we are wholehearted about wanting to be there for other people without shutting anybody or anything out of our hearts, our pretty little self-image of how kind or compassionate we are gets completely blown. We’re always being tested and we’re always meeting our match. The more you’re willing to open your heart, the more challenges come along that make you want to shut it.” (Chödrön, Pema)
There is no true distinction between what is within us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we are suffering. When we love others, we love ourselves. When we are aware of life, we can use all of life as a humble lesson for our growth.
Our mistakes are opportunities for us to be more vulnerable and honest and kind. An irritating person is our teacher, a mosquito is our teacher, a crying baby is our teacher. We cannot be in this world without encountering the suffering of others. Rather than reacting, we can mindfully tend to where we are and who we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn our compost into a bloom of flowers.
“We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.” (Chödrön, Pema)
When we understand our own suffering, we can understand another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for all the beings who have felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been them. We are them.
When we blame and repress and protect our hearts, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations and suffer through our ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
“It seems that we do attack our own image continually and usually that image appears to be ‘out there.’ We want to blame men or we want to blame women or we want to blame white people or black people, or we want to blame politicians or the police; we want to blame somebody. There’s some tendency to always put it out there, even if ‘out there’ is our own body. Instead of working with, there is the tendency to struggle against. As a result, we become alienated. Then we take the wrong medicine for our illness by armoring ourselves in all these different ways, somehow not getting back to the soft spot.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We are not separate from nature. We are not separate from other beings. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even from our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, of where we are, distracting ourselves with TV and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside ourselves for happiness, truth, permanence, and security.
“Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!” (Chödrön, Pema)
We begin to heal when we stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, our fear, our pain. Our tendency is to cling to certainty while hiding from uncertainty. We waste so many years of our lives running after achievements and rewards and goals, never feeling entirely satisfied.
“This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky — that’s called enlightenment, liberation.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We do not have to eliminate our thoughts and feelings and perceptions. We can accept them as they are and then let them go. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”
We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we open up more. Life is a dance, an ever-changing movement. We are “willing to give, willing to open, willing not to hold back. It is described as letting go of holding on to yourself, letting your stronghold of ego go. Instead of collecting things for yourself, you open and give them away.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can be gentle with ourselves. We can be curious about the moment we’re in. Our maturity comes from being with what is unfolding, while releasing it. Giving without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, right or wrong, good or bad. Our practice is to be ourselves completely.
“The truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.” (Chödrön, Pema)
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts. They alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”
Our nervous systems are plastic. We are always in the process of forming new neural connections while losing old ones. In the microscopic spaces in between our neurons — whenever we perform a task, experience an event, or think a thought — chemical reactions “register and record experiences in neural pathways.” (Carr, Nicholas)
Certain sets of neurons in our brains are activated. They join together and exchange neurotransmitters with each other. When our experiences are repeated, synaptic links between our neurons strengthen while irrelevant synaptic links weaken overtime. Our brains are constantly growing, reorganizing, and developing “ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads.” (Carr, Nicholas)
Our nervous systems adapt to different environments. How we think and feel and perceive reality is not entirely determined by our genes or childhood experiences. We’re capable of changing our nervous systems through what we do, how we learn, how other people treat us, what we think, how we feel, where we live, and even the tools that we use.
While our neuroplasticity gives us a chance to recreate ourselves, we can also develop bad habits. We can be stuck in rigid behaviors, repeating what causes ourselves and others suffering. While certain neurons strengthen overtime, others are pruned away. If we are not careful, we can become more efficient at what hurts us than at what helps us.
The tools that we use are also using us. They are molding us, shaping us, the more that we use them. Some of these tools, such as intellectual technologies, impact our brains far more than other tools.
Nicholas Carr, technology writer and author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” wrote, “Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and perspectives — the plow changed the outlook of the farmer, the microscope opened new worlds of mental exploration for the scientist — it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others.”
We aren’t yet aware of the total effect of our intellectual tools and how they will change us as a species. Some tools, such as the printing press and Internet, have moved beyond our control. We cannot predict how far they will technologically progress.
Intellectual technologies are not merely our aids. They have the power to reshape our lives. They change our activities and meanings and identities. They extend our capacities. These tools are developed with a certain set of rules while we also adapt to the rules of what we create. As we manipulate information, as we interpret our world through the logic of the tools that we use, our brains change. The more closely that we use these tools, the more our senses, thoughts, feelings, and actions are fused into what we create.
While the clock, map, printing press, and television have all revolutionized our existence, the Internet has dominated us on an unprecedent scale. “It’s becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV. It’s even taking over the functions of other computers.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We can send and receive messages every hour of every day. We can connect for commerce and business purposes: placing orders, tracking shipments, banking, advertising, selling, searching through catalogues, and reviewing products.
We can also connect with other people socially. We can upload and download. We can post our videos, blogs, music, paintings, poems, and podcasts. Our creations can be liked and commented on. They can be edited and reuploaded and blogged about and tweeted. Users can gossip and share and argue and show off and chat and like. Communities can unite, political causes can gain traction, and news about our daily happenings can spread to other people.
We use the Internet far more than other intellectual technologies such as the television and newspaper and radio. Our Internet usage has risen every year while our offline reading has diminished. With so many options available to us in one tool, we’ve become endlessly distracted by what is offered to us, sacrificing our attention for hyper-stimulation.
“By combining many different kinds of information on a single screen, the multimedia Net further fragments content and disrupts our concentration. A single Web page may contain a few chunks of text, a video or audio stream, a set of navigational tools, various advertisements, and several small software applications, or ‘widgets,’ running in their own windows… Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies,’ as the blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms it.” (Carr, Nicholas)
The Internet is a medium that is made to attract us while distracting us. While the book is an intellectual technology that supports our calmness and attentiveness, letting us develop our ideas in a sacred space of silence, the Internet is designed to compete for our attention all the time. As we enter into an online environment, we are conditioned to rush through our thoughts and scan for relevant information and seek our next reward.
“The Net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortices. There are the sensations that come through our hands and fingers as we click and scroll, type and touch. There are the many audio signals delivered through our ears, such as the chime that announces the arrival of a new e-mail or instant message and the various ringtones that our mobile phones use to alert us to different events. And, of course, there are the myriad visual cues that flash across our retinas as we navigate the online world: not just the ever-changing arrays of text and pictures and videos but also the hyperlinks distinguished by underlining or colored text, the cursors that change shape depending on their function, the new e-mail subject lines highlighted in bold type, the virtual buttons that call out to be clicked, the icons and other screen elements that beg to be dragged and dropped, the forms that require filling out, the pop-up ads and windows that need to be read or dismissed. The Net engages all of our senses — except, so far, those of smell and taste — and it engages them simultaneously.” (Carr, Nicholas)
The Net immerses us in a universe of fast-paced stimuli. Whenever we click on a link, we are rewarded with Web pages, videos, articles, comments, posts, etc. Whenever we Google a topic, we are provided with pages of answers. We send texts and receive replies, we post on Facebook and notifications pop up, we blog daily and gain new followers. The hyper-interactivity of the Internet reinforces us with so much dopamine that we’ve become “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” (Carr, Nicholas).
The more that we go online, the more the “real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices.” As we become oblivious to what is around us, we use this hyper-interactive tool to engage with each other online. We create profiles of our identities and update our statuses, evaluating our social standings. The more that we use the Net, the more self-conscious we become. We judge others and compare our lives to their lives and fear losing our preferred status.
The Internet is designed to keep our attention for as long as possible. The more time we spend on it, the more distracted we are, which ruins our ability to concentrate for long. This medium distracts us with its competing messages and stimuli. We’re seduced because we are constantly seeking out more novelty, complexity, and information. The Net indulges us with stimulation. We are overloaded with fleeting information, seeking more and more.
“What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.” (Carr, Nicholas)
Net users experience extensive activity across all regions of their brains. Book readers experience neural-activity in “regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving.” Net users mentally coordinate through a swarm of competing distractions, all while making judgements in seconds. While readers digest information at a slower pace, they are comprehending what they are learning at a deeper level. Internet users, on the other hand, are overtaxing their brains and learning superficially.
Our brains need a lot of space and time to process information. We have to transfer information from our working memories to our long-term memories, intertwining what we have just learned with what we knew before. We store this information in our conceptual schemas. Our schemas are interwoven with our long-term memories. They are organizational frameworks that enable us to look into new patterns and deepen our understanding.
“Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.” (Carr, Nicholas)
When we are distracted, we cannot remember much. When we cannot remember, we cannot develop rich networks of connections in our brains. Our understanding then becomes shallower. When we can read a linear text without links, ads, retweets, likes, comments, tabs, and other potential distractions, we can retain more, reflect more, and develop our knowledge. Frequent interruptions, on the other hand, scatter our thoughts, make us feel anxious, and weaken our memories.
We gain skills with the Net but those skills generally involve our “lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues.” We’re also better able to scan through a lot of information to find what we are pursuing. By repetitively clicking on links and headlines, we are adapting into quicker problem-solvers, looking for relevant patterns in data. While we are better at multi-tasking, we have sacrificed our ability to think creatively, concentrate for longer periods of time, and process information.
“Given our brain’s plasticity, we know that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our synapses when we’re not online. We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We are given more information than we can handle. “We are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us,” so we are conditioned to crave more, while never feeling fully satisfied. Rather than developing our knowledge, we are skimming through the Net, barely registering what enters into our nervous systems.
“The Web places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We need to be attentive to consolidate the information that we have learned. Forming connections between our memories “requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.” (Carr, Nicholas)
The more time we spend on the Internet, the more we will unlearn our former intellectual skills. As we replace our deep knowledge with efficiency, we will depend on a tool that grows stronger as we are made weaker. While our dependence on the Net heightens our capabilities when we use it, we are diminished even more without it.
“Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We not only become shallower thinkers on the Net, but we lose our capacity for higher emotions too. Our higher emotions, such as compassion and empathy, come from a calm and attentive mind. We need time to reflect on our moral decisions. When we are constantly interrupted, we have more trouble processing the subtle emotional states in ourselves and others.
As we meld with our tools, we become more like them. When we pick up a sword, that sword stretches to feel like part of our arm. When we wear a pair of glasses, we look forward with new eyes. When we study a map, we examine abstractions drawn in space.
When we go online, we adapt to an algorithmic logic written in hidden code. We follow the scripts that the designers have made for us to follow. We consume ourselves with mindless online rituals until they are burned into our neural pathways. We now have smartphones as well as personal computers, which are with us everywhere we go: at home, at work, in school, on the sidewalk, in the car, at the doctor’s office, in bed, in the bathroom, in nature. We have over-stuffed ourselves with stimuli, craving ever more. But there is a cost.
With every breath, we can return to life as it unfolds. We can be aware of our emotions and thoughts and bodies and minds. We can gently smile to where we are. When we wake up, when we sip our tea, when we drive to work, when we shower, when we eat, we can be fully here. We offer our presence to each moment. Time is a precious gift that we shouldn’t waste with regrets about the past and anxieties for the future. Sometimes we’re so used to our habits of compulsive thinking that we are unaware of anything else. But if we practice our mindfulness daily, we can free ourselves. Rather than watching TV while scarfing down our breakfast, we can savor every bite and smell. Rather than worrying about our lost romances while washing the dishes, we can feel the warm soapy water against our skin. When we walk mindfully, we can feel the soft soil under our every step. We can breathe into the stillness our minds. We can feel alive where we are and don’t need to rush off to anywhere else. Mindful breathing harmonizes us. We are brought back to the home inside ourselves. As we breathe in and out, we are as spacious as an open sky, as solid as a mountain, and as fluid as an ocean. We can breathe with loving-awareness. There is no need to blame and praise. Our breath is our foundation for dealing with all areas of living. When we are mindful of our breath, we can develop our concentration. When we develop our concentration, we gain insight. We may feel a lot of anger, fear, confusion, and other negative emotions during our practice. Sometimes these emotions rise within us like storms. They may only be temporary, but they feel so intense and permanent. Rather than ruminating too heavily on what we are feeling, we can pay attention to the energy behind our feelings. We can notice when our face flushes, when our shoulders tighten, when our heart beats rapidly. We must offer the gift of compassion to our suffering. We can look deeply into ourselves and care for our feelings and thoughts and sensations. From looking deeply at ourselves, we can let go of our suffering, watching as it comes and goes, comes and goes. Then we can care for other living beings with the same loving-kindness that we have shown to ourselves. We can see ourselves at different stages of our lives: when we are born, when we are babies, when we are young, when we are adults, when we are elderly, when we are dying, when we are dead. We can view other people in the same way, not perceiving them only as they appear in the moment, but looking at who they were and are and will be. All humans were once vulnerable and innocent. Everyone needed to be cared for and loved. Not everyone was. Just as we are the continuation of our ancestors, those around us are the continuation of their ancestors too. Sometimes they carry their family’s violence from childhood all the way into adulthood. Sometimes they’re devastated by their traumas. Sometimes despair passes through many generations. We must meet people with the intention to lessen their suffering, to help, to embody peace and justice. When we engage others only for what we can get out of them, whether in the form of power, status, or money, we cause those around us to suffer. We become unhappy as well. It is easy to conform to what is around us. If what we consume daily, such as in the form of meals, newspapers, television, radio stations, websites, and so on, comes from negativity, then we’ll be greatly influenced by that negativity. We should mindfully pursue what is nourishing and wholesome. To avoid consuming negative sources is hard, especially when we’re forced to live in environments where there is a lot of despair, hatred, ignorance, and greed. Nevertheless, we can always water the seeds of generosity, compassion, and kindness in ourselves and in other living creatures. We can care for people, animals, plants, trees, oceans. We can love who we are so we can love the world. The two are not separate. Our lives are here or never. Often we look for our happiness in ideas of the future, and dwell on memories, not wanting to look deeply at our suffering. Even when we do get what we want, we aren’t satisfied for long, and we fear losing what we have. Our expectations are never our realities. When we chase after our desires, we only want more, noticing what we lack more than what we have. All that we have is temporary. We are subject to illness, old age, and death. Everyone we care about will deal with these same issues of existence. While we are capable of being happy, we often ignore where we are, who we are, and what is around us. There is nothing for us to gain. We are able to be peace now, happiness now, joy now. We already are where we we want to go. We already are who we want to become.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh” is a collection of his teachings for 365 days. Each of his passages, while short and simple, are meant to be studied with care. For those who practice mindfulness and compassion, “Your True Home” is a book of transformation.
Often when we see people, we don’t really see them. When we hear people, we don’t really hear them. We only know of others through our prejudices, preconceptions, and projections. Our ideas limit us to the ideas themselves, but not to other possibilities. When we are filled with beliefs, opinions and views, we are no longer here.
We must be as still as a lake before a white mountain. When we are upset, we can watch our upset. When we are sad, we can watch our sadness. Instead of reacting, we can notice our breathing, our minds, our bodies, our environments. Then we can be as still as a lake and as solid as a mountain.
We can be mindful of our minds.
We can watch our thoughts and feelings. Coming and going, coming and going.
They pass through us like clouds.
We can look at our perceptions without getting caught up in them. Our minds can open to what is here. Instead of assuming that we know all the answers, we can question ourselves. “Is my perception really true? Do my ideas encompass the entire universe or are they only a fraction of what is happening?” Instead of judging others, we can look within ourselves compassionately. There is no resistance or holding on, only letting go.
When we look into the conditions that make us who we are, we find that we are not separate. We are interwoven in the changing cosmos. We cannot exist on earth without our ancestors. Our descendants cannot exist without us either. We are dependent on the air, the water, the sun. We are dependent on the plants, the trees, the soil beneath our feet. Without the clouds, there would be no rain. Without the rain, there would be no plants. Without the plants, we cannot be here.
There is no birth, no death. Only a continuation of ourselves in another form.
Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of wonder. In our distracted society, we often forget about the simple joys of being on this planet. We can step on the grass and brush past the silky petals of blue flowers. We can sigh with the breeze. We can look up at the trees as they sway together in silence.
We can drive, eat, wash the dishes, and go to the bathroom mindfully. Everything can be a spiritual practice when we are aware enough to notice. From mindfulness, we develop concentration. From concentration, we gain insight. There is no wasted moment.
When we look up at the mountain, we see ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we see the mountain. There is no mountain without our perception, but no perception without the mountain. Both depend on the other to inter-be.
When we trap ourselves in categorizations, we forget our humanity. Then we can only see a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a male, a female, a Republican, a Democrat, a boss, an employee, a father, a daughter, and so on, without looking any deeper. These may be important parts of our identities, but they are not all of who we are. When we can peel away these labels, we can recognize each other as human beings.
We must be careful about what we consume. This doesn’t only apply to what we eat and drink, but to the music we listen to, the television we watch, the newspapers we read, who we spend our time with, and what thoughts we focus on. There are negative influences all around us. We don’t need to consume despair, hatred, fear, and violence. We don’t need to seek out the things that harm us. We can look for what heals us, what nourishes us, what helps us to awaken.
We can help to relieve other people’s suffering as well. If someone has a wrong perception, we don’t need to punish them. We can listen to them deeply, show them compassion, care for them, practice loving speech with them. These simple actions can help us to form harmonious communities and remove discrimination.
Our ideas about our happiness are often obstacles to our happiness. We believe that we’ll be happy in the future when the conditions are sufficient enough, such as when we get a new promotion, when we buy an expensive car, when we get married to the perfect spouse, when we buy liquor on a Friday night, when we hold a diploma in our hands. Our desire for happiness removes us from the present moment. We fear losing what we have and want what we do not have, but do not realize that we are alive now.
Even if we do gain what we desire, it never lasts, and our reality is never the same as our expectations. To be truly happy, we have to let go of our ideas of happiness. We have nothing to attain but ourselves.
We can treat our in-breath and our out-breath with tenderness. In meditation, we are not straining to show how much we can endure from our sitting. We are caring for ourselves as if we are holding a baby in our arms. We cradle our anger and happiness and fear and disappointment. We are lovingly aware of our joys and sorrows.
We don’t need to meditate in a cave or on a mountain top. There is nothing to attain. We already are who we want to be in the future, but do not realize it. There is nothing lacking in us. When we can be at peace in the present moment, feeling the warmth of sun on our skin, tasting the juice of an apple, listening to the birds in the leaves, we have already arrived. Nirvana is nothing more than the sound of rain.
[Note: This is an overview of Noam Chomsky’s views on Donald Trump.]
[Dates Updated: 3/27/17 — 2/18/21]
If you look at the “Trump phenomenon,” it’s not so surprising. During the last fifteen years, in election after election, more candidates have arisen that were once considered “intolerable” to the Republican establishment. The answer for this intolerability is that over the years, under neoliberal policies, the Democrats and Republicans have shifted more to the right. (3) (7)
“The Democrats — by the ’70s — have pretty much abandoned the working class.” (3)
In 1978, the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act was the last kind of progressive policy (which Carter had ordered down “so that it had no teeth”) (3). While Democrats shifted to resemble moderate Republicans, Republicans moved so far right that they fell off the spectrum. (7)
Republicans have a primary constituency — extreme wealth and corporate power — that they have to serve. It’s hard to get votes when serving those interests. Therefore, they have historically appealed to evangelicals, southern racists, and disenfranchised white people, under the pretense of certain issues such as voting against abortion or fighting for gun rights. These issues are not necessarily favored by the establishment (and were previously not supported by the Republican party), but they are tolerated in recent decades because they ultimately serve the real constituency. (3) (6) (7)
“As for Trump’s base, they are indeed quite loyal. Most Trump voters were relatively affluent and probably are fairly satisfied with the ultra-reactionary policies. Another important segment was non-college-educated whites, a group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump (a 40 percent advantage). There is a close analysis of this group in the current (Spring 2018) issue of the Political Science Quarterly. It found that racism and sexism were far more significant factors in their vote than economic issues. If so, this group has little reason to object to the scene that is unfolding, and the same with the white Evangelicals who gave Trump 80 percent of their vote. Among justly angry, white, working-class Trump voters, many apparently enjoy watching him stick his thumb in the eyes of the hated elites even if he doesn’t fulfill his promises to [working-class voters], which many never believed in the first place.
What all this tells us, yet again, is that the neoliberal programs that have concentrated wealth in a few hands while the majority stagnate or decline have also severely undermined functioning democracy by familiar mechanisms, leading to anger, contempt for the dominant centrist political forces and institutions, and often anti-social attitudes and behavior — alongside of very promising popular reactions, like the remarkable Sanders phenomenon, Corbyn in England and positive developments elsewhere as well.” (2) (13)
Trump, on the other hand, understands how to serve corporate interests while getting the votes of evangelicals and extremists. The Democrats, in their focus on his outrageous antics, are helping him succeed in the 2020 election. For example, Democrats vigorously attacked Trump for Russia-Gate, for which evidence was slight (possibly for corruption), but there is more evidence for important things like the Israeli election interference. Furthermore, the highest interference in the United States elections is campaign funding. Campaign funding alone gives the highest prediction of who will win. Not to mention, the United States interferes with elections often, overthrowing leaders in coups, installing dictators and puppet leaders, placing harsh sanctions on impoverished countries. While the Democrats invested a lot of their energy into Russia-Gate, they wasted a lot of time when they could’ve focused on crucial problems that can devastate the world, such as climate change. (5) (7) (8)
Trump is basically a conman, a showman. He’s never had any political experience prior to being president, speaks all over the place in his speeches, never showing a consistent political position.
He knows how to get the mainstream media to focus on him.
“In order to maintain public attention, you have to do something crazy. Otherwise nobody’s going to pay attention to you.” (3)
While he’s showboating, lying, or doing something to offend a lot of people, in the background, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other members of the government that are writing executive orders, are working to “systematically dismantle every aspect of the government that works for the benefit of the population.” This ranges from worker’s rights to health standards to environmental regulations. Those in power want more power for their constituency at the expense of the people. Meanwhile, some of the most disastrous policies under the Trump administration are barely discussed. (3)
“This generation is going to have to decide whether organized human existence is going to continue. Global warming and nuclear war are the two main issues… Trump’s actions are making both of them much more dangerous.” (3)
The United States has pulled out of the international effort to reduce the effects of climate change. Trump hasn’t only withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, cut a large portion of the EPA and environmental regulations for multinational corporations, but he’s actively increased the threat of climate change. Even in his State of the Union Address, he barely talked about the environment or pollution — other than “beautiful, clean coal.” (3) His administration has drastically taken away funds for research on renewable energy sources, but has increased the subsidies for multinational oil and gas companies.
Additionally, when Trump started his second year in office, “the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, citing increasing concerns over nuclear weapons and climate change. That’s the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the US and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. That was before the release of Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, which significantly increases the dangers by lowering the threshold for nuclear attack and by developing new weapons that increase the danger of terminal war.” (9) (12)
Meanwhile, his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is “an enormous gift to the very wealthy, [giving] virtually nothing to anyone else.” The architects of the bill, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, worked to undermine the already weak welfare and benefits systems of the general population. Paul Ryan had successfully accomplished his goals with the “‘Donor Relief Act of 2017’ and the deficit cuts that open the way to sharp reduction of entitlements: health, social security, pensions — whatever matters to the people beyond the very privileged.” (2)
He exploded the “the deficit (a trademark of Republicans since Reagan), which means that they can move on to cut away at entitlements, as the chief architect, Paul Ryan, announced happily at once. The US already ranks near the bottom of the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries — the 35 richer and more developed countries — in social justice measures. The Republican triumph will sink it even lower. The tax scam is only the most prominent of the devices being implemented under the cover of Trump buffoonery to serve wealth and corporate power while harming the irrelevant population.” (3) (9)
Trump’s policies on immigration, such as separating children (even infants) from their mothers, is having disastrous effects on people already in turmoil. Many of these families are fleeting from poor countries, suffering the consequences of US foreign policies, seeking security far from their homes. For example, “Honduras has been the main source of refugee flight since the US, almost alone, endorsed the military coup that ousted the elected president and the fraudulent election that followed, initiating a reign of terror.” (6)
Trump’s hateful rhetoric has roused the passions of many extremist groups. His leadership has further pushed the narrative of fear for outsiders or “invaders,” including his claims about a Nicaraguan army ready to invade or a caravan of miserable criminals that want to cause harm. He’s exploiting people’s resentment and anger about their stagnating conditions, which has grown for more than forty years, due to the effects of enhanced corporate power. (6)
He has strongly supported the Saudi War in Yemen. Despite UN agencies warning that the Saudi blockade could lead to one of the largest famines in modern times. The blockade prevents many “desperately needed imports of food, medicine, and fuel.”
Yemeni people are tragically dying from the world’s worst cholera outbreak. With “firm U.S. backing of systematic Saudi destruction,” priceless antiquities destroyed and countless deaths out of control, there seems to be little help for civilians.
There is little help for victims elsewhere either, such as in Raqqa, after a US-led attack on ISIS had absolutely obliterated the city. Rather than rebuilding or helping those harmed from such destruction, Trump has instead “sharply cut funding to the [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], which barely keeps millions of Palestinian refugees alive. In general, ‘make America great’ means great at destroying, and that’s where the greatness ends. It’s by no means entirely new, but is now raised to a higher level and becoming a matter of principle.” (8) (9)
Trumpism is a consequence of neoliberal policies. Many lives have declined or stayed the same while only a few have become more powerful. Deregulated financial institutions are bailed out of multiple crashes while those who suffer are ignored and forgotten. American voters have become bitter, angry, and depressed, while they compete on a global scale for stagnated wages. “The real surprise in the election was the Sanders campaign, which broke with a long tradition of pretty much bought elections, and was stopped only by machinations of the Obama-Clinton party managers. The Democratic Party is now split between the donor-oriented New Democrat managers and a growing activist social democratic base.” (1) (12)
“What all of this portends, worldwide, is far from clear. Though there are also significant signs of hope, some commentators have — with good reason — been quoting Gramsci’s observation from his prison cell: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’” (8)
[On Trump’s response to the George Floyd protests during the coronavirus pandemic] Trump wants to call forth a strong military response to those protesting against police brutality. His ideology is very simple. It’s called “me.” He wants to appeal to his white supremacist/racist base by calling for law and order. (11)
Trump is concerned with his own power. His outrageous antics will be tolerated by the corporate sector as long as he enriches them (the already rich and powerful). While at the same time, during COVID-19, he’s removing regulations for how much air pollution can be emitted. This is estimated to increase the number of deaths by the tens of thousands, mostly of poor black people. What matters to him are his electoral prospects, not the people who suffer the consequences of his policies. (11)
Trump-Republicans are trying to pass legislation to immunize corporations, so they can order their workers back to work, despite the threat of Covid-19. White-collar crime prosecutions, such as for wage theft and environmental violations, have dropped significantly, while the general public is being consistently robbed through tax havens and stock buybacks.
[In response to the Coronavirus pandemic] The government could have used their resources to do research on viruses and prepare for vaccines. They’re blocked by (Reagan and Thatcher) neoliberal policies, which aim to put decision-making power into the hands of private tyrannies (corporations), whose goals are short-term profit. While the government is partially accountable to the public, the corporate sector is not. (11)
“This is a capitalist crisis exacerbated by neoliberalism, exacerbated further by malignancies like President Trump. Countries did respond in one or another way to the crisis. The US just didn’t respond… Since the stock market went down, he finally noticed. Since then it was just efforts to cover up on chaos. Some of the things that have been done are just surreal like [for example] everyone’s concerned, of course, about getting a vaccine. There was a scientist in the government in charge of vaccine production. He was fired by the president. Why? Because he questioned some of his quack remedies.” (12)
Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants like Mike Pompeo. Everyone else has been kicked out and not just in the last few weeks. For example, he had purged all the inspector generals, who were hired (incidentally by the Republicans) in the departments of the government to weed out corruption.
“Trump has created a total swamp of corruption. He has just fired all of the inspector generals. That’s a coup reminiscent of a fascist state.” (12)
This pandemic was caused by a “capitalist crisis, neoliberal crisis on top of it. Gangsters from the top capitalist class exacerbating it.” The corporate sector manipulates this terrible crisis to make profits, while the poor suffer the most. (12)
“The Trump administration has purged the executive branch of the government of any independent voices. Nothing left, except sycophants. The Congress, years ago, had installed Inspectors General to monitor the performance of executive offices for corruption, maleficence. They began to look into the enormous swamp of corruption that Trump had created in Washington. He took care of that just by firing them. They’re gone.” (12)
There was an election on November 4, 2020. It was a total disaster. The Republicans — who completely fell off the political spectrum — are now comparable to European parties with neofascist origins. They are “environmental denialists, ultranationalists, evangelical Christians, militarists, xenophobic, racist, white supremacists… very dangerous organization.” (12)
The Republicans won the election at every level — from state legislature up to Congress. They only lost the presidency because of a hatred for Trump rather than a love for Biden. Trump will presumably leave office on January 20, 2020, not conceding that he lost. Trump’s absurd legal maneuverings (suing with claims that the election was rigged, that dead people voted, etc.) will energize his base, showing them that the election was stolen. He wants to appear to be a hero who lost a rigged election because of the deep state. His increasing support will enable him to set up his “true” government, alternative to the “fake news, liberal” government. (12)
The Senate, which is controlled by the Republicans with Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader, will block anything that the Democrats propose. They want to pass legislation that empowers the corporate sector, enriching the already rich, while passing the burden onto the public.
Secondly, they want to stack the judiciary with ultra-right lawyers who will “block any mildly progressive legislation for the generation, no matter what the public wants.” With Trump removed from office, they will do whatever they can to make the country ungovernable.
In regards to the pandemic, countries such as China and Korea, have taken measures to effectively deal with the coronavirus. In the US, the government has given up on its people. US citizens are inundated with right wing propaganda, which says that there is no virus, the liberals made it up, there is no real crisis, masks take away our freedom. “People are literally dying in hospitals, claiming that there is no disease.” (12)
There was an attempted coup on the Capitol. It may not have been a military-backed coup with “ample bloodshed, torture, [and] ‘disappearances,’” but it was a coup. The people who stormed into the Capitol believed that the election was a fraud and they were saving their white Christian country. Many believe that Trump is their savior. They are reinforced with propaganda daily (from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the communities they live in, etc.), so their beliefs are not often challenged by outsiders. (10)
Donald Trump is “…the malevolent figure in charge,” who “deserves credit for his talent in tapping the poisonous streams that run not far below the surface of American society, with sources that are deep in U.S. history and culture.” (10)
He has become a successor after decades of neoliberal assault. While he may have “harmed the image” that neoliberals often “project as humanists dedicated to the common good,” he still enriched private enterprises at the expense of the American people. (10)
Trump is not finished as a politician. His base is too loyal to him. He understands how to manipulate people into following him by taking advantage of their suffering condition. “Trumpism will not be so easily contained. Its roots are deep. The anger and resentment raised to a frenzy by this talented con man is not limited to the U.S. The $50 trillion robbery is only the icing on the cake of the neoliberal disaster, which itself is built on foundations of deep injustice and repression. We are not out of the woods, by far.” (10)
1. Chomsky, Noam. Noam Chomsky: If Trump Falters with Supporters, Don’t Put ‘Aside the Possibility’ of a ‘Staged or Alleged Terrorist Attack’, 27 March 2017, chomsky.info/20170327/.
4. Johnson, Stephen. “Noam Chomsky Says Trump and Associates Are ‘Criminally Insane’.” Big Think, Big Think, 7 Feb. 2019, bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/chomsky-says-trump-is-criminally-insane?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3.
9. Polychroniou, C.J. “‘A Complete Disaster’: Noam Chomsky on Trump and the Future of US Politics.” Truthout, Truthout, 7 May 2018, truthout.org/articles/a-complete-disaster-noam-chomsky-on-trump-and-the-future-of-us-politics/.
10. Polychroniou C.J. “Chomsky: Coup Attempt Hit Closer to Centers of Power Than Hitler’s 1923 Putsch.” Truthout, 19 Jan. 2021, truthout.org/articles/chomsky-coup-attempt-hit-closer-to-centers-of-power-than-hitlers-1923-putsch.